Prejudice: Theories and Ideas on Origins

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  • 0:01 Prejudice
  • 0:35 Scapegoat Theory
  • 1:49 Authoritarian Personality
  • 2:48 Culture Theory
  • 3:30 Social Identity Theory
  • 4:42 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Natalie Boyd

Natalie is a teacher and holds an MA in English Education and is in progress on her PhD in psychology.

Why do some people dislike entire groups of people? What causes prejudice? In this lesson, we'll look at some of the theories about what makes people prejudiced, including scapegoat theory, authoritarian personality, and culture theory.


Jasmine is really sad. There's a guy at her work who thinks that women aren't nearly as good as men. He's made some sexist comments, and it makes Jasmine really sad. Why would someone say things about an entire group of people like that?

Prejudice is a preconceived notion about a group of people. For example, when Jasmine's coworker says that women should be kept in the home, he's prejudiced against women.

But knowing that he's prejudiced doesn't really answer Jasmine's question. Why are people prejudiced against others? Let's look at some of the major theories of the origins of prejudice.

Scapegoat Theory

Jasmine's coworker makes comments about how women should stay at home and not be allowed to work in an office with the men. He says that Jasmine and her other female coworkers are taking jobs away from men who deserve them.

Scapegoat theory says that prejudice is a way for people to blame others for their problems. Support for this theory comes from the fact that, when times are tough, prejudice seems higher.

People who are different from you are particularly good scapegoats because they feel separated from you. For example, Jasmine's coworker hasn't been promoted. Instead of asking himself what he's done (or hasn't done) to warrant the decision not to promote him, he blames women and says that they're taking the job he wants. Because he's not a woman, he feels safe blaming them for his problems.

Related to scapegoat theory is conflict theory, which says that in order to hold onto their possessions, power, and status, privileged classes will justify behaviors that keep the other groups down. In other words, if Jasmine's coworker feels like he might lose his status in the office because women are being promoted, he will justify prejudiced comments and discriminatory behaviors.

Authoritarian Personality

Jasmine isn't the first person to face prejudice. In fact, one of the most horrific events of the 20th century, the Holocaust, was fueled by prejudice and hatred. Theodor Adorno, who fled Nazi Germany, came up with his own theory of what makes a person prejudiced.

Adorno blames the authoritarian personality, a personality type that involves rigid thinking, obeying authority, seeing things in black and white, and believing in a hierarchical structure of society. That is, authoritarian personalities believe that some people are just better than others.

By looking at prejudice as a personality trait, Adorno promoted the idea that prejudice is pathological. And according to him, the authoritarian personality tends towards prejudice.

What does that have to do with Jasmine? Well, if her coworker is an authoritarian personality, he might be more prone to prejudice than if he had a different personality type.

Culture Theory

Another theory that tries to explain the origins of prejudice is culture theory, also called cultural transmission theory, which says that prejudice is part of a culture's norms, or rules, and that prejudice is transmitted through culture (hence calling it cultural transmission theory).

Essentially, cultural transmission theory says that children are taught stereotypes of other groups, which leads to prejudice and discrimination.

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