A stereotype is a widely held but oversimplified and generalized belief about a particular group of people, while prejudice is a preconceived negative attitudinal bias, typically directed towards a group. The first is an overgeneralization, the other is a feeling and bias.
Let’s break that down a little more clearly:
- Stereotype: A stereotype is a generalized belief or assumption about the characteristics or behaviors of a group of people, often oversimplified and not necessarily accurate.
- Prejudice: Prejudice, meaning to pre-judge, is a preconceived and unfounded negative opinion or attitude towards a group of people, often based on their race, religion, nationality, gender, or other characteristics.
The two terms do, of course, significantly overlap. But two key differences are:
- Sentiment: ‘stereotype’ does not necessarily contain positive or negative sentiment so specifically, while prejudice is always negative.
- Attitudinal: Stereotypes are generalizations, whereas prejudices are attitudes.
Stereotype vs Prejudice
1. Scholarly Definitions
Let’s turn to Cornerley et al.’s (2021) textbook definitions of both terms for scholarly support.
Here’s how they define a stereotype:
“Stereotypes are oversimplified generalizations about groups of people. Stereotypes can be based on race, ethnicity, age, gender, sexual orientation—almost any characteristic. They may be positive (usually about one’s own group, such as when women suggest they are less likely to complain about physical pain) but are often negative (usually toward other groups, such as when members of a dominant racial group suggest that a subordinated racial group is stupid or lazy). In either case, the stereotype is a generalization that doesn’t take individual differences into account.”
And here’s how they define prejudice:
“Prejudice refers to the beliefs, thoughts, feelings, and attitudes someone holds about a group. A prejudice is not based on experience; instead, it is a prejudgment, originating outside actual experience … This is a type of confirmation bias. For example, if someone is taught to believe that a certain ethnic group has negative attributes, every negative act committed someone in that group can be seen as confirming the prejudice. Even a minor social offense committed by a member of the ethnic group, like crossing the street outside the crosswalk or talking too loudly on a bus, could confirm the prejudice.”
I think it’s also worthwhile looking at Dovidio, Gaertner and Pearson’s (2009) shorter definition which clearly demonstrates how prejudice tends to have an explicit negative, even emotionally hurtful, component within it:
“Prejudice is commonly defined as an unfair negative attitude toward a social group or a person perceived to be a member of that group.”
2. Features and Origins
Stereotypes (Features and Origins)
In social sciences, the term “stereotype” was most prominently promoted by Walter Lippmann, an American writer, reporter and political commentator, who used this term in his book “Public Opinion” (1922).
Lippmann used the term metaphorically to reflect society’s tendency to categorize individuals or groups into oversimplified and rigid categories. Key features of stereotypes explained by Lippmann included:
- Rigidity: They tend to be hard to change or challenge after capturing the public imagination.
- Overgeneralizations: They fail to understand nuances and differences within identity groups.
- Faulty Reasoning: As a heuristic, they tend to lead to faulty logic and untrue conclusions about individuals.
Newman (2009, p. 9), discussing Lipman’s seminal text, highlights how Lippmann approached stereotyping::
“[Lippmann explored] the idea that stereotypes are energy-saving devices that simplify reality, help people manage complexity, and allow for more efficient categorization of people [..which] affect how we perceive others’ behavior.”
The academic studies on stereotypes, their formation, impact, and ways to counter them have further been developed primarily in the fields of psychology and sociology.
Prejudice (Features and Origins)
The term “prejudice” has long been used in English, originally referring to irrational attitudes and preconceptions.
However, academic literature, it was significantly elaborated upon in the context of social and psychological sciences during the 20th century, particularly following World War II. Researchers wanted to understand the horrific extent of racism and ethnically-based hatred that had fueled the Holocaust.
Gordon Allport, an American psychologist, is considered a pioneer in the study of prejudices. His work “The Nature of Prejudice” published in 1954 is one of the foundational texts defining and discussing prejudice in the context of social psychology.
Reflecting on Allport’s work, Dovidio, Gaertner and Pearson (2009) highlight three components of prejudice:
- Cognitive component: A thought or feeling about a person or group of people.
- Affective component: Negative feelings and emotions associated with a person or group of people.
- Behavioral component: A negative belief about the person or group’s past or future actions.
3. Types and Examples
Types and Examples of Stereotypes
- Gender Stereotypes: These involve preconceived notions about how each gender should behave, such as the belief that women are nurturing and men are aggressive.
- Racial Stereotypes: These are oversimplified beliefs about the characteristics of a particular racial group, such as the notion that Asians are good at math.
- Age Stereotypes: These involve assumptions about people based on their age, such as the belief that older people are forgetful or that teenagers are rebellious.
- Occupational Stereotypes: These involve assumptions about people based on their jobs, such as the belief that teachers are patient or that lawyers are manipulative.
- National Stereotypes: These are generalized beliefs about people from a particular country or region, such as the notion that French people are romantic or that Americans are loud.
Types and Examples of Prejudice
- Racism: This is a negative attitude about people based on their race, often leading to discrimination and social inequalities.
- Sexism: This is a negative attitude about people based on their gender, often resulting in discrimination and unequal treatment.
- Ageism: This is a negative attitude about people based on their age.
- Homophobia: This is a a negative attitude about people who identify as LGBTQ+, often leading to discrimination and exclusion.
- Xenophobia: This a deep-rooted fear or dislike of people from other countries, often resulting in hostility and discrimination against foreigners.
Clearly, these terms do overlap. The key distinguishing feature is that one is about a belief while the other is an emotion. Oftentimes, a person who holds a stereotype also holds a prejudice – one leads to the other. And both lead, eventually, to discrimination, which has real-world consequences. Discrimination will occur when we act on our prejudices to cause harm to someone, such as denying them service or a job based upon their social identity. Here, finally, is how I tend to see it:
- First comes stereotypes. They emerge through socialization, where we internalize the stereotypes our media, friends, mentors, and parents hold. Before long, we hold oversimplified ideas about social groups.
- Next comes prejudice. They emerge when we apply sentiment to our stereotypes. This means we end up having negative feelings and attitudes toward groups based upon our stereotypes.
- Third comes discrimination. This happens when we apply our prejudices in real-life contexts to privilege some groups and cause harm to other groups through our actions.
Allport, G. (1954). The nature of prejudice. New York: Addison-Wesley.
Conerly, T. R. (2021). Introduction to sociology 3e. OpenStax.
Dovidio, J., Gaertner, S., and Pearson’s, A. (2009).On the Nature of Prejudice: The Psychological Foundations of Hate. In Dovidio, J. F., Glick, P., & Rudman, L. A. (Eds.). On the nature of prejudice: Fifty years after Allport. John Wiley & Sons.
Lippmann, W. (1922) Public Opinion. New York: Macmillan.
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]