Prejudice - Historical Approaches

Historical Approaches

The first psychological research conducted on prejudice occurred in the 1920s. This research was done to attempt to prove white supremacy. One article from 1925 reviewing 73 studies on race concluded that the “studies take all together seem to indicate the mental superiority of the white race”. This research among others led many psychologists to view prejudice as a natural response to inferior races.

In the 1930s and 1940s, this perspective began to change due to the increasing concern about anti-Semitism. Theorists of this time viewed prejudice as pathological and looked for personality syndromes linked with racism. Theorist Theodor Adorno believed prejudice stemmed from an authoritarian personality. Adorno described authoritarians as “rigid thinkers who obeyed authority, saw the world as black and white, and enforced strict adherence to social rules and hierarchies”. Adorno believed people with authoritarian personalities were the most likely to be prejudiced against groups of lower status.

In 1954, Gordon Allport linked prejudice and categorical thinking. Allport claims prejudice is in part a normal process for humans. According to him, "The human mind must think with the aid of categories… Once formed, categories are the basis for normal prejudgment. We cannot possibly avoid this process. Orderly living depends upon it."

In the 1970s, research began to show that much of prejudice is based not on negative feelings towards other groups but favoritism towards one’s own groups. According to Marilyn Brewer, prejudice "may develop not because outgroups are hated, but because positive emotions such as admiration, sympathy, and trust are reserved for the ingroup."

In 1979, Thomas Pettigrew described the ultimate attribution error and its role in prejudice. The ultimate attribution error occurs when ingroup members "(1) attribute negative outgroup behavior to dispositional causes (more than they would for identical ingroup behavior), and (2) attribute positive outgroup behavior to one or more of the following causes: (a) a fluke or exceptional case, (b) luck or special advantage, (c) high motivation and effort, and (d) situational factors."

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