Social psychology has advanced a number of theoretical accounts seeking to explain prejudice. These explanations reflect the historical period and the Zeitgeist which gave rise to them, along with the currency afforded various paradigmatic frameworks which social psychology has offered over the course of the last century. Critical scholars (see, e.g. Augoustinos & Every, 2015; Gough, McFadden, & McDonald, 2013; Tuffin, 2005) have critiqued traditional theories of prejudice which are loosely based around social cognition, personality, and group membership.
Prejudice as Faulty Thinking
Dominant within social psychology since the 1970s, social cognition promotes the idea that prejudice stems from the limitations of the human mind. Drawing on the metaphor of the mind as a computer, this view suggests we have limited capacity to process the vast amount of perceptual information available. In order to manage and make sense of this overwhelming amount of stimuli we chunk information into categories and stereotypes based on dimensions such as gender, colour, or age. The problem of prejudice arises from these generalisations. Allport’s (1954) seminal text regards prejudice as an unwarranted dislike of others based on errors in thinking which are too broad, too rigid, or simply wrong. These errors stem from a failure to view people as individuals, but rather as prototypical group members. This is the business of stereotyping which is only one step away from prejudice (Augoustinos & Every, 2015). Thus, the theoretical contribution of social cognition is in explicating the tight relationship between social categorisation, stereotyping, and prejudice.
Problematically our faulty thinking means the formation of stereotypes slant and preselect information in ways that are more likely to confirm negative biases. Attempts to avoid cognitive overload result in the development of stereotypes, overgeneralisations, and prejudgements. While this makes intuitive sense, there is evidence suggesting that we are not simply caught in a trap with overwhelming stimuli inevitably producing cognitive frugality. Indeed, Locke and Johnston (2001) suggest cognitive efforts may not be as automatic and unconscious as previously assumed, and we can be much more strategic and tactical in the management of our cognitions. Another concern with this approach (Wetherell & Potter, 1992) is with the image of the person as an individualistic information processor, which fails to adequately explain why only some folk become prejudiced. This can seem especially odd, given that we all possess similar cognitive machinery and similar ways of processing information. This view also offers no explanation as to why some groups have become victims of prejudice and others not. A third critique suggests cognitive models are simplistic and reductionistic (Gough et al., 2013). This concern stems from the view that it is too simplistic to assume we perceive the same stimuli, independently of social, cultural, and historical backgrounds. Finally, there is concern that when prejudice and bigotry are regarded as the ‘natural’ effects of information processing, these actions become unalterable and thereby excused. We must be wary of claims the prejudice is inevitable since this leads to greater acceptance of the view that hatred and dislike of others is simply part of our nature and it makes little sense to try and change this or punish transgressions (Reicher, 2001). Prejudice involves social actions which are unacceptable, and we should strenuously resist claims that this is normal, acceptable, and simply the way the world is.