Prejudice - psychology and stereotypes

Prejudice - psychology and stereotypes

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"People are bad at recognizing lies" (Victoria Rubin). Social psychology views prejudice as a generalized attitude towards a group of people, a person, but also the subject of a discussion or an object, which is neither based on source analysis nor on real experience and is not critically examined.

In the literal sense, it is a preliminary judgment. The person concerned therefore makes a judgment before he is able to do so. This judgment can be positive or negative. In common usage, however, we use the term prejudice for negative ratings. These can have serious consequences for the objects of prejudice - right up to the pogrom.

The negative prejudice

In the older literature, the view was directed towards negative prejudice, i.e. the hostile attitude towards a person who belongs to a group, or to whom the prejudiced person assigned this group only because he assigned the victim to this group. The victim should then have all the negative qualities that people attribute to the prejudice of the group - how the victim behaves in real does not matter.

The negative prejudice is aimed at groups that are “socially undesirable” - namely, those who have the prejudice, stir up or spread it. The hallmark of this prejudice is its stability. It is a negative attitude that the one who has it maintains even if his real experiences contradict it.

Psychological explanations

In the course of working through the Nazi era, the paradigm of the 1950s focused on the authoritarian character. This authoritarian personality therefore longs for a strong leader and is afraid of everything that penetrates her small world. Solid external structures are vital to such people because they feel empty and insecure internally.

They project their own insecurity and their negatively split sides onto groups of people who they see as "foreign". They are afraid of having experiences that may exceed their narrow limits. That is why they do not get to know “foreign people” as individuals. A new experience that would change them scares them.

This approach made black pedagogy, i.e. the authoritarian upbringing of parents and teachers, responsible for such prejudiced personalities.

Own and foreign group

Later, well into the 1970s, the focus was on the socio-cultural perspective. Social norms were now considered essential for the development of prejudices.

Then the research focused on the dynamics between groups and group conflicts. The point here was that prejudices do not develop primarily from a fearful-authoritarian personality, but rather in order to achieve a status in the "we" group that is directed against a "die" group.

Classical for such prejudices would be, for example, wars between youth gangs in different parts of the city, which “objectively viewed” have neither a purpose nor a reason, but are characterized by real hatred for each other - which in retrospect the participants themselves regard as ridiculous.

Prejudices in this sense would be unconsciously rational. The own gang gives belonging, conveys strength and mutual help in the group. This is then defined by the devaluation of other gangs as a unique selling point. The rejection of the members of the other group is real - it makes them a prejudice.

Shift of the "We" group

This approach goes into the cognitive explanation. As a result, the “minimal group paradigm” is sufficient, ie the separation between “ingroup” and “outgroup” to defame the “outgroup”. The construction of a social identity alone is therefore sufficient to develop prejudices that can lead to an active attack on the outgroup.

More recently, the social psychologist Harald Welzer using the example of the persecution of Jews and extermination in the Third Reich has shown that a shift in the "we group" can lead to unimaginable crimes.

So the Nazis first constructed the "German community" and then systematically excluded the Jews from this "community". While Jewish Germans weren't even strangers, they were now made others.

It started with the Nazis blocking Jewish shops, Jews were no longer allowed to work at universities and had to wear a yellow star. Then the regime confiscated their assets and confiscated their houses, preparing to dehumanize them - so that after years of gradual exclusion from the "we group" they could be destroyed.

Symbolic racism

In the 1980s, the theory of symbolic racism picked up on hidden prejudices and recognized them especially in Western societies. The core of the theory was that open prejudices, especially racist and anti-Semitic, were outlawed after 1945.

In Western societies, which consider freedom and equality to be self-evident, openly expressed prejudices and thus devaluations of social minorities are suppressed.

Rather, prejudices are primarily expressed subtly or placed in a context that purports to defend freedom and equality.

Covert anti-Semitism

However, since they continued to exist, they continued to work concealed. Thus, anti-Semites hardly exposed their hatred of Jews openly, but shifted stereotypes of hostility towards Jews to the state of Israel or "the Zionists".

The anti-Jewish core became clear when constructs such as the “money Jew who sucks the world out” were projected onto Jewish organizations in the USA or the State of Israel.

