In this essay we will be looking at the causes of prejudice from two approaches, firstly looking at the individual authoritarian personality theory before looking at the more group approach of the social identity theory. We will then look at how prejudice can be reduced in the future by looking at Jane Elliot’s blue eyes/brown eyes experiment and how this can be applied to certain situations. The concept of the authoritarian personality was first proposed by Theodore Adorno (1950). It is the idea that the prejudice attitude of an individual is in fact a result of their personality traits and characteristics (Gross, 2010, p.384).
Believed to be the result of a strict upbringing, authoritarian types tend to be conventional, conformist and very concerned with status, with a hostile attitude to those they consider different (Sammons, Psychlotron. org). Adorno and his colleagues developed a system of measuring authoritarian traits in people’s personalities – the Potentiality for Fascism (F) Scale. Through statements that people can agree or disagree with – such as ‘homosexuals are hardly better than criminals and ought to be severely punished’ – they could determine whether or not a person holds the authoritarian personality.
However, it could be argued that the results of the F-Scale are merely an outcome of acquiescence bias, as the statements were worded in a way that always implies anti-Semitism, ethnocentrism and potential fascism when agreed with (Gross, 2010, p. 388). The theory itself could be a way to explain prejudice in some people, but not all children who have experienced a strict upbringing possess the same personality traits and it does not sufficiently explain why prejudice exists within large groups of society.
On the other hand, Henri Tajfel’s theory of social identity is a means of explaining why prejudice occurs between large social or cultural groups. We feel a need to fit in with people we relate with, with groups being an important source of pride and self-esteem, which results in us looking at outsiders in a negative way. The theory states that a sense of self is gained from belonging to an ‘in-group’, sharing anything in common from race to football team, and who will often discriminate against ‘out-groups’ to improve their own self-image (McLeod, http://www.
simplypsychology. org). Although this could be used to explain why serious examples of discrimination or racism takes place, such as occurred in Germany with the Jews, it may not necessarily apply to all situations. Some could be classed quite more simply as bias as opposed to real prejudice, as with Tajfel’s 1971 study of schoolboys. The boys were split into groups and played a game in which they could allocate points to either their own group or the other, and despite being able to win more if they played fairer, they always chose to maximise their own groups’ points.
This may not be really discrimination but in fact just a bias in favour of their peers, as with other everyday situations the theory could be applied to (Sammons, Psychlotron. org). However, even though it is seemingly human nature to be prejudice towards other people, it is possible that there are ways it could be reduced in the future. Studies such as the classroom blue eyes/brown eyes experiment by teacher Jane Elliot could potentially give people an idea of what it is like to be discriminated against.
By splitting the class into two sides and pretending that one was superior to the other, the children were exposed to the feeling of what it was like to be a minority and quickly began to oppress the out-group and experience fear and self-hatred. It could be possible that this kind of experience could have a positive effect on the way people look at discrimination and how they act towards others. Some years later, Elliot held a class reunion in which many of the students said that “their experience had had a profound effect on their attitudes towards racism and social equality” (McCurry, http://cognition-perception-senses.
knoji. com). In conclusion, the authoritarian theory does suggest how some people may come to be close-minded and intolerant of other people, however it does not account for everyone, whereas the social identity theory gives more of a detailed look of why things like racism may occur in large communities but also why bias may occur between groups. Looking at the blue eyes/brown eyes experiment, it seems that personal experience is just one of the things that may help to reduce and prevent prejudice in the future.
1. Gross, R (2010), Psychology: Science of Mind and Behaviour, London: Hodder Education
2. McCurry, Jane Elliot’s Blue Eyes / Brown Eyes Experiment: Exposing Racism, Available online at: http://cognition-perception-senses.knoji.com/jane-elliots-blue-eyes-brown-eyes-experiment-exposing-racism/ [Accessed 10 December 2012]
3. McLeod, S (2008), Social Identity Theory, Available online at: http://www.simplypsychology.org/social-identity-theory.html [Accessed 10 December 2012]
4. Sammons, The Authoritarian Personality, http://www.psychlotron.org.uk/resources/social/AS_AQB_social_prejudicetheoriesmarketplace.pdf [Accessed 10 December 2012]
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