Understanding Prejudice
Jim Cole, Ed.D. With the changing demographics and social structure, educational settings and work places present both the urgent need and opportunity for reducing prejudices. Until now, most responses to reducing prejudices in these settings have been legal and thus they have not confronted the dynamics of the disorder. As one civil rights activist recently asked an audience, "Would you rather live in a land where discrimination is illegal, or would you rather live in a land where no one has a desire to discriminate?"

With this introduction I hope to delineate my own area of concern.

Prejudices will be dealt with here as a single set of dynamics that function to dehumanize people who are identifiably different in some way from the people whose perceptions are limited by the dysfunction we call prejudice. This approach is taken for two reasons. First, it is easily defensible through the understanding of the dynamics of prejudices; and second, the continued separation and classification of prejudices according to the superficial categories of those who are prejudiced is a disservice to those who are the targets of discrimination and a distortion of reality.

We have for too long focused upon the victims of prejudices as we have the victims of rape. It has been "their problem." To continue to write or talk about racism, sexism, ageism, homophobia, xenophobia, and the ways disabled people and others are treated is counterproductive. The process of focusing upon the victims serves no purpose in the prevention or reduction of prejudices. That approach looks at the problem in sub-categories based upon those who are the targets of prejudice behavior and distracts from the understanding that all prejudices are fundamentally the same. It also distracts us from the understanding of the various dynamics which together are called prejudices.

To have a better grasp of how prejudices function we need to look at how we have learned prejudices. There are many stereotypes we learn as children. We do not test these and many times we do not have the opportunity to test them. We learn them as facts and behave as if they are the truth. Then, later in life, when situations come up, we behave automatically out of these earlier stereotyped learnings. This type of learning is not easily accessible for discussion or awareness, but it simply stays with us for later effortless, seemingly automatic application. Since the learning is not tested and not challenged, it is not evaluated and not likely to be changed.

Later in life, we learn and acquire belief systems in a more active way. We discuss, evaluate, and decide upon these new learnings. These are systems of standards and codes of behavior which are easily re-evaluated. While they are clearly knowable and readily accessible to evaluation, they are not automatic in application. To behave out of these decided beliefs one must devote a minimal amount of time and attention to the situation and then apply the decision. One must also be fully aware of the cues and indicators that this is, indeed, a situation where the rule or belief does apply. We sometimes have conflicts between these two systems of "earlier learning" and "later learning." Situations arise where the earlier learning seems to be an automatic response. Time, attention, and awareness do not provide the opportunity for the later decided belief system to come into use.

Therefore, the behavior seems to be automatic and prejudiced in spite of the non-prejudiced belief system that is held. This type of behavioral conflict between the "later learning" and the "earlier learning" is what I refer to as an "unintentional prejudicial response." We are at an interesting time right now. Many people seem to hold fewer "later learning" prejudicial beliefs or convictions, but they do still have "earlier learning" prejudicial reactions or perceptions. The result is a situation where people report that they are not prejudiced, yet when conditions come up, they often behave in prejudicial ways, based on their "earlier learnings." Conditions that do not get people’s full attention, or conditions where they are not fully aware of the other person’s group membership, will often result in a prejudicial response from one’s "earlier learning." This is one way of understanding why many people who say they are not prejudiced will, when tested, behave in prejudiced ways.

It has been shown that this internal conflict within people produces some personal discomfort when they behave in prejudicial ways. It has also been shown that the greater the difference between the "later learning" beliefs and the behaviors which come from the "earlier learning," the greater the personal discomfort. Some other dynamics are taking effect here:

A. people avoid discomfort,
B. denial is a common method of defending one's self from uncomfortable information, and
C. used behavioral responses tend to stay intact.

These factors when considered with the other factors of "earlier learning" result in a strong behavioral pattern which is resistant to change.

When one has an encounter with an individual from a group for which one has "earlier learned" prejudicial perceptions or reactions, the resulting perceptions and behavior is "prejudiced like" and in conflict with the individual's "later learned" beliefs and convictions. This behavior brings some level of attention to the internal conflict that exists between the "earlier learned" reactions and the "later learned" beliefs and convictions, and often results in an avoidance behavior to reduce the discomfort.

At the same time the avoidance reduces the discomfort, it also assures that the internal conflict is not examined or altered. Thus, because the behavior is practiced and then removed from awareness, any possible personal examination is avoided.

These two different prejudicial processes function differently from one another. If we are involved in reducing prejudicial behavior, we need to have a grasp of the differences between these two types of prejudices. Knowing the difference allows intervention in the most effective ways. While nearly all of us have grown up learning unintentional prejudices, fewer of us behave with intentional prejudices. Whereas a person who behaves from unintentional prejudices might also behave with intentional prejudices, most of us do not. On the other hand, those who behave with intentional prejudices nearly always behave with unintentional prejudices as well. Since these are different dynamics, knowing the difference is important in effectively confronting the problem behaviors.

