So stereotypes and prejudices fulfil an individual as well as a social

Stereotypes and prejudices
Stereotypes serve the purpose of characterizing an object, person or group. A prejudice is a judgement
that is pronounced without real information or experience. Both stereotypes and prejudices fulfil the
function of psychologically averting insecurity and threat. By applying them the world seems to become
more manageable and less complex. They convey a feeling of security for one’s own actions.
Furthermore, they can help to improve the self-esteem and at times serve as a socially accepted way of
channelling aggression. They relieve our conscience, because by applying them we do not have to
constantly re-evaluate and reinterpret situations and people.
So stereotypes and prejudices fulfil an individual as well as a social function. They are by definition most
resistant to changes, because changes affect the structure of the personality. In short: They have the
function of taking the load of responsibility off people, they steer our perception in a certain direction
and thereby prevent us from making new experiences. Those who are prone to prejudices on principle
avoid contact with the object of their prejudices. An anti-Semite will avoid getting acquainted with Jews;
a racist won’t be sociable with foreigners. Stereotypes and prejudices are like furnishings of our home,
our philosophy, which we have grown fond of and which we don’t want to replace or even to rearrange
anymore. Prejudices serve the purpose of quick and reliable orientation in a socially complex
environment and convey the feeling of a sense of belonging to a certain social group. When people
meet, they become aware of each other. Research in the area of social psychology proves that in
meeting someone we go beyond our actual perceptions and unconsciously draw conclusions on further
unverifiable personal qualities of the other. An example to illustrate this point would be that from
momentary facial expressions (mimics), we deduce certain moods or even personality traits. To these
imaginary qualities read from the mimics of the other person other personality traits, fitting the first
impression are then added; qualities that do not fit the picture are simply excluded. We tend to avoid
people we have (pre)judged negatively and will help and assist those we like and sympathise with (vgl.
Herkner 2008, S.228).
So we are classifying while we are perceiving. For many of us it is enough to classify someone as being
an American, German or Italian from the way he/she looks to then draw conclusions on his/her
character without having the least personal information on the now categorised individual.
The insinuated general character traits of the category American/German/Italian are transferred to the
individual. In this case we are talking about prejudices and stereotypes. A short quote in this context:
„According to the theory of social identity of Taifel, the noticeable behaviour of a person is classified as
determined by the group rather than the individual.” Members of a group of strangers are not perceived
individually but are rather categorised according to the behaviour that is said to be typical for this
particular group.
„In this way the behaviour which was originally perceived individually is classified as being typical for the
group and is depersonalised and as a result perceived as being standardised and uniform.” To give an
example, Germans tend to regard (all) Italians as being unreliable, unpredictable and volatile, whereas
in contemplation of their fellow Germans they are well capable of a clear and distinguished
differentiation between reliable and unreliable individuals. „If we perceive the foreigner as part of a
group which we want to differentiate from other groups, we classify him/her not as a member of this
group but as pertaining to a certain unified social category.” (Thomas 1991, P.11)
As is often the case in social sciences, there is no unambiguous definition. Simply said, stereotypes are
generalising, simplifying and cliché-like ideas/beliefs, which, according to the Handbook of Psychology,
refer to the cognitive spheres of the brain. Prejudices on the other hand are preconceived judgements,
accompanied by positive or negative emotions, and are resistant to change. They are also resistant to
information; more so the stronger the emotions are involved. Stereotypes and prejudices are „mental
drawers”; they facilitate our finding of (alleged) orientation. They are not the exception but rather the
rule and are part of the human “basic equipment.”
What we can change are the contents. Against whom or what our prejudices and stereotypes are
directed depends on the historical experiences, socialisation, the geographic position, and other factors.
Assessments of one and the same issue/group may shift after changes in the social circumstances. This
also means that people are manipulable in regard to their
social attitudes/stereotypes and prejudices. These manipulated attitudes may lead to or increase
tensions and conflicts between social groups and can even result in armed conflicts.
Ethnic stereotypes are part of the value system of every culture, every society, and every ethnicity. Their
social function is to outline and stabilise the specific group. They keep the group grounded. People who
suffer from poor self-esteem use prejudices to get rid of fears and insecurity and to fulfil the need for
security and orientation.
Now, we could be led to believe that the more we get into contact with other people, cultural/ethnic
groups, the more true the information we get and the more authentic the experiences we can make. As
a result nationalistic tendencies, stereotypes and prejudices would have to decrease. The truth is that
contact alone is not a decisive factor for improving the relationship between groups. It takes a desire for
understanding for the contact to drive through the prejudices and stereotypes. The motivation to reach
this insight is the first step to soften stereotypes and prejudices. The discussion on stereotypes and
prejudices in pedagogic contexts is often moralising and preachy. Prejudices unmistakably have a negative connotation: they are not meant to be. As a result of this participants in educational training
measures often yield to the official maxim, that prejudices are bad and show acceptance and
understanding when voicing their opinion, their inner beliefs and convictions will however not change
so easily.
This signifies for international encounters: Every individual needs an orientation system in this highly
complex world. This orientation system affects our thinking, acting, feeling and perceiving. It is imparted
to us in the course of our socialisation. The system comprises prejudices and stereotypes and conveys a
“we-sense”, a sense of belonging. In this sense the orientation system (culture) is no constant but
subject to historical and social changes, which have to be understood as an effect of social manipulation.
As mentioned before prejudices and stereotypes are a constant in the human value system. Instead of
fighting prejudices and stereotypes, we should focus on helping the affected to understand where
prejudices and stereotypes come from and which functions they have for oneself and the society.
The realisation of these coherences leads to a raised awareness of the correlations and this can be the
basis for positive changes in the relationships. This is no pleading for purely cognitive learning processes,
because it would contradict the realisation that prejudices are resistant to instruction. What is needed
are creative methods, which pay tribute to the emotional needs of those affected. Learning processes,
especially intercultural learning processes, which do not take the fears and insecurities of those
addressed seriously and brush those fears under the carpet as immoral, are counterproductive.
Friesenhahn, G J.: Stereotipi, Meccanismi di Difesa e Interventi Educativi. In: Negrini, Angelo (a cura): Migrazioni in
Europa e Formazione Interculturale, Bologna 1997, P.45-55
Herkner, W.: Lehrbuch Sozialpsychologie, Bern 2008.
Lipiansky, M.: Heißt interkulturelle Ausbildung Bekämpfung von Vorurteilen? Bad Honnef 1996 (Arbeitstext 14 des
Deutsch-Französischen Jugendwerkes)
Thomas, A.: Abbau von Vorurteilen und internationale Jugendbegegnungen – von der Kontakthypothese zur
Theorie der Intergruppenbeziehungen. In: Studienkreis für Tourismus (Hrsg.): Jahrbuch für Jugendreisen und
internationalen Jugendaustausch, Bonn 1991, P. 5-14
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