Research States That Prejudice Comes From a Basic Human Need and Way of Thinking

Where does prejudice come from? Not from ideology, say the authors of a new paper. Instead, prejudice stems from a deeper psychological need, associated with a particular way of thinking. People who aren’t comfortable with ambiguity and want to make quick and firm decisions are also prone to making generalizations about others.

In a new article published in Current Directions in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, Arne Roets and Alain Van Hiel of Ghent University in Belgium look at what psychological scientists have learned about prejudice since the 1954 publication of an influential book, The Nature of Prejudice by Gordon Allport.

People who are prejudiced feel a much stronger need to make quick and firm judgments and decisions in order to reduce ambiguity. “Of course, everyone has to make decisions, but some people really hate uncertainty and therefore quickly rely on the most obvious information, often the first information they come across, to reduce it” Roets says. That’s also why they favor authorities and social norms which make it easier to make decisions. Then, once they’ve made up their mind, they stick to it. “If you provide information that contradicts their decision, they just ignore it.”

Roets argues that this way of thinking is linked to people’s need to categorize the world, often unconsciously. “When we meet someone, we immediately see that person as being male or female, young or old, black or white, without really being aware of this categorization,” he says. “Social categories are useful to reduce complexity, but the problem is that we also assign some properties to these categories. This can lead to prejudice and stereotyping.”

People who need to make quick judgments will judge a new person based on what they already believe about their category. “The easiest and fastest way to judge is to say, for example, ok, this person is a black man. If you just use your ideas about what black men are generally like, that’s an easy way to have an opinion of that person,” Roets says. “You say, ‘he’s part of this group, so he’s probably like this.’”

It’s virtually impossible to change the basic way that people think. Now for the good news: It’s possible to actually also use this way of thinking to reduce people’s prejudice. If people who need quick answers meet people from other groups and like them personally, they are likely to use this positive experience to form their views of the whole group. “This is very much about salient positive information taking away the aversion, anxiety, and fear of the unknown,” Roets says.

Roets’s conclusions suggest that the fundamental source of prejudice is not ideology, but rather a basic human need and way of thinking. “It really makes us think differently about how people become prejudiced or why people are prejudiced,” Roets says. “To reduce prejudice, we first have to acknowledge that it often satisfies some basic need to have quick answers and stable knowledge people rely on to make sense of the world.”


This is interesting, but I keep finding the same flaw with these studies. In order to prove it is not a learned behavior from society we need to study CHILDREN, not adults. By adulthood social norms and other learned behaviors have already set in, children (depending on age) are less exposed to the group and have a ‘natural’ view. It’s possible to get SOME info from studying adults in these test, but children give us a different view into how humans are hardwired. I would love to hear more about these studies as they fascinate me, keep posting please

This article is not saying that these behaviors are not learned, but rather its a combination. There’s something called Apophenia, a precondition of our species to naturally categorize to avoid danger. Thus, this article is suggesting that this innate human characteristic forces us to categorize. Now add the social conditioning. Massey and Denton (American Apartheid) demonstrate that we (USA) live in highly segregated communities, so if children are being exposed to people similar as themselves then this tends to feed into the natural inclination to categorize. Next, children and adults are exposed to stereotypes which are generalized and distorted information about groups…this lends to the negative feelings towards the out groups…all these processes work together to support prejudice and racism.

I totally disagree that we are “wired” for prejudice. Perhaps that may come subsequently from a child learning values and beliefs from the media, family, teachers, role models, and so forth. Socialization is an imperative vehicle that drives the aforementioned.



An interesting study, but the conclusion doesn’t make sense, potentially due to a misunderstanding over what ideology actually is.

Roete asserts that, though categorization is a fundamental human process, the properties that we assign a category are variable to the ideas we hold about its constituents – thus leading to prejudice. As such, ideology is of only minor significance in the formation prejudice.

This seems to me a distinction without any difference. What are ideas, if not the foundation of ideology? How can one form opinions about complex societies without ideology? Of course, one cannot have an intricate set of prejudices without ideology.

Furthermore, the cultivation of positive ideas about something, rather than negative ones, would not be reducing prejudice, but merely rebalancing it – and a fundamentally ideological exercise in itself.

Ideology is not a artificial, superimposed structure, nor a series of deliberate, conscious ideations. But instead a complex web of understandings of the social world, every bit as organic as the need to categorize. As such ideology and categorization exist in tandem, not in isolation.

