Prejudice is a prejudgment based on inadequate knowledge. Prejudice often relies on stereotypes. For instance, a person meeting a female child for the first time might assume she likes princesses or the color pink. Prejudice can be conscious or unconscious. A person doesn’t have to realize they’re being prejudiced to prejudge others.
Prejudice is a complex problem that has led to wars, enslavement, abuse, murder, and untold suffering. Working with a therapist can help people overcome their prejudices, understand the effects of prejudice on people they love, and develop strategies for dealing with the mental health effects of living in a world filled with prejudice.
Prejudice is often confused for discrimination, or with forms of oppression such as racism and sexism. While discrimination and oppression characterize behavior by powerful groups directed toward the less powerful, anyone can be prejudiced.
Prejudice can color the way we see other people. Prejudgment may cause a person to ignore information that contradicts their prejudice. This is called confirmation bias. For example, a parent who believes that boys are tough and rambunctious might attribute their son’s crying to anger rather than to empathy for another person or fear of a monster. When prejudice leads to inaccurate or incomplete conclusions about other people, it can harm relationships.
In mental health and other health care settings, prejudice can undermine client care—even if the provider is unaware of their own prejudice. For example, research consistently shows that doctors are less likely to take women’s pain seriously. They may believe that their female patients are faking or exaggerating their pain, or that they are reacting with excessive emotion to relatively minor pain. This can lead to misdiagnoses, and even be fatal.
A doctor’s prejudicial belief that women are too “emotional,” that they handle pain poorly, or that they exaggerate their own pain can change the way the doctor sees that patient. The doctor might be reluctant to treat the patient or provide appropriate pain management. A doctor might even think that someone who is in severe pain is an addict seeking painkillers.
It’s possible to be prejudiced against many groups. A person’s prejudices might not even be internally consistent. For instance, a person might believe both that men are inherently unemotional and prone to emotional angry outbursts.
Social norms and cultural contexts play a significant role in the types of prejudice a person is likely to hold. Racism has figured prominently in American life for centuries. So it’s unsurprising that racist prejudices against people of color are far more prevalent than prejudice against whites. Responses to the 2008 General Social Survey, for instance, found that people are less likely to say black people are intelligent than they are to say white people are intelligent.
Exposure is a powerful antidote to prejudice. People who spend more time with people who are different from them are less likely to hold prejudicial attitudes. Research published in 2017, for instance, found that multicultural experiences could reduce cross-cultural prejudice.
Prejudice is an attitude that can trigger abusive actions. Most sociologists define discrimination as action or a group of actions. So while the two concepts are linked, they’re not the same.
Prejudice can lead to discrimination, but it is not the only factor in discrimination. A person can also harbor prejudices without discriminating, especially if they are mindful of their own prejudice and take proactive steps to counter it.
A prejudicial belief that seniors are slow, sick, or uninterested in learning new things can lead to discrimination. For example, a person charged with hiring at a company that prizes innovation may refuse to hire older workers. Their prejudicial belief in seniors’ refusal to learn new things may even cause them to ignore evidence to the contrary in an applicant’s résumé. When this attitude plays a role in many decisions, it can lead to systemic discrimination. A company that allows ageist attitudes to affect hiring may eventually have only young employees, or mistreat its older staff.
Examples of prejudice can be found throughout history. Many groups have faced discrimination and oppression that stemmed from prejudicial beliefs. Some types of prejudice include:
- Racist prejudices: Prejudice played a key role in supporting slavery. Beliefs about the inferiority of blacks, notions that blacks experienced less pain and fewer emotions, and racist ideas about the behavior of blacks were all used as justifications to support slavery. Likewise, ideas that indigenous and first peoples were lazy or regressive were used to take their land, kill them, and kidnap their children. Fears that Japanese-Americans would be loyal to Japan instead of their home nation led to their imprisonment in concentration camps.
- Sexist prejudices: Sexist ideas about the intellectual and emotional inferiority of women were used to deprive them of the right to vote or own property for most of American history. The notion of female inferiority has also supported rape and domestic violence. Sexist beliefs about women’s honesty and emotions continue to be used to undermine their claims about rape, sexual assault, and other forms of abuse.
- Ageist prejudices: Ageism can be directed at both young and old people. For example, prejudices against young people suggest they are uninformed, ignorant, or impulsive. This can be used to mistreat or ignore them. Prejudice against older people may be used to deny them employment, remove their autonomy, or even abuse them. Elder abuse remains common.
- Ableist prejudices: Prejudicial attitudes about people with disabilities remain common. For instance, some people mistakenly believe that all people with disabilities have caregivers or that disabilities make people weak or meek. Others believe disabilities are uncommon, or that people with disabilities don’t have the same desires or rights as others. This is often used to support discriminatory or unfair policies. For example, people with disabilities faced forced sterilization for much of American history.
- Anti-LGBTQ+ prejudice: Prejudicial beliefs about the behavior and attitudes of LGBTQ+ people have long been used to support discriminatory policies. For example, the notion that transgender people are merely donning the attire of the “opposite” gender has been used to stoke fears about transgender people using bathrooms consistent with their gender identity. Beliefs that non-heterosexual people are less moral or less committed to family relationships figured prominently in the refusal to allow them to marry.
Prejudice does not necessarily cause discrimination, but is almost always a factor. Moreover, it’s important to note that discrimination manifests in many forms. While legal segregation has ended, segregation remains a problem. For example, research shows that white people continue to choose segregated neighborhoods, and that they prefer to move out of neighborhoods that contain even small numbers of non-white residents. A study published in 2009 found that white people still believe that all-white neighborhoods are the most desirable. This segregation can reinforce and promote racist attitudes because people are more likely to prejudge people with whom they have little experience.
Therapists are not immune to prejudicial attitudes. Indeed, most schools offer therapists little training on the role of racism, sexism, and other forms of prejudice and discrimination in therapy. Prejudice can undermine the therapeutic process and harm clients. Some examples of how prejudice can affect therapy include:
- Altering perceptions: A therapist’s prejudicial beliefs about a group can affect their opinion of clients. For example, a therapist who thinks women tend to exaggerate things might not take seriously a woman’s claims of sexual abuse.
- Minimizing experiences: A therapist’s prejudicial beliefs about how prejudice and discrimination affects people can undermine their ability to help. A therapist might underestimate the extent to which police killings of unarmed black people affect black mental health, or may be unaware of how high-profile sexual assault cases affect sexual abuse survivors.
- Not recognizing power dynamics: A therapist who harbors prejudicial beliefs or who is unaware of the effects of prejudice might not recognize power dynamics in therapy. For example, a white therapist might not understand why a black person is reluctant to discuss racism. In family therapy, a therapist who is prejudiced might not notice power dynamics between male and female romantic partners.
- Gaslighting: A therapist who is blind to the effects of prejudice or who does not recognize their own prejudices may inadvertently gaslight by questioning a client’s experiences or reality.
Prejudice can manifest in other ways, too:
- Prejudice directed at a therapist may undermine the therapist’s ability to help.
- A client may seek therapy to deal with the effects of prejudice on their life and mental health. Prejudice can make virtually every aspect of life more difficult, and has measurable lifelong mental and physical health consequences.
- Prejudice may be a factor in couples or family therapy. To offer comprehensive help, a therapist must recognize prejudice and identify its role in the family.
- A client might seek therapy to overcome prejudicial attitudes. Though prejudice is not a mental health diagnosis, it can have profound and lasting effects on people and the world.
Prejudice infects an entire society, but making change begins with changing individual minds and lives.
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