When it comes to prejudice, the terms bias, discrimination and hatred are all closely linked and there is often a misunderstanding about what the differences are between these concepts. Generally speaking, discrimination refers to the unfair and negative treatment of people who belong to different groups (e.g., racial or ethnic, sexual orientation, age) while prejudice is the beliefs and judgments we hold about those groups.
Prejudice is a natural part of the human experience and is necessary for our ability to think about social groups. However, in a social context, we have the ability to make conscious decisions about how to respond to these situations. When we are exposed to new information, we can choose whether or not to change our existing categories and this is the basis of the prejudice-reduction process.
A number of approaches to tackling prejudice have been developed, and these tend to fall into three broad categories: awareness-raising; encouraging people to report discrimination or hate crimes; and anti-prejudice campaigns that focus on particular groups and settings (e.g., ‘Show Racism the Red Card’ – a campaign to tackle racism in football). A key challenge with any of these types of interventions is that they can run the risk of essentialising social group categories which may be counterproductive. For this reason it is important that any initiatives based on intergroup theories are evaluated with targeted audiences in pilot projects before being launched, and that feedback is sought and acted upon regularly.
Research has shown that prejudice has both individual and societal costs. At the individual level, prejudice leads to negative attitudes that can lead to isolation and depression and in some cases it can even cause health problems. For example, a recent study found that the anticipation of prejudice and discrimination can lead to a physiological stress response (see Thapar-Olmos, 2011). The impact of prejudice on society is more serious and in some cases can take the form of hate crimes or violence against members of specific groups.
Many people will want to be tolerant and free of prejudice, but the fact is that they may still hold implicit bias. These are the kinds of prejudice that can be changed by a range of laboratory-based interventions, such as the work done by Devine and colleagues (2012) who showed that an intensive, long-term programme could produce a lasting reduction in implicit bias. Genuine institutional and cultural change is undoubtedly much harder to achieve, and it is important to bear this in mind when designing, implementing and monitoring prejudice-reduction strategies. As with the oxygen mask on an airplane, it is important to put your own mask on first before helping the person next to you. This is especially true when it comes to dealing with prejudice. A good place to start is by understanding where prejudice comes from. This will help you to recognise it in yourself and others. It will also give you the tools you need to combat it.