the psychology of discrimination


In our daily life, we usually hear people express their internalized thoughts and beliefs about people that are different from them. These beliefs are usually associated with stereotypes, that originate consequences like discrimination and prejudice. This is the topic that I am willing to write about in this document, particularly about xenophobia. I am portuguese and live in Portugal, therefore I’ve never suffered from xenophobia and it wouldn’t feel right if I wrote about something I haven’t experienced personally. Instead I will focus in the process behind these beliefs and hipothetize ways in which it can be changed. I am taking a masters degree in Psychology and I have a particular interest in this field because I believe it is urgent to change some ideas and beliefs with a negative impact in lives, and also suffering that can be spared. The information I gathered is in the Social Psychology book written by Jorge Vala and Maria Benedicta Monteiro (and other collaborators) and I hope it helps to understand the psychological processes beneath stereotypes and discrimination.

Lippmann is considered to be one of the first scientists to write about the conception of stereotypes and their psychossocial functions. His central idea was that the big complexity of the social world can only be assimilated if we select some informations and neglect others. Through this process we can construct a simple representation about the world we live in. Thus, stereotypes are pictures in our heads that allow us to comprehend the role of each group in society, interpreting the actions of those groups according to that comprehension, as well as perceiving our own role in the society. Nevertheless, we shouldn’t mention stereotypes without referring prejudice and discrimination and without integrating these facts in the social context in which they occur. The categorization of people is based in a correspondence of psychological tags and visual cues. These correspondences reflect the base of stereotypes and are assimilated through socialization agents (school, parents, social media). The problem arises when the information passes from denotative (descritive) of a group to connotative (good or bad evaluation) beliefs of a group (Allport, 1954). Another thing that can reinforce stereotypes (and therefore xenophobia) is the confirmatory theories. In another words, if we have beliefs about a certain group of people we will only select the information that goes accordingly to how we think and neglect everything that isn’t according of the way we were taught to think. We can’t also talk about this without taking into consideration our culture and the ideas of ethnocentrism (that our culture is better than the others). Likewise, when we perceive (often unconsciously) that other cultures can be a threat to us, prejudice and discrimination arises. It should also be noted that we rarely stereotype a group only through positive or negative content. The content of stereotypes is ambivalent, and an example is the stereotype of portuguese people: even though we are seen as disorganized we are also seen as kind. Thus, the competence and simpathy are two independent dimensions, but they are seen as determinants to the structure of stereotypical beliefs (Fiske, Cuddy, Glick and Xu, 2002). When it is said that the English are distant and Brazilian are warm, we are talking about the simpathy dimension, but when we say the English are punctual and the Brazilian are always late, we are talking about competence. The model BIAS map (Cuddy, Fiske and Glick, 2007) affirms that there is an emotional component mediating the behaviors towards a different nationality. The groups that are not in competition with our own group are seen as intentionally kind and non-intentionally incompetent. The groups that are in competition and represent a threat to us are seen as competent but unkind, while our group is considered as both kind and competent.

How could we possibly change the prejudice and discrimination?

Accordingly to Rothbart (1981), when we have a large social distance of a group with a different nationality we have a tendency to be unable to accept and simpathize with that group. Studies show that the larger social distance the more social prejudice about those groups. The change would happen if we were confronted with information strongly contradictory with the stereotypes we hold. We can hold beliefs about a nationality but when we find atypical members of a group, the sterotype will evaporate gradually. People change prominently when the contradictory information is disperse and there are many atypical members of a group. When this is not the case, people usually assume that those atypical members are exceptions and insert them in subtypes, while the stereotypes are maintained (Gaertner and Dovidio, 2005). Campbell (1967; 1972) refers that the more frequency and diversity of contact of the members of a stereotyped group, the more truth would hold the beliefs about that group and there would be a reduction in prejudice and discrimination. That discrimination can be usually associated with a projective component and a defense mechanism of the group that stereotypes. The contact is not the only thing that would be necessary in order to reduce prejudice and consequently discrimination. The capacity of constructing a shared vision between the group that stereotypes and the group that is stereotyped has been also efficient in reducing prejudice and discrimination.

I think there were many things left to say about the processing of the human mind when it comes to these topics, because they are very complex. Nonetheless, it’s very important to acknowledge what lies behind xenophobia and take these processes into account. We know stereotypes can have benefits in the sense of our survival and in terms of selecting the information we need, but it can also have a nefarious impact. It can impact the self-esteem, the suicidal rates, relationships, general physical and psychological health. If we are aware these processes exist within everyone, we can try to change them, starting with ourselves. Also, if we understand these processes we can more easily change the view that the other people have when it comes to these themes.

In conclusion, what helps to reduce prejudice and discrimination is simply humanizing people that are different from us, by finding common interests and a shared view on something. Empathy arises here and we can communicate and feel less in a position to discriminate. I think it is urgent to take action considering psychological processes to make change in the system and, hence, in people’s lives and wellness. Taylor McNeil started with her colleagues the Immigrant Stories, a digital international storytelling project. It consists of a website that allows anyone anywhere to share their story for free with video, audio and text. I believe this is a great project that resides in the power of storytelling to humanize people and see them as real, instead as “vague pictures in our mind”. These initiatives can make people reflect about their thoughts on immigration and to group vivid examples of the challenges of the lives of others, that they would never think of if they didn’t challenge their reasoning. It is important to often be reminded about what unites us, rather than what divides us.

the author:

Laura Ramalho - Country rep. Portugal