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The Psychology of Prejudice and Discrimination: Analyzing Theories’ Effect on Race

Jared Agyemang



Brock University


Prejudice and discrimination explore the changes in attitude and treatment a person may show

another person or group of people in an opposing race. There are many reasons that can explain

or hint to why people might be racist. In the psychology of prejudice and discrimination, many

theories are explored including: Social Identity Theory (SIT), Conflict Theory, Group Relative

Deprivation Theory, Terror Management Theory (TMT), Social Role Theory, and

Developmental Intergroup Theory. These theories talk about how we as people shape the world

around us and ourselves, whether as children or adults. And they also talk about how we as

people are protective of our identities, beliefs, and resources that we have shaped our world with.

Although there are some conflicts, most of these theories tie very well together when attempting

to explain the motives behind racism. But overall, further research can always be done because

the education can eventually teach people why they may have racist thoughts or feelings, but

ultimately can teach people how to reduce it. Because “me” or “us” vs. “them” is a concept we

don’t need to develop just because someone is of a different race than ourselves.


Prejudice is an attitude directed toward people because they are members of a specific

social group (Kite and Whitley Jr, 2016). Similarly, discrimination is treating a person differently

from others based solely or primarily on the person’s membership in a social group (2016).

Psychology research looks at prejudice and discrimination together in order to discover the

nature of the two, while analyzing the “why” and “how” these topics play a role in society and in

the different or various types of people’s lives. Also, after understanding the essence of prejudice

and discrimination, psychology—if possible—aims to reduce and even prevent prejudice and

discrimination in the areas it effects. Although there are many things that prejudice and

discrimination can affect including: religion, age, class, or sex, a big category it has a major

impact on is race. The negative affect prejudice and discrimination has on race, results in racism.

And racism is a form of prejudice and discrimination, that involves negative actions, words,

thoughts and feelings directed towards ssomeone of a different race, based on the belief that

one's own race is superior (or the idea that certain races are inferior or superior to another race or

races). With there being so many theories in the psychology of prejudice and discrimination, the

possibility of some standing out as explanations as to why someone or a group of people might

be racist to another person or group of people is really high. The goal of this paper is to discuss

some of these theories of prejudice and discrimination, explore how they might explain the

nature of racism, and to critically analyze their strengths, weaknesses, and how they can be used

or tested by researchers.

Social Identity Theory and Racism

Social Identity Theory (SIT), explains prejudice by viewing the link between people’s

self-concepts and their membership in the different groups they see as important to them (2016).

Due to the fact that people see these groups as an extension of themselves, they try to ensure the

status of these groups by favoring ingroup members over outgroup members in various situations

(2016). This could be a main indicator of racism because these types of feelings not only create

bias, but a competitive nature that allows one to think it is “me/us” vs. “them”. And in that

mindset, one may directly or indirectly favour their own race, over an outgroup race, wanting to

be or feeling superior than “them”.

In a study assessing the influence of exposure to television depictions of Latinos, on

White viewers’ judgments, researchers wanted to examine the relationship between aversive

racism and social identity theory (Mastro, Behm-Morawitz and Kopacz, 2008). The researchers

predicted that after viewing the depictions, greater in-group identification would occur as well as

the fact that higher self-esteem would be reported for those exposed to the outgroup, opposite of

those exposed to the ingroup (2008). And although it is not to be overstated, the researchers

found just that. Viewers’ racially driven responses emerged largely during the television

depictions, and they identified more with the in-group and also enhanced their self-esteem


The Social Identity theory can be a strong explanation for the cause of racism because of

categorization. Due to the fact that people find it necessary to group people, objects, and events

together to process what they see and know, it is almost an innate to group oneself into a

category distinct of other groups of people and possibly races. However, a weakness of this

theory is that associating as a part of a group doesn’t automatically make it superior or inferior to

another, that is a mental process that people add on their own. And grouping people into

categories does not always have to be in the broad category of race, because different races can

be in the same category but for something more specific (i.e., a student). So Social Identity

Theory can affect the views on race, but certainly could not be reason of prejudice and

discrimination towards race on its own.