  Unintentional Prejudice Intentional Prejudice
Time of Learning Early learning Later learning
Learning Process Passive acceptance of information Active learning process
Distribution in Population Almost universal Less common
Motivational Strength for prejudicial behavior Weak to none Strong
Maintenance Dynamics Lack of awareness
Practice without
Strong connection to personal identity
Respond to Political Changes No Yes
Conditions for Response When a person is
When a person feels threatened
Integration with Other

Not necessary
Possible vestigial behavior


Style of approaching world and environment
Response to Confrontation If behavior is in conflict with intentional beliefs, then guilt might result
Possible denial
Possible defensive reaction
No guilt
Possible denial
Possible defensive reaction
Recommended Treatment
or Intervention
Gently increase awareness through
Show acceptance for individual
Practice to create new habit responses
and new "self-talk"
Increase exposure to target group.
Intervention is extremely difficult
Often advisable to contain, limit or manage
the behavior
Very responsive to power figures
Change involves issues of self-worth, trust,
security, acceptance of ambiguity, and other
Very much like a personality disorder

Intentional Prejudicial Actions
People who behave in these ways are people who share some fundamental personality characteristics. They have generally had difficult childhoods, they seem to have had more physical punishment than most of us, they tend to have less trust in other people and they tend to have very little ability to place themselves into others' frames of reference. That is, they tend to be unable to empathize with other people’s feelings. They tend to see human relationships in terms of power and authority, they always remain on guard and they have a difficult time forming close relationships.

The intentional prejudicial response is a more integrated form of behavior. It has more purpose and is more an integral part of the individual’s identity. Acts of intentional prejudice are often planned. They are acts that are very much a part of the individual’s identity and are expressions of that identity. To the individual who is behaving through intentional acts of prejudice, the acts might be experienced as acts of defense --- acts that are needed to defend one’s identity and way of life.

Intentional prejudices are extremely difficult to change. The integrated nature of the response and the deep historical patterns in the development of the personality are both factors in this strong resistance to change.

When it becomes clear the behavior is from a person who is intentionally acting in a prejudiced way, it is a management problem, not a change issue. With the minority of people who behave in intentional ways to dehumanize others, it is not likely that supervisors can make much of a difference with any single interaction. These people’s behavior is rooted in early experience and is resistant to change. However, they do respond strongly to signals from those they see as having power. They are far more sensitive to small signals from an authority figure than most of us. These people tend to be extremely sensitive to who holds the power within an organization and will comply when it is clear to them what is expected and what will result from non-compliance. The flip-side of this was recently demonstrated when President Bush went to Japan with some strong words about the Japanese business people, and a Japanese-American businessman was killed in his home in Camarillo, California.

We need to educate our leaders to the power they hold for influencing people who are intentionally prejudiced. The power of authority and the authority figure are the only clear controls in restraining these people’s behavior. It also appears that the training methods that are the most effective in reducing the unintentional prejudical response will increase the strength of prejudicial behavior from those who are intentionally prejudiced.

Unintentional Prejudicial Actions
These types of actions do not allow the observer to really know the intentions of a person. They are actions that are automatic and not decided upon by the individual at the moment of behaving. They may be in agreement with or in disagreement with the individual’s intentions. Often, they are simple little slights that hurt deeply but are not more than nasty habits that date back to the person’s early childhood. To read intention into these acts risks the stimulation of guilt, denial and avoidance if the intention was not there in the first place. If the action was an intentional prejudicial act, then change is not likely through a simple confrontation.

With these situations it is far more likely to be helpful to assume the action was not intentional. By doing this, one can gently confront the behavior and not the person in a way that will tend to maintain the relationship. This will reduce the likelihood of stimulating guilt and avoidance.

One might respond: "For some people, words like those hold much power, and people experience them as painful or uncomfortable." Or, "I have repeatedly learned that what was once seen as not offensive is today seen as offensive. As we gain in our sensitivity to others, our language changes to reflect that sensitivity."

Often after an interaction of this type, the intention will be clear. If it is not clear, it is advisable to continue to assume that the behavior was unintentional. If the action was a simple remark, it may even be helpful to comment upon how language and meanings have been changing and we all need to change. Remarks of this type will allow the people who are not intentionally prejudiced to talk about their own experience and will bring them to greater awareness. This increased awareness will decrease the likelihood of the behavior continuing if the person is not intentionally prejudiced. If, on the other hand, the person is intentionally prejudiced, nothing has been lost.

By allowing other people the benefit of the doubt, we also allow them the freedom to change and explore new ways of behaving without needing to defend their old behavior.

