Social Psychology Glossary (4): Prejudice

Welcome to the Social Psychology Glossary!

In these posts, I will explain Social Psychology terms and theories and add some examples from research. 

These terms and theories help social psychologists to understand how people perceive others, interact with them, and make judgments about the social world and its members. These psychological processes can impact well-being and decision-making: being aware of their existence is a key factor that helps individuals and society to move towards gender diversity, gender equality, and equality in general. 

Today we will explain what prejudice is.

Let’s start!


Unlike the term stereotype or the even more uncommon stereotype threat, many have probably heard, read, or used the word prejudice. Prejudice covers a wide variety of meanings in everyday life, and some of those meanings are the same in the field of Social Psychology. But before explaining what those meanings are, let’s think about this variety of different meanings – and the reasons to narrow them down.

In layman’s terms, psychologists are usually interested in – as you probably have guessed – how the mind works, and how people think. When researchers in psychology have a big question about how something works, they look into previous works of other researchers, check what is already known and whether the reasoning and the findings are solid or whether there are any doubts. The problem is, to do so all researchers must share the same understanding of a word. And for this reason, in scientific literature people write definitions, debate about definitions, suggest new definitions, and so on. In other words, researchers need to find an agreement on the definition within their own discipline. In that way, when someone approaches a new topic in that field, definitions are like secret codes that one can use to decode a message. Every field can have its own perspective, for instance, a sociologist and a psychologist can look at prejudice differently.

In psychology, prejudice is an attitude, and it focuses on three components:

  • a cognitive component, that includes irrational beliefs about a group or one of its members;
  • an affective and emotional component, for example, a feeling of dislike; and
  • a behavioral component that can comprise the inclination to harm or avoid a group.

Gordon Allport, a psychologist already mentioned in the last glossary post, wrote in 1954: “Ethnic prejudice is an antipathy based on a faulty and inflexible generalization. It may be felt or expressed. It may be directed toward a group as a whole, or toward a person because he is a member of that group.” In research about prejudice, psychologists usually assess attitudes about members of a target group: attitudes can be explicit, where participants can control their answers more, or implicit, where participants have less control over the outcomes. For example, if you want to try a test on implicit associations, have a look at this website: (And for a short explanation with spoilers of this test, please read below the spoiler alert!)

In summary, the psychological definition of prejudice is composed of cognitive, emotional, and behavioral factors. This perspective focuses on the individual level and differs from the sociological view, which instead focuses on the primacy of social categories that implement structural biases and maintain power structures.

As you can gather from what I have written, prejudice is not something nice. In addition, prejudice can be implicit, and even those who really do not want to be prejudiced can have some biased attitudes. The big question is: do we have a solution? Is it possible to reduce prejudice?

Well, research says YES, and I will tell you something about the Contact Hypothesis in our next post.

Suggested readings:

Allport, G.W. (1954). The nature of prejudice. Reading, MA: AddisonWesley.

Schnabel, K., Asendorpf, J. B., & Greenwald, A. G. (2008). Assessment of Individual Differences in Implicit Cognition: A Review of IAT Measures. European Journal of Psychological Assessment, 24(4), 210–217.

Wiley, J. (n.d.). Central Concepts in the Psychology of Diversity. 28.

Zhou, S., Page-Gould, E., Aron, A., Moyer, A., & Hewstone, M. (2019). The Extended Contact Hypothesis: A Meta-Analysis on 20 Years of Research. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 23(2), 132–160.

SPOILER ALERT: The Implicit Associations Test (IAT)

Simplifying a little, the IAT measures how fast people are to make some associations between two concepts. The assumption is that people are faster to make associations that are consistent with implicit associations they already have in their minds, but slower for associations that are inconsistent. For example, we are probably faster to categorize “summer” and “ice cream” when they are on the same side, or “winter” and “hot chocolate” on the same side, but we would be slower in categorizing “summer” and “hot chocolate”, or “winter” and “ice cream” when they are on the same side. The IAT tests the same mechanisms, but with social categories and their stereotypes, or with social categories and attitudes.

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