The psychology of prejudice

Whenever I watch Q&A, the thing I am most often yelling at the screen is “that’s an empirical question!” or “where’s your evidence??” I’m doing a PhD in social psychology, and as a result spend a lot of time reading research papers on topics such as prejudice, morality, ingroup biases, emotions – in other words, on all the things that make a human society such an interesting and complicated place to be.

I was happy, then, when Elliot (the editor of this blog) suggested a question for me to attempt to answer – using this scientific research! – in a blog post here. He wrote to me that he has observed a tendency for majority groups to feel that they are “losing out” when minority groups become better off – for example, “men often tend to see advances in women’s rights and the feminist movement in general as anti-men” and “there is also the idea that same sex marriage is an “attack” on opposite sex marriage”. I think this is a fair observation, and Elliot also hits the nail on the head when suggests that there is something “in the psychology of these majority groups”, and that “whatever this psychological phenomenon is, it may lie behind a lot of conservatism”.

I think what Elliot is talking about falls under the general heading of prejudice, because some kinds of prejudice are indeed expressed as a “feeling of losing out”, or being “attacked”. (Look up this book  for an overview of how prejudice is conceptualised in social psychology research – it’s pretty broad!)

And, you’ll be happy to hear, there is indeed some research about the “psychological phenomenon” that underlies both prejudice (in its various forms) as well as conservatism. The two “psychological phenomena” studied the most in this context are called Right Wing Authoritarianism (RWA) and Social Dominancy Orientation (SDO). The Wikipedia articles on both are pretty good: RWA and SDO but you can also read the original research here  and here.

Basically, RWA measures a preference for hierarchical structures among individuals society, in the sense that people high in RWA are willing to submit to authorities, adhere to social norms, and punish those who don’t. SDO, on the other hand, measures a tendency to understand the world in terms of competition between groups; to accept and prefer a social system where some groups are superior and others are inferior. Both constructs are related to prejudice in various forms – prejudice towards African Americans and homosexuals in this study, and this one  and two kinds of sexism here as well as to political conservatism.

So far, what I’ve written is just another way of saying “yep, some people have particular personality traits which are tied to prejudice, and we can measure both the traits and the prejudice”. What I find interesting about it, however, is the more recent research by Duckitt and Sibley and colleagues, who try to understand both SDO and RWA through what they refer to as a “Dual Process Model”. According to their model, SDO and RWA arise out of worldviews which emphasise the competitive and dangerous aspects of the world, respectively. Once we start to think of high SDO people as being motivated by competition, and high RWA people as being motivated by fear (or vigilance to threat), we are able to start making sense of Elliot’s original observation.

The feeling of these groups that they are “losing out” or “being attacked” does not need to have anything to do with the actual facts of the matter (as Elliot also pointed out, it can’t for example be about “simple self-interest” because clearly “there is no direct or logical self-interest in heterosexuals preventing LGBTI people from getting married”) – rather it’s a product of the way they understand the world on the whole. This can also be seen in this interesting research on the effects of RWA and SDO on prejudice towards outgroups framed as “dangerous”, “derogated” or “dissident” , or threatening versus competitive.

Unfortunately, although this research goes some way towards explaining prejudice, it doesn’t tell us that much about what to do about it. There is research on that question as well though, so perhaps that will be a topic for another time.

Hanne M Watkins is studying the combined Masters/Phd program in Psychology at the University of Melbourne. Her PhD is on the morality of killing in war and she is involved in the Melbourne Moral Psychology Lab.


  1. it is a nice academic exercise to find out why people are prejudice, but i think it better to find out how to prevent it in the first place. i think it worth investigating whether constant featuring in the news , that alone is the cause of all this prejudice forming. nowadays we have 24hr news and they constantly barrage us with these stories making even ordinary people who might not have even thought about it, feel fearful that the world is full of these others getting so much attention and/or equal status and the majority feels threaten their way of life will be eroded. how to study it is another matter, as it would be difficult to structure an unbiased study.

  2. Hi, thanks for your comment!

    I did a brief search for research articles supporting (or contesting) the idea that the media “is the cause of all this prejudice forming”, found these studies which attempt to *reduce* prejudice through media exposure, with mixed results.
    1. In Rwanda using a soapie:
    2. Using images:

    This article may be supporting your contention somewhat, in that it’s about how sexist humour “normalises” prejudice:

    And, you might find more answers here.


  3. […] dual process model of prejudice (a very short review by me, with links to better articles, here and here), and about the hypothesis of intergroup contact. I should also have mentioned […]

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