A Cognitive Explanation for Prejudiced Behavior

A Cognitive Explanation for Prejudiced Behavior

This article uncovers the cognitive sources (specifically those buried within the subconscious) of prejudiced behavior. Through the analysis of prominent experiments and theories in social psychology, we can understand the relationship between human cognition, social identity, and prejudiced behavior.



Throughout modern history, prejudice has been one of the most common characteristics of human social behavior. Defined by renowned psychologist Gordon Allport as “an antipathy based on faulty and inflexible generalization” (The Nature of Prejudice, 1954), prejudice has plagued human society in its extremist forms of social and structural discrimination, often based on race, sex, and nationality. However, for such a fundamental human characteristic, the cognitive sources of partisan behavior are still very much misunderstood or, perhaps even more so, not understood at all. This article questions if prejudiced behavior always caused by specific circumstances of group conflict or if it’s instead an inevitable result of human social cognition. 


Although most societal divisions are rooted in complex social structures built around group tension, there is always an overlooked element; the widespread implicit bias that is unnoticed by the beholders yet has immense impacts on their treatment of others. In the context of Western society, this would account for those who do not identify as racist yet would subconsciously treat a white stranger differently than a black one. This implicit bias is often created and amplified by societal circumstances yet displayed only on the subconscious level, making it perhaps the purest form of socially-learned prejudice. Therefore, the following research is based on the conclusion that subliminal bias is the deepest form of prejudice and thus deserves the most focus when studying human social cognition.


Social Identity Theory

One theory that begins to explain the cognitive sources of prejudice is the Social Identity Theory (Turner, Tajfel 1979). This theory states that human beings are naturally a “pattern recognition species,” meaning our ability to distinguish between objects, situations, and environments is a functional cognitive process necessary for our survival. However, in the context of societal perception, this tendency causes us to mentally categorize civilization into easily identifiable groups, allowing us to quickly recognize others and more comfortably understand a complex world varied with cultures (Turner, Tajfel 1969). 


This mental process alone is natural and unavoidable to anyone who attempts to understand the complexities of society. However, it lays the foundation for stereotyping and making prejudgments, which often result in biases that guide our behavior as we navigate through social situations (Turner, Tajfel 1969). This prejudiced behavior, though incredibly dangerous, exists within everyone who has assumptions about those belonging to other, distant social groups. However, I argue that these tendencies do not truly reach a detrimental and avoidable level until they lead to ethnocentrism and a sense of supremacy. 


In the 1998 academic journal, Intergroup Relations, Marilynn Brewer and Rupert Brown proposed an elaboration to Social Identity Theory. They agreed that individuals have a natural tendency to categorize our society, but they believed that this process is not just to create a sense of understanding; it is to reinforce a sense of self-worth. As social identity theory foreshadowed, this elaboration asserts that the mental categorization of society naturally motivates individuals to perceive their identity as superior by degrading their image of out-groups. This process ultimately fulfills the human psychological needs for a sense of both social understanding and positive self-image (Brewer, Brown 1998). In practice, this mental process takes the form of discrimination and other behavior that is hatefully prejudiced. 


Realistic Conflict Theory

This notion that prejudiced behavior is caused primarily by the subconscious may be an oversimplification, according to many social psychologists. One such dissident is Muzafer Sherif, a famous social psychologist widely credited for our current psychological understanding of group membership and social identity. His view, as outlined in his Realistic Conflict Theory (Sherif, 1954, 1958, 1961), is that prejudice derives from natural situations of inter group conflict which activate senses of competition. He supported this theory in his famous experiment known widely as “The Robbers Cave Experiment” (Sherif, 1954, 1958, 1961). 


The Robber’s Cave Experiment intended to simulate natural group conflict by pitting two randomly-assigned groups of twelve-year-old American boys (all of whom were from similar mid-Western Protestant backgrounds) in a competition for limited amounts of resources (prizes). The boys, after initially arriving at Robbers Cave State Park, were encouraged to bond with their group-mates while not being informed of another group. As hypothesized, the two groups developed their own cultures and group identities within the first week. This process reinforces the notion that humans naturally seek a secure sense of belonging. 


The experiment then entered the “competition stage,” when the two groups were introduced to each other and tasked to compete through a series of competitive activities such as baseball and tug-of-war. Sherif meticulously devised the situations to be as competitive as possible. For example, one event awarded the winning team a trophy while the losing team had to delay their arrival to the next day’s picnic. These guidelines encouraged division among the boys, as was soon displayed through the aggressive behavior that followed. Within weeks, the groups had created defensive flags and mottoes, most of which based on their shared hatred of the other group. Within days, the groups became so aggressive and violent so that they were physically separated. During the “cool down” period, the boys were asked to list some perceived characteristics of the two groups. Predictably, the boys overwhelmingly characterized their in-group as highly superior, while describing the out-group as objectively inferior.


Despite the many flaws in the execution of The Robber’s Cave Experiment, including the deliberate creation of a competitive environment, this experiment is widely hailed as the foundation of modern social psychology. Besides supposedly confirming Sherif’s Realistic Conflict Theory, this study also proves the ideas of Social Identity Theory (Turner, Tajfel, 1969) by showing the quick development of social identity and passionate division between the groups before they had even entered the competition phase. The boys were all presumably mentally healthy; yet, their immediate reaction to categorization was creating a perceived superiority complex that favored the individual’s in-group – further confirming that prejudice is the natural and inevitable result of human social cognition. 



Concluding Thoughts

This combination of societal categorization, human insecurity, and cultural bias may be the ultimate psychological causes of prejudice, both implicit and blatant. Therefore, the study of social psychology, along with thousands of years of segregation, prejudice, and racism across all cultures, tells us that the phenomena of prejudice is, although often encouraged by specific situations of group tension or competition, ultimately an inevitable result of the human social cognition. From the knowledge acquired from my research, we can conclude that the underlying cause of prejudice is rooted in our overwhelming desire for a sense of belonging (Turner, Tajfel, 1969); a characteristic which has historically been the sole cause of both devout unity and violent segregation within societies. As we feel a stronger sense of belonging in our group, there arises a stronger sense of fear, detachment, and competition against those who do not share our identity. This process results in a divisive internal narrative that allows people to vent their complex frustration into easy targets and, in the process, making them feel more confident in their own group and themselves (Brewer, Brown 1998). This natural prejudice is then amplified by situations of competition and tension (Sherif, 1954, 1958, 1961), causing discrimination and often violence.




Works Cited 


Allport, Gordon W., et al. The Nature of Prejudice. Addison-Wesley, 1954. Print.


Cuhadar, E., & Dayton, B. (2011). The Social Psychology of Identity and Inter-group Conflict: From Theory to Practice. International Studies Perspectives, 12(3), 273–293. 


Brewer, M. B., & Brown, R. J. (1998). Intergroup relations. In D. T. Gilbert, S. T. Fiske, & G. Lindzey (Eds.), The handbook of social psychology (pp. 554-594). New York, NY, US: McGraw-Hill.


Bernardo, F., & Palma-Oliveira, J.-M. (2016). Identification with the neighborhood: Discrimination and neighborhood size. Self & Identity, 15(5), 579–598. 


McLeod, S. A. (2008). Robbers cave. Retrieved from 


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