June 15th, 2011

The Psychology of Prejudice: From Attitudes to Social Action

Despite drawbacks, book sheds light on prejudice

“The Psychology of Prejudice: From Attitudes
to Social Action”
By Lynne M. Jackson
American Psychological Association
Washington, D.C., 2011

By Paul Efthim, Ph.D.

This well-written book mostly succeeds in its mission to present the latest theory and research on prejudice. A chief selling point is its sophisticated integration of several key domains not often brought together in a social psychology text, ranging from evolutionary biology to psychodynamic theory to religious and environmental concerns.

Author Lynne Jackson, a social psychologist at the University of Western Ontario, is a nimble guide to this fascinating but often confusing area of study. She starts out by showing that prejudice is not just about hate or bigotry – rather, it involves a complex mix of responses to others.

Prejudice, as defined by Jackson, is a disrespectful or negative attitude toward groups as a whole or toward individuals on the basis of their group membership. Prejudicial attitudes aren’t always negative. For example, the stereotype that women in general are good nurturers may seem harmless enough until we consider how that attitude can function to patronize women and constrain other perspectives on what they are good at.

A central argument of the book is that prejudice frequently functions as a mechanism to rationalize inequality, providing a narrative about why some groups have greater status and more access to power and resources than others. Prejudice is often subtle and indirect, flowing from stereotyping and other intergroup phenomena that are outside of conscious awareness. For individuals and groups that hold powerful positions, prejudicial attitudes directly link to discrimination and inequality.

After an opening chapter that defines prejudice and related terms, Jackson considers the examples of race and sexual orientation to illustrate certain types of categorical thinking about differences between people. She describes how essentialism – the tendency to view categories as having deep, unchanging properties – is closely related to stereotyping and prejudice and how it can be used by high-status groups to justify inequality by ascribing certain undesirable characteristics to low-status groups.

The next five chapters consider the causes of prejudice, including evolutionary, psychodynamic, social constructionist, developmental, group dynamics and cognitive processes. Impressively, the author summarizes and integrates a vast amount of theory and research from diverse perspectives. The book gets especially interesting as the author describes how our relationship with the natural world and our devaluation of animals relates closely to prejudice and human-to-human relational problems.

Given the use of the term “social action” in the subtitle, it is disappointing that the book devotes only 17 pages to efforts for reducing prejudice and promoting equality. In this brief final chapter, the author cites successful efforts based on the contact hypothesis, in which members of different groups come together on a task structured to support equality, cooperation and friendship. It appears that indirect strategies for prejudice reduction, where the focus is on a task other than intergroup relations, work best; efforts such as “diversity training” in corporate environments appear quite ineffective as they are too direct and not based on relevant research. The author briefly considers the role of political and social action as part of a collective response to prejudice.

A more subtle problem with this book and with prejudice research in general is that its unit of analysis is the individual person, consistent with a longstanding tradition in North American psychology. Of course, we do need to understand intrapsychic phenomena related to prejudice and this text does an excellent job in that regard. However, the book does not acknowledge important institutional and systemic features of the world that perpetuate inequality and privilege.

In support of this last point, Glenn Adams and colleagues have pointed out in “Commemorating Brown: The Social Psychology of Racism and Discrimination” that “the problem of racism is not primarily an issue of subtly biased individuals…. Instead, racism is embedded in apparently harmless features of everyday worlds that even in the absence of action resembling discrimination create burdens for people from oppressed groups and enhance experience of people from dominant groups.” (See a review of this book in our Jan. 2009 issue available on nepsy.com).

Despite these drawbacks, this book is an outstanding, readable work that would be well-suited for advanced undergraduates and graduate classes in social psychology, prejudice and diversity.

Paul Efthim, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in private practice in Brookline, Mass. and holds a faculty appointment at the Boston Institute for Psychotherapy.

Learn more about the book: The Psychology of Prejudice: From Attitudes to Social Action

By Paul Efthim PhD

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