A typical example of such hidden prejudices today is the xenophobia disguised as "Islam criticism" against people who have a background from the countries of the Middle East. This lends itself to hidden prejudices, since religious criticism of anti-enlightenment ideas and actions has a rule of law and civilized character.

Criticism of Islam or xenophobia

In addition, a criticism of Islam that means a real and concrete criticism is very justified. In contrast to crimes alleged by German Jews, Islamist terrorist attacks are just as much a reality as an extremely dangerous Islamic variant of fascism and Islamic legal concepts that are incompatible with a bourgeois-democratic order.

Right-wing Muslim haters have nothing to do with education and criticism of religion. Kay Sokolowsky writes: “The xenophobia that manifests itself here is old. What is new are the sham enlightened reasons with which he started himself. A perfidious trick that, at first glance, makes it look like there is nothing to do with xenophobia that the Muslim haters are doing. "

He also explains why people who have prejudices against fellow citizens from the Middle East present themselves today as "Islam critics": "It is not socially acceptable to rush against" the caraway Turks "," the camel drivers "or" the garlic eaters ". So the xenophobes switch to abusive words like “Mohammedan”, “Musel” or “Kulturricherer”. “

As is generally the case with prejudice, resentment is shown here by the fact that it is not about concrete acts or organizations that could be the subject of well-founded criticism. Sokolowsky writes: “If those who build Muslims on the enemy are really only warning of fanatic Islamists, they would not generally assume that every person who has Turkish or Arab parents is a potential suicide bomber, an“ honor killer ”or a pioneer of Sharia law in Germany."

Prejudice equals discrimination?

Prejudice is an attitude, a discrimination, an action. Discrimination arises (also) from prejudice. Discriminatory behavior means unequal treatment of people and groups of people because they belong to this social group.

This behavior includes open abuse and insults, as well as physical violence, the deprivation of rights, unequal payment, bans on exits, tightened police surveillance, the need to justify the authorities or boycotting businesses.

Prejudice and society

Prejudices are not independent of their society, on the contrary: They can only be determined in the interplay of the ideas of morality and ethics defined in a society. In this sense, prejudices discriminate against social groups or even construct social groups that differ from the norms of this society.

The less a society and the people in this society are willing or able to accept pluralism, the more rigorously it will fight diversity. Conversely, the more a society allows education and open discussion, the less space it offers for prejudice.

The witch trials of the early modern period were a dark example of the power of prejudice that becomes legal. From today's perspective, not only were all those convicted innocent for the key points of the indictment: no one can conclude a pact with a fantasy figure like the devil or conjure up thunderstorms. They were also literally victims of prejudice because their "guilt" was clear before the verdict - it was just a matter of torturing a confession out of them.

In other words, prejudices do not necessarily presuppose a certain authoritarian character, but often only represent the norm of a society, a religious community or an ideological group.

Pluralism versus prejudice?

Pluralism, self-reflection and enlightenment counteract prejudices sensibly, as the history of ideas in modern European times shows. Scientifically empirical methods, yes scientific thinking itself, are clearly directed against prejudices, but require evidence and evidence.

Traditional blindness, on the other hand, encourages prejudice. The more a person is arrested in traditions and the more important they are for his self-definition, the more difficult it will be for him to relearn. This is particularly important if the norms of a society mean privileges and dominance for those affected.

Lies directed of interest

It is difficult to tell here whether it is really a question of prejudice, that is, of actual beliefs, or of propaganda that justifies one's own status. For example, if someone says "women can't work at the police" because he, as a policeman, sees them as competitors, but knows very well that they can work just as well as he does, it's not a prejudice, but a lie to secure your position.

Social psychologists speak of "interest-based lies". These in turn work best if they build on existing prejudices.

The other's perspective

It is difficult for everyone to break down prejudices against other people. The better someone has learned and is willing to critically examine their own judgments for their reality, to admit that they are wrong and to understand each other's perspective, the better they can overcome prejudices.

Role-playing games, for example, make it possible to understand someone else's perspective, their experiences and feelings.

Studies have shown that personal contacts only break down prejudices if those involved want to cooperate and receive social support.
Added to this is the familiarization effect, which, however, primarily causes existing attitudes to polarize.

