Is Prejudice Inevitable?

Deirdre Ronan

Reading Time: 6 minutes

Myers and Twenge define prejudice as ‘a preconceived negative judgement of a group and its individual members’. Crandall, Eshleman and O’Brien describe Piaget’s theory regarding children’s development of moral reasoning. They report that initially moral reasoning is ‘characterised by a sense that external rules are sacred, and if something brings about punishment then it’s wrong’. They go on to say that moral reasoning ‘is “subject to one’s own law”, when the child internalises fundamental basic norms and makes them his or her own.’ They state that this internalisation is requires cognitive effort and social abilities.

Initially, Crandall and his colleagues describe group norms and how an individual will internalise what is normal within a group. They say that ‘to be a good group member, one must adopt the prejudices that the group holds and abstain from those prejudices that the group frowns upon’. So, it could be said that inheriting learned prejudice forms our group, which is initially our family, then later society at large or subgroups within that society is inevitable. We learn how to ‘be in the world from the systems that we are part of’, and, as Crandall and his colleagues clearly state, we internalise this.

They do state, however, that this is malleable. They report that if the norm within the group changes, so it is for the individual group member. They say ‘new norms are created and when this is accomplished, it is found that individual attitudes tend to conform to the new group’. So, it is possible that a group prejudice that has been internalised by the individual can shift. But, how so?

Paluck and Green extensively reviewed the literature on reducing prejudice. They state that ‘cooperative learning’ seems at this stage to be an effective intervention in reducing prejudice. They further state that there is potential for ‘reducing prejudice through narrative persuasion, social norms, empathy, perspective taking, and extended contact. The persuasive and positive influence of peers is a promising area of prejudice reduction supported by laboratory research’. They do, however, name the many gaps in research in this area and cannot conclusively name a successful intervention. One must wonder also how a programme of prejudice reduction based on the above recommendations might be designed and implemented given the complexity of the issue.

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From our families and peers and the media, the judgement is almost entirely negative and often vicious.

The idea of prejudice reduction becomes even more complex when we return to Myers and Twenge’s theory of subtle and overt prejudice. They say that ‘we may retain from childhood a habitual, automatic fear or dislike for people for whom we now express respect and admiration. Although explicit attitudes may change dramatically, implicit attitudes may linger, changing only as we form new habits through practice’. So, as Crandall and his colleagues state that we may be able to alter to what is normal within a group, it seems harder to challenge implicit prejudice we might carry from our system of origin, i.e., our families.

Myers and Twenge also describe ‘automatic prejudice’ stating that certain groups that cause disgust cause the primitive areas of the brain associated with fear to become activated. So there may be an inbuilt prejudice on a neural, unconscious level that bypasses cognitive reasoning.

Let’s look at a subgroup that almost universally elicit responses of disgust and prejudice – the child sex offender. Crandall and his colleagues state that ‘prejudice against rapists child abusers and thieves is quite acceptable’. They also state that ‘we hypothesise that expressed prejudice is a direct function of its social acceptability’. Myers and Twenge similarly say ‘If prejudice is socially accepted, many people will follow the path of least resistance and conform to the fashion’. I think it is safe to say that all the messages we receive about child sex offenders is negative. From our families and peers and the media, the judgement is almost entirely negative and often vicious. Most of the offenders who attend our service speak of huge fear about their offending becoming public or even disclosing their offending to loved ones, for fear of judgement, and indeed prejudice.

One of the attendees made an excellent point when he said ‘It is OK to say you are a recovering alcoholic of drug addict, but not child sex offender’. The innate disgust attached to the prejudice aimed at child sex offenders seems embedded in our culture, and thus, as we internalise these messages, us as individuals. 

Wright and Taylor name ‘entiativity’ where a group is viewed as being a unit. They say that ‘these perceptions can be particularly strong when they are based on the belief that the group members share some ‘essential’ or biological characteristic’. Many people view child sex offending as having a pathology, and being caused by a mental illness or deficiency. We are all also familiar with ‘paedophile rings’ and the idea that child sex offenders seek each other out. Although this can often be the case, the entiavity strengthens the prejudice.

Wright and Taylor also name the ‘self-fulfilling prophecy’ stating that members of the group at which the prejudice is aimed can internalise this prejudiced identity themselves, leading to continued behaviour that confirms the prejudice. The clients who I have worked with who have offended have confirmed this. Firstly, all of them have described themselves as ‘evil, monsters. and paedos’ having internalised the social messages they have received about child sex offenders. Secondly, many would describe, in dark moments, thinking ‘Well, I’m just a paedophile, I might as well offend’. Our therapeutic programme is focused on discovering the pathways to offending and supporting the client not to re-offend through robust risk management strategies. However, we are often faced with the ingrained, internalised messages.

Is prejudice inevitable? I believe yes. Given that we all come from and live within systems which are imbued with implicit or explicit, conscious or unconscious prejudice, it seems inevitable that we will internalise these, as the above research has shown. Wright and Taylor state the function of social groups in our society:

One key function of social groups is that they provide structure to, and explanation for, the events in our world.

This necessary function speaks to the prevalence of prejudices continuing within systems. However, I do believe that there is scope for even implicit or unconscious prejudice to be challenged. The first step in achieving this is making what is unconscious conscious, i.e., having an opportunity to challenge the frameworks of belief absorbed by us from our systems. This distance can, I believe, provide an opportunity for group norms to be explored and challenged if necessary.

The difficulty lies in the complexity of prejudice. As I discussed earlier, it is much more socially acceptable to stand in support of an alcoholic than a child sex offender. While the recommendations Crandall and his colleagues suggest in terms of reducing prejudice would seem to be appropriate to reduction on a smaller scale, it seems in terms of more socially and globally acceptable prejudice there is much work to be done in creating an opportunity where the individual can be judged just as that.

Paluck and Green state that gaining empathy can also help in prejudice reduction. We have noticed at my organisation that there has been a better response to our work with offenders in their 20s, our Young Men’s Group, than our work with older offenders. We have not explored this in depth as of yet, but it appears that individuals find it easier to empathise with young offender. I feel this is also an area that could be further explored in terms of prejudice reduction.

Wright and Taylor state that ‘mutually beneficial outcomes’ can reduce prejudice. If an offender’s engagement with a therapeutic intervention programme could be seen as a commitment to child protection, which is what those prejudiced against child sex offenders are most concerned with, perhaps some sort of pathway towards understanding could begin to be traversed.


Deirdre Ronan currently work as a Psychotherapist , working therapeutically with adult survivors of child sexual abuse. She was awarded an  MSc in Art Psychotherapy by Queen Margaret University in Edinburgh in 2006 and is  state registered as an art therapist with the British Association of Art Therapists and The Health and Care Professionals Council in the UK. You can connect with her on Twitter @IrishArtTherapy

 


 


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