Defining stereotyping, prejudice and discrimination


Prejudices are attitudes towards certain social groups, e.g. class, age, ethnicity, gender.  People who belong to these groups may be judged by others according to their group membership.  Prejudices can be can be extreme, inflexible and resistant to change even when information to the contrary is presented, individuals are often seen as ‘the exception to the rule’.

Attitudes have three components; Affective, Behavioural and Cognitive.

  1. The affective component of a prejudice involves negative feelings such as disgust, hatred, fear and anger.

2. The cognitive component is to so do with stereotypical beliefs about people’s lifestyle, values etc and these are often poorly informed generalisations.

3. The behavioural aspect is a predisposition to act in a negative way towards group members, i.e. to discriminate against people according to their group membership. However prejudice does not always lead to discrimination.

One example of prejudice which led to mass murder was the prejudice between Hutus and Tutsis in Rwanda. Hutus believed that Tutsi were child killers and cannibals due to the propaganda they heard on the radio. They felt disgusted, scared and threatened by them and it was these thoughts and feelings which predisposed to acts physical violence and murder.


Discrimination occurs when people are treated differently according t their actual or perceived group membership and it comes in many forms from avoidance, exclusion and name-calling, through to physical assault, murder and mass extermination or genocide.

Discrimination can be overt as was the case with David Copeland, the Soho nail bomber who targeted black, Asian and homosexual communities in a series of terror attacks in London but it can also be covert whereby people may not be afforded the same rights and privileges as others as may be the case with homeless people or travellers who may have no fixed address and therefore are unable to vote.

An example of discrimination was shown by Mark Levine (2005) who set up a field study to observe the behaviour of bystanders who see a man trip over in the rain. The man either wore a ‘home’ football shirt, the shirt of a rival team or plain clothes. He was less likely to be helped when wearing the rival team shirt than if we he was wearing the home short of plain clothes.