The re-categorization is more complex. It requires active participation to consciously change social categories. Instead of stuffing the others into a generalized category like Muslim, Dutch or women, the individuality of the other comes to the fore.


Stereotypes denote fixed norms that order the outside world in templates. A stereotype is not very much in line with reality. Stereotypes can be socially divided, we then speak of cultural stereotypes. But they can also be seen in individuals.

The human brain automatically creates stereotypes. It creates abstract images of objects, living beings and also of groups of people. These can even take the form of symbols.

The memory connects patterns conveyed through education and society and own experiences to associations. However, these patterns themselves are not yet the stereotype, but the stereotype is the overall judgment of these associations.

Pars per toto

Conversely, the brain can also design a "pars pro toto" and equate the associations with a member of a group (including an imagined group) with the group as a whole. A particularly primitive stereotype is formed, for example, when I am on vacation in Hungary, a man jostles in the supermarket, and then I think "Hunger steal in the supermarket".

Package tourism lives on such stereotypes and an essential segment of exotic trivial literature: When the package tourist in Spain thinks of sun, sea and flamenco, the tour operator ensures that an "authentic flamenco group" appears in the hotel.

The function of stereotypes

The problem with stereotypes is that they have a function in our thinking. Our brain forms associative networks, patterns in the synapses, which it activates to offer us an orientation in the world. It is not critical whether these associations correspond to external reality.

Stereotypes offer psychological security

Rather, it is crucial that these “storylines” give us a coordinate system that prevents us from falling into confusion. Every ethnologist knows the trauma of field research, i.e. the psychological state of emergency, when he engages in a different culture and certain certainties collapse.

These phases are associated with mental disorientation and show up in the short term with the symptoms of mental disorders: These include hallucinations, at least mild psychoses, anxiety, helplessness and even dissociations - up to a temporary loss of feeling for time and space.

The ethnologist also suffers a culture shock when he returns to his country of origin. The formerly familiar appears strange, the more foreign is trusted.

Brain research today assumes that attributes that are assigned to a certain group are established as so-called nodes in the synapses, and the connections between these nodes suggest similarity, strangeness, intensity and emotional quality. The evaluation then follows from this.

Categories and stereotypes

Our brain forms categories by sorting certain associations according to similarities and differences. Without such a classification, we as human beings could not move in the world.

So we identify social stimuli and assign them to “similar” social stimuli. The more comprehensive the category is, the more likely stereotypes are formed. The less we differentiate, the more specific information is lost.

Thinking in stereotypes has the advantage that it is quick. We have to absorb and process much less information, we have to think less and can therefore act faster.

The problem of today's society for the formation of categories in the brain is its complexity. We are all supplied with infinitely more information on the Internet than people were two or three generations ago.

Our brain cannot design an infinite number of subcategories to process all this information in a differentiated manner. To maintain the coordinate system, the easiest way is to reduce complexity and generalize into simpler categories.

Each group forms stereotypes

Most prejudice researchers today assume that the individual learns the stereotypes of his social group and that every social group forms stereotypes. However, the individual decides how much it gives way to these stereotypes: stereotypes in a group do not automatically mean that every individual in this group discriminates against people in other groups or forms prejudices.

A crucial factor here is probably whether or not individual curiosity is encouraged. In this way, an individual who grows up with the stereotypes of his group can develop a curiosity about what the reality of others is like.

If, however, the fear is imprinted on the individual that the monsters lurk “outside”, he will regard every trip to the next small town as a way to hell.

Some scientists do not see the stereotypes as such as responsible for negative prejudices, but how to deal with them. Studies suggest that people with low prejudices against “foreign groups” activate both positive and negative stereotypes, while people with high prejudices only show negative stereotypes.

Fake news

Fake is the English word for fake. Fake news is therefore fake news, in the sense that it pretends to provide real information, even though the "news" is made up.

They have always been among the instruments of propaganda, be it in politics, in business or in war. In business, this includes beautiful statistics, in politics, false statements about the success of one's own party and a denial of the success of others.

