Prejudice and Discrimination: Types and Causes

Throughout history, human interactions have been characterized by the effects of prejudice and discrimination such as crime, war, hatred, conflicts, mass murder, and genocide. Social psychology holds that prejudice and discrimination are the primary causes of human conflict that explain why people hate and attack each other. Prejudice can be defined as an unjustified attitude toward an individual because of their association with a certain social group. Discrimination refers to the act of behaving or acting negatively toward someone because of their sexual, racial, or social class affiliation. These concepts have similar effects with regard to their effect on human interaction and relationships.

Differences between Prejudice and Discrimination

As mentioned earlier, prejudice refers to a negative attitude that is caused by an individual’s social affiliation while discrimination is the act of behaving negatively toward someone because of their racial, sexual, or social affiliation (Kite & Whitley, 2016). A person can be biased against members of a certain race and still treat them with respect and dignity. Examples of discrimination include racial, age, and gender discrimination. The four main explanations of prejudice and discrimination include authoritarian personality, stereotyping, social identity theory, and realistic conflict theory.

Causes and Effects

Human beings share many similarities. However, they are diverse in ways that include sex, race, gender, social class, and personality. The social groups that exist in society are critical to formation of social identities (Kite & Whitley, 2016). Human differences are difficult to embrace, and as a result, they might lead to prejudice toward people who belong to other cultural groups. In contemporary society, intolerance is mitigated through education, development of relationships, and interactions. Examples of social groups that are used in the development of personal identity include gender, race, age, sexual orientation, religion, nationality, ethnicity, profession, and social class. In many cases, people usually belong to multiple social groups based on their social roles. A common example of prejudice is the negative feeling that some American citizens have toward immigrants. Another example is a young person who is biased against older adults because he (or she) believes that they are slow, weak, manipulative, patronizing, and ineffective.

Prejudiced people can either act on their attitudes or not. Discrimination is one of the ways through which their prejudice manifests in their interactions with other people (Stangor & Crandall, 2013). For example, the aforementioned prejudiced young person can choose to either discriminate against older adults or not. In certain cases, an individual can be biased and not discriminate against the people they dislike (Kite & Whitley, 2016). Research has shown that many cases of discrimination are caused by people who act on their negative beliefs (stereotypes) and negative attitudes (prejudice) against members of a certain social group. In that case, they treat them poorly because of their perceived differences. For example, young people can discriminate against older adults by excluding them from their team during a training workshop. Research has shown that prejudice and discrimination are examples of factors that hinder the effectiveness of cultural integration (Alcock & Sadava, 2014).

Types of Prejudice and Discrimination

In human socialization, race, gender, and age are important pieces of information that determine the quality of interactions between strangers. These social categories provide a lot of information regarding an individual’s personality compared to other aspects such as height, dress code, and countenance. The major downside of this information is that it is mostly based on stereotypes, and therefore, is incorrect and unreliable (Alcock & Sadava, 2014). People usually have various expectations of strangers based on their race, gender, and age. Grouping people based on their race, gender and age is the cause of different forms of prejudice and discrimination, namely racism, sexism, ageism, and homophobia (Alcock & Sadava, 2014).


Racism is defined as prejudice and discrimination against a person because of their racial affiliation. For example, cultural stereotypes of Asian Americans include intelligent and cold while for African Americans include aggressive and athletic (Alcock & Sadava, 2014). In the United States, racism is an issue that has existed for many decades, and it is experienced by members of many racial and ethnic groups. Skin color is one of the major causes of racism and discrimination in the United States. A study conducted by Assari and Caldwell (2017) revealed that skin tone played a significant factor in the occurrence of discrimination against young people from the Caribbean. The study’s sample was comprised of 360 Caribbean Black youth between the ages of 13 and 17.

The participants resided in different states within the US. Participants were from Caribbean countries, including Haiti, Jamaica, Cuba, Bahamas, Antigua and Barbuda, Nevis, and Trinidad and Tobago among others. The results of the study showed that a darker skin tone increased perceived discrimination among Caribbean Black youth (Assari & Caldwell, 2017). Gender also played a critical role because racial and ethnic discrimination was more prevalent among males than females. Caribbean Black males recorded higher instances of discrimination compared to lighter-skin female counterparts. Another example of racism involves the disparity that is experienced with regard to a police search of vehicles. These searches are more common among African Americans than whites (Alcock & Sadava, 2014). The searches are more stringent when African Americans are driving through white neighborhoods.


Sexism can be defined as prejudice and discrimination that is directed toward an individual because of their sex. In its most common form, sexism involves men holding biases against women primarily due to their socialization (Alcock & Sadava, 2014). In contemporary society, sexism occurs in different forms that include gender role expectations, unequal access to opportunities, and predetermined codes of conduct (Nelson, 2015). For example, women are expected to be friendly, nurturing, and compassionate, and if they fail to exhibit those behaviors, they might be disliked or mistreated.

Sexism also exists in education and hiring. Careers such as engineering and construction are predominantly masculine, and women who pursue them might be subjected to ridicule and limited opportunities for employment or promotion. A study conducted by Plickert and Sterling (2017) revealed that women face several gender-based issues that affect their earning potential and the ability to combine family and professional responsibilities. The study used survey data obtained from a US panel study of lawyers. Work schedules differed significantly by gender and women lawyers reported lower probabilities of full-time employment when compared to their male counterparts (Plickert & Sterling, 2017). Moreover, workplace discrimination influenced their work schedules and career advancement negatively. Women are discriminated against in workplaces because of their gender roles. For examples, women are viewed as mothers, and so, their commitment to full-time employment is low (Plickert & Sterling, 2017). Therefore, they are less likely to be considered for full-time employment or tight-schedule jobs than men.