Group Relative Deprivation Theory and Racism

Relative deprivation theory is a concept that stems from people’s perceived unfair

treatment. This is because they feel deprived relative to what they had in the past or relative to

people who have the resource they believe they deserve (2016). So when looking at it in terms of

race, if people blame a group for their unfair treatment (group relative deprivation theory), they

develop negative feelings toward members of that group (2016). In a 1972 study conducted by

Reeve Vanneman and Thomas Pettigrew, data was collected to observe economic gains of White

people to compare and see if they felt like their gains were less than other White people

(personally deprived) and if it felt less than Black people (group deprivation) as well (2016).

Bannerman and Pettigrew found a modest relationship between group relative deprivation and

prejudice with 54% of the White people high in group relative deprivation expressing negative

attitudes toward Black people, and 42% of Whites who were low in group relative deprivation.

And although the White respondents in these surveys were objectively better off than the Black

people, 42% of them still considered themselves “losing out” to the Black people, and it was they

who expressed the most prejudice (2016).

Group relative deprivation theory is a good possible explanation for racism because

hostility can arise towards another group due to the fact that a member or members of the

opposing group feels like they deserve better. Even if they don’t “deserve” it, status is an

important part of people’s identities, so not wanting to be a part of the weaker, lesser, or lower

group could fuel these type of feelings—eventually leading to racism. Also, feelings of being

more highly benefited than other groups can also cause prejudice. So rather than feeling angry

because the other group has deprived them of something, people derogate or devalue the other

group to justify them being better off (2016). However, a weakness of this theory is the sense of

justification it carries, seemingly excusing people to victimize themselves or their situations

because the perspective of being treated “unfair”. Ironically, the unfair treatment is most likely to

affect the opposing group, who is probably not to blame for anybody’s deprivation.

Realistic/Group Conflict Theory

Realistic or Group Conflict Theory states that people come to dislike members of other

groups because they see those opposing groups as competition with their own group for needed

resources (2016). People want to maximize their rewards or want them and their own group to be

superior when it comes to life in general, so anybody who is not a part of their group has an

equal chance of being discriminated or getting a prejudiced response from them. In the text,

examples of this were stated to be seen when it came to wars or even colonization. One of

Germany’s reasons for starting World War II was to increase the living space for Germany’s

increasing population (2016). And then in the Americas, European settlers continually pushed

back Native American populations to acquire access to farmland, minerals, and other natural

resources (2016).

Realistic conflict theory is a fair explanation on why it could be a contributor to racism

because it explains why a group of people may feel the need to compete against another,

especially in a society. It is probably a theory with more historic value, because in modern times

there is a more equal opportunity when it comes to resources. At the same time that is the

theories weakness—the conflicts are not necessarily group vs. group anymore, and whether or

not there is “scarcity” of resources it does not necessarily spark a racial feud between two

groups. It may just only affect an individual personally, who may blame a certain group for

exploiting that resource (i.e., blaming a certain group of immigrants for coming into the country

and taking “all the jobs”).

Terror Management Theory and Racism

Terror Management Theory (TMT) is the proposition that people’s desire to promote and

defend their belief and value systems results in prejudice (2016). Also, as one’s awareness of

mortality increases, their adherence to the ingroup’s cultural values increase as well. And then

they may express prejudice against groups they see as challenging those views as a way of

deflecting (their eventual death) (2016). In a study using Terror Management Theory to

understand interpretations of race related events between Whites and Blacks, researchers found

that the theory suggests that by virtue of Blacks’ and Whites’ diverse experiences (personal,

vicarious, and historical), they may construct meaning of the world differently and, therefore,

embrace different beliefs and interpretations in response to the same event (Parker et al. 2015).