In war, fake news has always served to weaken the enemy's morale and strengthen that of one's own group. Fake news goes into the construction of enemy images: The enemy must no longer have anything human, he becomes a monster that commits all possible atrocities. The enemy's fighters are sneaky murderers, their own fighters glorious heroes.

Today's fake news can be distinguished from classic "newspaper ducks", miserable research or unclear representations. Whoever publishes fake news is not a journalist who messes up at work, but someone who deliberately spreads falsehoods.

Warfare on the Internet

Mass-generated fake news on social media is a form of journalistic warfare. If readers can no longer distinguish serious research from manipulation and lies, every lie can be brought to the people.

Spreading fake news on social networks has a huge advantage for the liars. Clicking and sharing a text is quick - the discussion about it is usually superficial. However, clarifying it as a fake message requires reference to reputable sources and requires time, energy and work.

In the meantime, the fake news broadcaster has already spread further counterfeits, and the reputable journalist is chasing after again.

Fake news is spreading in the information society. The variety of information also offers a paradise for manipulation and disinformation.

Why do fake news work?

Almost all people in industrialized countries now have access to the Internet. However, very few of them develop media literacy.

The variety of information hides the fact that people can therefore no longer handle information better than before the internet: posting 20 political articles on Facebook a day does not replace political studies.

In fact, the opposite is often the case. Even in humanities courses in which students should learn to deal critically with texts, students often first go to Google instead of independently discussing the seminar text: Reflected homework on Nietzsche thus becomes a copy and paste of everything about Nietzsche at Google can be found.

However, what already applies to those who actually learn their expertise in text analysis applies even more to people who do not have these technical approaches.

But what do fake news have to do with prejudice? Very much. Those who wallow in their negative prejudices and are either not able to reflect them or have no interest in them, get exactly the "information" on the Internet that confirms these prejudices.

Typical fake news

Then he or she is well served with fake messages. Typical fake news in recent years is directed against refugees in general or specifically against Muslims who are not perceived as human individuals by people who have specifically negative prejudices.

It does not matter for fake news consumers whether someone whose father is a Muslim (Islam does not know baptism) is fighting for IS or fleeing IS. It doesn't even matter whether he or she defines himself as a Muslim at all.

This fake news, which is essentially directed against Muslims and refugees, includes that the Berlin Senate supposedly wants to ban Christmas (out of respect for Muslims). This fake news corresponds to the stereotype of Islamization in Germany, in which Muslims would replace Christian festivals with Islamic ones.

Then again, refugees from Pakistan are said to have raped a woman in Teltow in January 2016. Although the police publicly state that this crime never happened, right-wing populists continue to spread it.

Or they claim that the police would deny the incident, citing alleged conversations with police officers who allegedly assure them of this or avoid the fact that such rapes by "Muslim hordes" occur daily in Germany. None of this is true, but the agitators are also indifferent.

Dramatic design

Fake news can be easily recognized with dramatic presentation and obvious illogic. "Merkel's RAPEFUGEES rape children !!!!!!!!!!" already shows in the polemical structure that it is not serious news. Even unknown or no authors, unnamed witnesses, fictitious places, "statistics" with dubious sources are indications.

The Internet meanwhile blurs the definition of what fake news is. Classic newspapers like Süddeutsche, however, still strictly separate messages and comments. However, such a separation can never be made one hundred percent in realitas.

Every message means that the journalist selects information, and even established journalists often do not use words accurately. When I quote a politician in a message, for example, is ... means or ... already believes an assessment. The message is ... says.

Outside of the gray area of ​​subjective assessments, however, there are very clear fake news: fake news is news whose subject matter does not correspond to reality. When I write: There was a truck accident on the A2 with 3 deaths, and there was no such accident, that's a fake report.

Demagogues, willing executors and gullible

Far from the Internet, fake news is ancient. They derive their meaning from the rumor that is made a fact. This distinguishes those who invent the rumor because it serves their interests from those who believe it because it conforms to their prejudices and those who believe it because they are gullible.

There is no question of prejudice among the gullible. In this way, people also spread fake news about fictitious rape of "German women" by refugees who do not share negative prejudices against refugees, but are afraid of rape.

The fake news distributors are specifically trying to stir up such fears. However, those affected usually react in shock when they learn that the source of the article they are disseminating is from neo-Nazis.