Breaking The Patterns of Unintentional Prejudicial Behavior

In order to break this pattern of unintentional prejudicial behavior, there are a few things we
need to do:

• We need to remove the guilt factor so the process can be acknowledged and discussed. This in turn  reduces the denial factor.

• We need to develop an awareness of the dynamics which result in this behavior.

• We need to increase our association with those who might trigger our own unintentional prejudicial  response.

• We need to practice thinking non-prejudicial thoughts and executing non-prejudicial behaviors in  many settings and in many ways until they become automatic.

While these four steps may appear simple, there are other intervening dynamics which complicate the process. Just as there are dynamics that can be used to facilitate the process, there are also sub-steps and methods related to each of these four steps. For example, removing the guilt and the denial is often more complicated than it may appear.

Rationale for Programs to Reduce Prejudices

During the last two years, there has been strong research that provides solid supporting evidence for methods of reducing unintentional prejudice behavior. Upon a close examination of the research, I have concluded that there are many methods for reducing prejudices which have not been utilized. Given the effectiveness of such methods and the costs of prejudices in terms of lives, health, safety, wasted talent, comfort and money, it seems negligent and irresponsible not to pursue these training programs. It seems that all people who supervise other employees, or who work with students, or patients, or the public, need to have training to reduce their tendency toward unintentional prejudices.

If we can expect some employees to know cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) because they are likely to be able to save a life at some time, it seems reasonable to require training that will reduce unintentional prejudices. The people of African ancestry in our country have an average life expectancy that is six years shorter than the white population, and many of the causes of death can be seen as prejudicial.

It is my suggestion that prejudices within an organization are most effectively approached by a group of individuals who are rich in their own diversity. Any group of people who do not represent a wide cross section of the population will have less credibility. It needs to be repeatedly shown that this is a people problem, not a problem that belongs to one race, sex or other subgroup of humanity.

A group of employees or students are not as likely to introduce a successful program to reduce unintentional prejudice behavior within an institution without an acknowledgment of their own unintentional prejudices. With such an acknowledgment, they are not putting themselves above others but stating that
"we all have prejudices to overcome." By doing this, they focus on reducing their own prejudices and more effectively invite others to join them in the effort. It is likely that any group trying to reduce other people’s prejudices without acknowledging their own will have much less credibility.

Allport, Gordon (1954), The Nature of Prejudice. Addison Wesley Publishing Company

Combs, Arthur (1971), Helping Relationships: Basic Concepts for the Helping Professions. Allyn andBacon , Inc.

Devine, Patricia G. (1989),"Stereotypes and Prejudice: Their Automatic and Controlled Components" Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 56 No.1, 5-18

Devine, Patricia G.& Monteith, Margo J. & Zuwerink, J. R. & Elliot, A. J. (1991),
"Prejudice With and Without Compunction," Journal of Personality and Social Psychology,
Vol. 60 No. 6, 817-830

Gaertner, Samuel L. & Dovidio, John F. (1986), "The Aversive Form of Racism," In Gaertner, S. L. & Dovidio, J. F (Eds.), Prejudice, Discrimination, and Racism (pp 61-89). San Diego, CA: Academic Press.

Gazda, G.M., Asbry, F.S., Balzer, F.J., Childers, W.C., Walters, R.P.,(1984), Human Relations Development: A Manual for Educators, Third Edition, Allyn and Bacon , Inc.

Pedersen, Paul B. (1977), "The Triad Model of Cross-Cultrural Counselor Training" Personnel and Guidance Journal, Vol. 56, 94-100

Pedersen, Paul B. (1978), "Four Dimensions of Cross-Cultural Skill in Counseling Training" Personnel and Guidance Journal, Vol. 56, 480-484

Pedersen, Paul B. (1988), A Handbook For Developing Multicultural Awareness, American Association for Counseling and Development

Rosenthal, Robert (1968), Pygmalion in The Classroom, Holt Rinehart and Winston, Inc. Wade, Priscilla & Bernstein, Bianca (1991), "Culture Sensitivity Training and Counselor's Race: Effects on Black Female Clients' Perceptions and Attrition" Journal of Counseling Psychology Vol. 38 #1 pages 9-15

Since this paper was written Dr. Cole has written a paper on understanding the strongly prejudiced personality. You may download that paper by clicking here.

Click here to return to the Beyond Prejudice home page, or write to jimcole@beyondprejudice.com

Understanding Prejudicial Behavior

Who Can Reduce Prejudicial Behavior

Reducing Prejudices within an Organization

Some Impacts of Prejudicial Behavior

Assessing Your Knowledge of Prejudices

Myths, FAQ, Alerts, ect.

Some Dynamics of Prejudicial Behavior

Assessing Your Own Prejudices

Our Connection to Others, the Earth and Future

Publications,Training Materials and Workshops

Reducing Your Prejudicial Behavior

Contacts and Credits