This similarity can be seen for almost every even that either sparked or contributed to the “Black

Lives Matter movement in America. The tragic shooting of a young black male is interpreted

differently by everyone, even if they both see it as wrong. For White’s it is something that should

not happen to anyone, which is most likely why they retorted back with the phrase “all lives

matter”, whereas Blacks felt like it was more targeted and about race, in which people were

dying simply because of their skin color. Throughout these incidents, Blacks tended to keep their

views, not only for justice, but also fear that it could happen to them our anyone else they knew

in their ingroup. Although it was not a main topic of the movements, there was a racial divide in

which either of the parties felt prejudice or discriminated against, due to the hostility and debates

that arose after each incident.


Terror Management theory is a possibly a good explanation for racism because it points

out the deep, psychologically protective mentality that people have for their own beliefs and

values. How one sees the world enables them to imbue their worlds with value, meaning, and

structure (2015). Alternative worldviews from one’s own view can also be threatening, because

they suggest the possibility that a person’s own worldview may not be absolutely correct, which

could undermine one’s confidence in his/her own conceptualization of the world (2015). With

alternative views being such a big threat to a person, it is enough to cause dislike or hate out of

fear and the need to protect one’s beliefs. However, a weakness to this theory explaining racism

is the fact that threatening someone’s beliefs or view leads more to the dislike of religion, rather

than the race of the person itself. Recalling the “Black lives matter” example, the essence of the

issue was fighting for Black people’s right to life, safety, and justice—which everyone has a

right to so naturally it shouldn’t be opposed. But usually, the only time someone’s personal

views get opposed is when it is a matter of religion, and if it is an opposing worldview (like

homophobia for example), it is more of an isolated incident with another person and not their

race or their ingroup.

Social Role Theory and Racism

Social Role Theory is the proposition that, when we observe others, we pay attention to

the social roles they occupy and in turn come to associate the characteristics of the role with

these same individuals (2016). Although this theory is typically used to point out the prejudice

and discrimination towards genders and the stereotypes that go along with them, it can also be

used to explain one’s racist views. This is because people develop illusory correlations, which is,

incorrectly linking two characteristics, like race and personality, to identify a person (2016).

Jefferey Sherman, a researcher and his colleagues, found that stereotypes of social groups can be

formed in the absence of any real group differences and the process by which this happens can

explain why minority-group members are viewed more negatively than majority-group members

(2016). So, for example, negative stereotypes like “Latinos are dirty”, or “Black people are lazy”

are stereotypical perceptions that other groups develop over time because of what was once

perceived before. For what may have started as something to describe an individual, it has

transformed into a definition to describe a whole group of people. Usually these stereotypes are

assumptions, but overall, these negative stereotypes in turn can cause a person to be

discriminatory or racist to another group.

The Social Role Theory is a decent indicator for the explanation because people can sometimes

mentally fit or associate certain races of people into specific roles in society, based on their

characteristics or stereotypes. Whether its traits or behaviours, there are some stereotypes fit

better or define certain groups over others. However, a weakness of the theory is that it heavily

relies on stereotypes, and there aren’t as many “roles” that define different race groups, as there

are when it comes to roles about gender, age, or occupations etc. Also, social roles aren’t always

negative, and although they do tend to form stereotypes, there are some that are positive or not as

harmful to an outgroup (i.e., “Asians are smart”).

Developmental Intergroup Theory and Racism

Developmental Intergroup Theory is a theory that is focuses on children. It states that the

development of prejudice is a by-product of the normal process of cognitive development, where

children simply try to understand the world they live in and the rules by which that world

operates (2016). Similar to social identity theory, the process of categorization takes place when

children look at races of others and even when looking at themselves. This can cause ingroup

favoritism, which is also found in adults, where children tend to attribute positive traits to their

own groups (2016). And rarely, children can be explicitly taught prejudice, similar to social

learning theory (2016). In a study looking at the intergroup bias in childhood, it was found that

children favour ingroup members and it doesn’t decline with age (Monteiro, de França and

Rodrigues, 2009). Also, researchers found that a significant percentage of children tried to justify

their bias in terms of disliking the out-group member or the out-group as a whole. And their

justifications supported the idea that the focus of children’s racial attitudes (in-group vs out-

group) is probably more “status and context related” than development-dependent (2009).