The website collects such rumors and links to newspaper articles that refute these rumors based on information from the police.

The spread of the fake news, which is directed against refugees or generally against "strangers", run through well-networked groups that create memes and fake screenshots. They are often easy to recognize because they not only throw "alternative facts" onto the Internet, but also use "alternative terms" such as "rapefugees", "asylum seekers", "Merkel's specialists" or "social tourists".

Emotions ensure clicks

The Internet makes it possible to spread negative prejudices en masse because the “in group” for confirming the prejudices is becoming much larger than before. Virtual reality also allows the prejudice to be exposed less to reality than before.

For example, it's easy to say "I was there" and before the evidence comes up that this was a lie, the next ten claims are out.

Images can lie particularly well, especially with fake news. So people with an "Arab appearance" are simply posted to pictures of the terrorist attacks in Berlin or Brussels, although they have nothing to do with it.

In social media, polarizing posts cause more reactions than factual ones, and therefore fake news spreads explosively on Facebook. The heat of the discussion has nothing to do with the truth of a report.

Social media spread prejudice

For people who cultivate their negative prejudices, false reports are on the contrary a hanger to confirm themselves virtually. They are not looking for dialogue, but for exchanging blows. The more "food" they have against the opponent, the better.

They don't care whether they post satire (mostly badly made), fake news or real reports. It is only a matter of putting your own narrative in the foreground.

Counter notices are less popular. The fake news that the Pope supported Trump was posted 800,000 times, but the correction was only 33,000 times.

Rumors that turn fake news have more than just virtual consequences. For example, a 13-year-old Russian German claimed that she had raped three “southern countries”. There was even a saber-rattling with the Russian government, which itself spreads fake news on Russia Today.

When the girl admitted to inventing the rape, the xenophobes on Facebook said that the police had forced her to do so, or that the correction of the girl herself was fake news.

The AfD in particular systematically uses falsified reports among the political parties. Frauke Petry, for example, claimed that the Free University of Dresden prohibited its employees from participating in Pegida marches.

While AfD politicians lie as if they were printed, they also call the established press a blanket of lies, and since the AfD voters want to have their prejudices confirmed, it is of no interest that Petry had to write a cease-and-desist declaration about her lie about TU Dresden.

How can you tell lies?

There is little certainty in psychology to recognize lies. Common features of widespread fake news can be found: Those who stir up rumors do not want to provide factual information, but rather whisper their interests.

Fake news is therefore often suggestive. They stage threat scenarios, for example according to the motto "if millions of refugees come every year, there will be 20 million Muslims in Germany in 2030 and Sharia will rule us ..." There is not even any evidence of a suggested future and no studies whatsoever allow this forecast.

They not only accuse their opponents of minor motives, but also make them responsible for crimes: "The good people who pamper refugees are responsible for the rape by the rapefugees". This has as little to do with an opinion as with a factual comment.

It is a little more difficult to expose fake news that uses historical events in the guise of pseudoscience to supposedly reliably protect their agitation. Scenarios such as “1400 years of Islam means 270 million deaths” are typical.

It is a perverse ranking to oppose the 6 million Jews murdered by the Nazis over 40 times as many supposed victims of "Islam". The pages that distribute this “news” usually also contain revision of history about the Nazi-led World War II and relativizations of the Shoah.

However, such fake news is also evidence of negative prejudices due to the sprawling size of the categories, which no longer allows differentiation. (Dr. Utz Anhalt)

Author and source information

This text corresponds to the specifications of the medical literature, medical guidelines and current studies and has been checked by medical doctors.

Dr. phil. Utz Anhalt, Barbara Schindewolf-Lensch


  • Anita Karsten: Prejudice - Results of Psychological and Social Psychological Research, Darmstadt Verlag, 1978
  • Badi Panahi: Prejudices, Racism, Anti-Semitism, Nationalism in the Federal Republic Today, Fischer Verlag, 1980
  • Anton Pelinka: prejudices. Origins, forms, meaning, De Gruyter Verlag, 2012
  • Max Horkheimer: About prejudice, VS Verlag für Sozialwissenschaften, 1963

Video: Stop Stereotyping (July 2022).


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