How Do We Learn Prejudice?

There are a number of theories about the origins of prejudice, most of them similar to general learning theories. The simplest, social learning theory, suggests that prejudice is learned in the same way other attitudes and values are learned, primarily through association, reinforcement, and modeling.

Association: For example, children may learn to associate a particular ethnic group with poverty, crime, violence, and other bad things.

Reinforcement: Children may be reinforced for telling derogatory ethnic jokes; others might laugh along or think they're "cool."

Modeling: Children may simply imitate the prejudices of their older family and popular friends.

Children are not born with prejudiced attitudes or with stereotypes. They learn values and beliefs from their family, peers, teachers, the media, and others around them. In other words, children learn prejudice through socialization.

A lot of prejudice socialization occurs outside the home. Prejudice is often a broad social norm of the group in which the individual lives. People learn social norms of prejudice through the process of socialization, usually quite early in life. Most 5 year old American children understand something about the prevailing norms about race.

Parents play an important role in prejudice acquisition. The relationship between parents' and children's attitudes toward members of outgroups is consistent. Not only do parents teach prejudice directly through reinforcement but children often learn their parents' prejudiced attitudes by simply observing their parents talking about and interacting with people from other groups.

As children grow older, peer groups become more important in transmitting social norms about prejudice. Often the attitudes of peer groups match those of a child's parents since friends are typically of similar social backgrounds and values. When peer group and parents hold different values, however, peer group values become increasingly important to children as they grow toward adolescence.

The media are a tremendously important source of social learning about prejudice. Members of socially disadvantaged groups have typically been underrepresented or misrepresented on TV, in popular magazines, and in Hollywood movies. Although we don't see as many examples of stereotyped roles for Blacks and women, for example, as have been previously present, we are now bombarded with images of Black and female tokens in a largely White and male world, and inter-racial friendships that exist only in the workplace rather than in integrated neighborhoods.

It's important to remember that parents, peers, the media and other agents of socialization can also be powerful forces in teaching values that are counter to prejudice. Parents can and do speak respectfully of others. The media has done an excellent job of educating people about HIV-positive individuals. When children are exposed to values such as these, their own values reflect respect for others.

What are other ways we learn prejudice?