Humans are selective, biase,and prejudicial. This is categorically true. BUT, there not necessarily racist. These are personal preferences; they only become racist when used to hurt another person or group of people.

True. I think when an individual is confronted with other individuals who are so dramatically different from the expected “norm”, whether it is differing cultural beliefs, religious beliefs, ideals or values, the “abnormal” is perceived as a threat to the “norm” and prejudice is formed based on a need to preserve what is safe and familiar (normal) to the individual. They are simply uncomfortable with differences contrary to what they consider normal or good. Prejudices are a natural response and can be both beneficial and damaging depending on the action taken. Racism is elevating ones own race above another simply because other races are viewed, as a whole, less valued and less human.

The comments above are more interesting and reasoned than the actual research! To argue that prejudice is resulting from a human instinct to categorise, and nothing else, is fundamentally flawed. We cannot dismiss the impact of ideology.
If, as is syggested, all humans categorise and group others, then why are not ALL humans prejudiced? This is where ideology comes in, pkus our willingness to accept norms and stereotypes. To me, prejudice represents laziness on behalf of a thinker. Or, perhaps implies lack of intellectual capacity. It is about inflexibility of thought and aceptance of nonsensical ideplogies to “fill gaps” in knowledge. People who are not prejudiced do not think like this. Instead, they are more flexible, and can absorb lots of different pieces of information, plus rearrange their views to accomodate changes resulting from updated info. Added to this, they do not fear or worry about gaps in knowledge or information – they are emotionally mature and stable enough to accept uncertainty.
Thus, in my view, prejudice represents lazy or sloppy thought processes, PLUS fear of uncertainty, PLUS emotional immaturity, PLUS blind acceptance of stereotypes or unquestioning use of societal “norms”. That is why not everyone is prejudiced. Because some people are more emotionally savvy, more intellectual, and more questioning.

I agree that the degree of prejudice equates to laziness and maybe also decreased intellectual prowess, but also agree that it is inherent.
The difference between people is that some recognize these thoughts and feelings early and control them, where as others don’t. Our societal and community norms also predicts our response by a shared morality. This will influence to which degree we govern our reptilian brain.
Resources or lack thereof is another trigger for prejudice. If there’s a perceived lack of resources our animal instinct is to protect our resources. We can’t do this alone and thus choose to form groups and then discriminate against others.

The composition of the group depends on the threat.
If a divided country is threatened by another it will unify against a common enemy. Within a country we will group on race and other factors. If the resources dwindles exponentially, the group criteria will become more acute. From general criteria it will dwindle to a much more defined group, which has similar backgrounds, religion, etc.
This can be seen in many areas of Europe, where prejudice has traditionally not been an issue. An influx of migrants has created the fear of a perceived future lack of resources and it has given rise to prejudicial movements.

This is only my opinion and I have no educational history in this field.

I feel as though this would be a better study if it was done with children rather than adults. Children are still in a very impressionable stage of their life and adults already have certain ways of living and thinking set in stone.

Categorization is an instinct

Think of early humans trying to survive in the wild… if someone eats a red berry and gets sick, red berries are categorized as “bad”… Of course, not all red berries make you sick, but that is our instinctual way to survive… deductive reasoning.

Stereotypes are generalizations based on experience
Prejudice is negativity attached to a stereotype

Example: Peppers
Categorization: Peppers
Stereotype: Peppers are spicy hot.
Prejudice: I don’t like peppers because peppers are spicy hot.

Prejudicial Argument: “Why don’t you like peppers?” I don’t like peppers because peppers are spicy hot. “But not all peppers are spicy hot…” I don’t care. I just don’t like peppers.

You can say categorization is a system in our brain in which we think of something one way and by this “categorization system” we are inclined to think and feel that same way about another. That is why I feel that prejudice is in everyone whether you think so or not you have been prejudice to someone or something even and have also been a victim of the same. So how do we change the way people think, by introducing them to new things such as the berries example, say you give someone a two berries and you tell them to eat both but, only after a couple of minutes apart and they eat the good one first, they will automatically assume the second will be like that and rush right into it ignoring everything you just said and when they eat the bad one they will then understand in their 5 senses how to differentiate from good and bad, so you can’t just give them one bad one and expect them not to be prejudice. In other words if you were to train the mind to advert from thinking this way you can ultimately not be prejudice and have thoughts of pre-judging someone.

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