Ganging up on each other

October 18, 1996

Just as motherhood and apple pie are things you have to be for, so prejudice is something you have to be against. On the surface, this excellent review of the work of social psychologists exposes the mechanisms that lead to prejudice to show how they can be overcome. Yet a different message emerges, against the author's intentions. Overwhelmingly, the research has concentrated on race or ethnicity and gender. It tends to show that prejudice against other ethnic groups and the opposite sex arises from the simplifying strategies we adopt to process information about the social world, combined with the overriding need to distinguish friends from enemies. Seen that way, prejudice looks like an inescapable aspect of the human condition; an unavoidable consequence of our need to make sense of the world and survive in it.

Earlier in this century, experimental psychologists destroyed the notion that the mind is like a blank tablet waiting to receive impressions from the external world. Instead, they demonstrated that the mind is active in constructing representations of the world from fragmentary and ambiguous stimuli. The eye interprets and orders the world in the act of perceiving it. Our visual apparatus is strongly prejudiced in favour of the assumption that floors are roughly level, that objects do not change colour as the lighting changes, that bananas are yellow. A room with sloping floor and ceiling will be seen as symmetrical, an object that is reducing in size will be seen as moving away from the viewer until these usually reliable interpretations blatantly clash with manifest facts.

The mind is equally active in constructing representations of the social world. Inevitably, these involve sorting people into categories, which are all defined, from the beginning, as "my group" or "not my group". Researchers have been ingenious in showing that even when transient groups are artificially created in the laboratory, people still favour their own group at the expense of another, although they have no significant investment in it. We find patterns in the social world by sharpening the boundaries between groups, and smoothing the variations among group members. Considered in this light, the psychological mechanisms through which people are placed in categories labelled "us" and "them" seem like an irreducible part of being a human being.

Rupert Brown reviews the theory, put forward in the once-influential The Authoritarian Personality, that racial prejudice springs from fixed personality traits caused by harsh and moralistic parenting. Any such theory must be rejected because prejudice is not fixed for life but is partly a response to situations; and because certain prejudices are widely held in some societies and are not restricted to people who had an unfortunate childhood and have an unusual personality.

Although some method of categorising and evaluating the social world is inevitable, Brown shows that crude racial prejudice has declined during this century in the United States. His analysis of strategies for reducing prejudice is placed within the framework of the "contact hypothesis". A large body of research shows that contact between groups reduces prejudice only if certain conditions are met. It is particularly important that the groups should be of equal status, that they should cooperate on a common task, and that there should be enough contact to promote close relationships. Another important factor is that people must be seen as representatives of the other group, and not as possibly exceptional individuals, otherwise contact with them will not change opinions of the group to which they belong. This last finding is crucial. It brings us face to face with the paradox that membership of social groups, or in other words crude and oversimplified social categorisation, has to be reaffirmed if prejudice of one group towards another is to be reduced. The findings of social psychology therefore push us towards pluralism, towards ethnic, religious, gay pride, and not towards assimilation and the denial of group identities.

David Smith is professor of criminology, University of Edinburgh.

Prejudice: Its Social Psychology

Author - Rupert Brown
ISBN - 0 631 18314 0 and 18315 9
Publisher - Blackwell
Price - £50.00 and £13.99
Pages - 319

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