Human interactions are complex because people’s judgments and expectations are mainly based on the ages of the persons they interact with. In many cases, their reactions lead to prejudice and discrimination because of preconceived notions (Alcock & Sadava, 2014). For example, young people might avoid older adults because they think they are slow and ineffective while older adults might sideline young people because they view them as naïve and incompetent. If an individual’s expectation of a person from a different age group is not met, they are likely to develop a negative attitude toward that person. Socialization plays a significant role in determining how society perceives and treats individuals (Alcock & Sadava, 2014). In many cultures, older people are viewed as wise and gracious, and so, they are treated with respect and honor. In such cultures, young people treat older people with reverence and act courteously toward them. In cultures where older people are viewed as weak and unproductive, young people treat them with disrespect and disdain.

Relationship with Social Psychology

The principles of social psychology are important because they aid in the proper understanding of the causes and effects of prejudice and discrimination. Affect, behavior, and cognition are basic principles that underlie the concepts of prejudice and discrimination (Nelson, 2015). Prejudice is one of the outcomes of the cognitive component. It involves the development of an unjustifiable negative attitude toward a specific group or its members. Prejudice can take many forms that include anger, dislike, hatred, discomfort, or fear that lead to negative behaviors such as discrimination and violence (Stangor & Crandall, 2013). Prejudice and discrimination against members of a certain group have severe consequences on individuals and the society. For example, prejudice influences how people respond and interact with others. In addition, it shapes their behavior or actions. On the other hand, discrimination leads to the exclusion, avoidance, and biased treatment of specific groups or individuals (Stangor & Crandall, 2013). The most common effects of prejudice include social avoidance, demoralization, social ostracism, low self-esteem, racial self-hatred, and unequal access to opportunities.

Prejudice and discrimination are prevalent in society primarily due to social learning and adherence to social norms. For instance, children develop prejudiced attitudes by copying their teachers, parents, peers, and the media (Stangor & Crandall, 2013). Society socializes them to perceive and judge people in certain ways based on specific characteristics such as gender and race. Adolescents develop negative attitudes and beliefs by conforming to social norms that are deemed acceptable in their communities. Therefore, they are subjected to normative pressures that compel them to embrace specific behaviors, attitudes, and beliefs regarding human interaction (Alcock & Sadava, 2014). Aspects such as social class and economic capability are key factors that influence interactions in society. Children from high-income families usually attend private schools, while children from low-income families mainly attend public schools. If children from poor families receive scholarships to private schools, they find it hard to fit in as they suffer prejudice and discrimination. Stereotypes are self-fulfilling prophecies that shape behavior (Stangor & Crandall, 2013). Stereotypical expectations determine how people act toward individuals from certain social groups.

In today’s labor market, women are subjected to discrimination and prejudice because of their gender. They are treated poorly and denied opportunities for career advancement (Alcock & Sadava, 2014). In addition, they are barred from pursuing careers that were traditionally viewed as masculine and they are paid less than their male counterparts in several fields. These discriminatory behaviors emanate from the effects of society’s socialization of individuals. People are conformed to social norms that view women as the weaker sex, less intelligent than men, and caretakers (Alcock & Sadava, 2014). Few policies and gender programs have been created to mitigate gender bias and discrimination. Many people in society experience injustice because of their affiliation with specific social groups. Human interaction is principally based on the influence of social factors such as age, race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, and race (Alcock & Sadava, 2014).


Diversity is a positive concept that has positive contributions toward the growth and advancement of society. Aspects that include gender, race, ethnicity, age, and sexual orientation are proof of the diversity of human life. However, these differences have been used by human beings to create personal identities that have caused conflict in society. People harbor expectations toward members of different social groups. More often than not, these expectations are unfulfilled, and that leads to the development of unjustified beliefs and attitudes that shape their perspectives. Prejudice and discrimination are key influences on people’s behaviors, actions, and interactions. Prejudice affects how people respond to one another, and in some cases, shapes their behavior. Discrimination usually results from the attitudes (prejudice) and beliefs (stereotypes) that individuals hold against certain social groups. Prejudice and discrimination originate from the views that people have of specific social groups, which are usually based on gender, race, economic class, and age.


Alcock, J., & Sadava, S. (2014). An introduction to social psychology: Global perspectives. New York, NY: SAGE.

Assari, S., & Caldwell, C. H. (2017). Darker skin tone increases perceived discrimination among male but not female Caribbean Black youth. Children, 12(4), 107-120.

Kite, M. E., & Whitley, B. E. (2016). Psychology of prejudice and discrimination (3rd ed.). New York, NY: Psychology Press.

Nelson, T. D. (2015). Handbook of prejudice, stereotyping, and discrimination (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Psychology Press.

Plickert, G., & Sterling, J. (2017). Gender still matters: Effects of workplace discrimination on employment schedules of young professionals. Laws, 6(4), 1-28.

Stangor, C., & Crandall, C. (Eds.). (2013). Stereotyping and prejudice. New York, NY: Psychology Press.

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