Despite this, the fact that prejudice in children can be fueled by the mental process of something

like status alone is a bit alarming. But at the same time, it makes sense as to why it is a fair

explanation for eventual racism because ingroup bias and favouritism start early. However, a

weakness in this theory as an explanation for racism is the implication that prejudice is almost

innate or developed innately. Children aren’t born into prejudice, hate, or discrimination but

mentally categorize their world in a way that they are taught to. So even if they develop

favouritism for their ingroup, any negative feelings towards an outgroup could probably be


Conflicts Between Theories

The biggest conflict between theories is between Developmental Intergroup Theory and

Social Role Theory and the rest of them (TMT, SIT, Conflict Theory, Group Relative

Deprivation Theory). This is because the first two imply that (if they have an effect on racism)

they are things you either learn about and process on your own, whereas the latter imply that who

you are, what you believe, and your entire ingroup is threatened, and prejudice and

discrimination is the defensive response to counteract these threats. In fact, three of the latter

theories (SIT, Conflict Theory, and Relative Deprivation Theory) connect together using the

concept of threat in a bigger theory known as the “Integrated Threat Theory of Prejudice”

(ITTP). Perceptions of realistic threat can derive from intergroup conflict and feelings of group

relative deprivation, and perceptions of symbolic threat can derive from social identity processes

(2016). Overall, the ITTP might deem as the most reasonable explanations for the cause or why

people may be racist.

Shortcomings and Testing Advantages

In regard to the theories that are a part of the ITTP, shortcomings that can be addressed

can be the question of why the threats always have to involve the “ingroup” and not just the

individual. Whether it is identity, or beliefs, or even competition for resources, sometimes racism

can be personal experiences or threats involving the outgroup. In regard to Social Role Theory, it

can further explore the roles of different races in society. If not specifically as in jobs, then class

and status of people (actual or perceived) and see if that has an effect on racism. And in regard to

Developmental Intergroup Theory, exploring diverse children relationships more can be

addressed. Perhaps there are some cases where the ingroup isn’t always the same race, or some

cases where children don’t categorize “other” children as the “other”. It is an area to explore that

can really go in depth.

When looking at testing advantages, more studies can try to view situations where people feel

their identity, beliefs, or resources are threatened. And can also try to view the social roles of

races as well as how children process other children or people not classified in the same group as

them. Although it may be difficult, there’s always more room to explore why prejudice and

discrimination with race is a big problem, and through this research ways to prevent or reduce it

may be eventually possible.



Overall, there are many theories that can possibly stand on its own as a good explanation

for why there is racism or that someone is racist. Although it could be because how we perceive

social roles as adults, or how we favorite our ingroups over outgroups as children, the threat of

our identities, beliefs, and resources are the more reasonable explanations as to why people are

possibly racist. The overall need to protect ourselves as individuals or within the groups that we

belong to is sometimes an internal drive or response we cannot stop. However, it is not an excuse

to negatively treat someone or have a negative attitude towards them just because they are a

different race. Hopefully more research can be done within the psychology of prejudice and

discrimination in order to change people’s perspective and reduce racism, after they get to root of

the problem. Also, hopefully more research can be done to explore even more theories as to why

racism exists, why people are racism, and what can be done by people to prevent it.


Kite, M. and Whitley Jr, B. (2016). Psychology of Prejudice and Discrimination. 3rd ed. New

York: Routledge.

Mastro, D., Behm-Morawitz, E. and Kopacz, M. (2008). Exposure to Television Portrayals of

Latinos: The Implications of Aversive Racism and Social Identity Theory. Human

Communication Research, 34(1), pp.1-27.

Monteiro, M., de França, D. and Rodrigues, R. (2009). The development of intergroup bias in

childhood: How social norms can shape children's racial behaviours. International

Journal of Psychology, 44(1), pp.29-39.

Parker, A., & Taylor, M. J. (2015). Through a different lens: use of terror management theory to

understand Blacks’ and Whites’ divergent interpretations of race-related events.

The Western Journal of Black Studies, (4), 292. Retrieved from