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The Development of Prejudice Based on the Social Identity Theory

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Prejudice is “an attitude towards a particular group or member of a group, based on characteristics which are assumed to be common to all members of the group.” (Psychology First, 2006: 97)

There are different theories as to how prejudice develops in individuals and groups. One theory as to how it arises in groups is the social identity theory (SIT) developed by Tajfel and Turner (1979). A theory as to how it arises in individuals and in groups is the authoritarian personality theory (APT) developed by Adorno et al. (1950).

SIT is built around the idea that we psychologically categorise ourselves along with others into groups. Groups we belong to becomes the ‘in-group’ whilst groups we deem ourselves not apart of is the ‘out-group’. The fundamental hypothesis of SIT is that when we are in the ‘in-group’ we actively search for negative aspects of the ‘out-group’ in order to increase our self-image. We subconsciously search for reasons we are superior such as intelligence or appearance. For example if we are on the winning team of a quiz and perform poorly ourselves, maybe even costing our team points, since our team was successful we feel positive about ourselves.

Prejudice produced from SIT could be reduced by encouraging and facilitating cooperation between groups as Sheriff’s (1961) Robber’s Cave experiment displayed (Woods, 2006, p.107). This could be achieved by having two rival groups work together to solve a shared problem. This solution’s practicality depends on group size and the group’s ages, as it would be fairly easy to convince two groups of children to cooperate as opposed to two adult groups with polarizing political views.

Although research like Tajfel et al. (1971) supports SIT’s claim that states prejudice often arises from categorisation in society, it is criticised for the implication that prejudice is therefore a natural human feeling, and therefore more severe forms of prejudice (racism, homophobia) could be justified as ‘human nature’ as well. Weatherall (1982) argues that this theory mainly occurs in Western and European cultures (UK, France) as he claimed children in other societies (India, Philippines) were more generous to out-groups and as such SIT may only explain how prejudice results from social conditioning (Billingham, 2008, p.165).

Adorno et al (1950) theorised that some people possessed a certain personality he named the ‘authoritarian personality’ (AP), which became the authoritarian personality theory (APT). APT suggests that people with an AP will not enjoy situations were there was no right or wrong answer, would remain persistent in their personal opinions and beliefs and often act hostile to those they thought as ‘inferior’ yet show obedience to those with higher employment or social status. Individuals with this personality are theorised to be more prejudiced against other individuals or groups due to their high self-confidence, unfaltering beliefs and aggressive mentality.

However authoritarian personalities also should possess positive humanistic qualities as they are often quick to accept responsibility for their actions, possess good speaking skills and do show to care highly for those they see as part of their ‘in-group’.

The AP is thought to result for harsh parenting, notably punishment for disobedience. Adorno theorised that this strict discipline during childhood could cause children to become overly-respectful and submissive to authority as they become adults and expect the same respect and submission from those weaker than them as they progressing through life directing their natural aggression onto weaker targets as opposed to dealing with it through compromising or forms of therapy. This is turn would cause further AP’s via their offspring, creating a cycle.

“Obedience and respect for authority are the most important virtues that children should learn” (Stranding, 2012). A common AP outlook on raising children.

There is evidence for APT: Adorno developed a scale for measuring authoritarianism called the F-scale (F for Fascism due to AP types characteristically having far right political views). The F scale predicts that those possessing an AP are submissive only to authority figures and those higher up on this scale would be more likely to obey higher authorities in extreme orders. Examples of this are an AP would be much more likely to harm others when ordered to, such as deliver powerful electric shocks during experiments such as the Milgram experiment conducted in 1963 where participants were ordered to deliver electric shocks to another participant. Yet there is also evidence against the APT, such as not everyone who is prejudiced conforms to the AP type and the theory does not explain how entire groups (fascist political parties, religious cults) can remain prejudiced, as for this, all members would have to possess an AP, which is highly implausible, this can however be explained by conformity and deindivduation.

We can reduce prejudice in authoritarian personalities by ceasing the authoritarian personality to exist. For example raising children without demonstrating strict personalities ourselves and teaching them exactly why they cannot behave in a certain way as opposed to punishing them without explanation as they would see the only reasoning being punished as disrespecting the parent’s authority. They would then theoretically grow up demonstrating pro-social behaviour.

Pro-social behaviour is behaviour that benefits other society such as paying taxes and co-operating to achieve goals. Key factors affecting pro-social behaviour include Social learning theory (SLT) and each individual’s personality. SLT is the process in which individuals are trained by their environment to adhere to rules and manners that their culture approves of. This increases pro-social behaviour as society benefits from and therefore approves of acts such as assisting others, abiding the law and showing respect, whilst many members of society disapprove of anti-social behaviour. However SLT could also lead to anti social behaviour depending on environment, upbringing and the individual’s personality.

This is shown in Bandura’s Bobo doll experiment (1961) where different groups of children were shown separate videos of an adult playing with a bobo doll. One video had the adult playing nicely with the doll and the other showed the adult being very aggressive with the doll performing acts such as throwing the doll against a wall and punching it. The children were then left in a room alone with the doll. Children that were shown the ‘nice’ video played in a gentle manner with the doll, pretending to feed it food and dressing it in hats etc, providing evidence that SLT could lead to pro social behaviour. Conversely Children that were shown the violent behaviour clip acted similar when left in a room with the doll, violently hitting and even attacking it in ways not shown on the video such as picking up a toy gun and pointing it at the doll. This is clear evidence of SLT as the children acted the way they did due to witnessing someone else act that way. However Bandura’s Bobo doll study is criticised for lacking ecological validity as it was so controlled that the behaviour committed by the children cannot be said to reflect aggressive behaviour in real life and that they were responding to demand characteristics and acting aggressively to please the adults observing them. A link between prejudice and SLT is shown in Banduras Bobo doll experiment as the children acted directly violently towards the doll showing they went in prejudiced against the doll alone as they didn’t act nearly as violently to other dolls or objects.

Anti-social behaviour is engaging in activities that cause negativity in society and people’s lives, for example committing crimes such as robbery, vandalism and verbally or physically abusing others etc.

A common factor affecting anti-social behaviour is deindivduation.

Deindivduation is when someone temporarily loses their sense of identity and responsibility and associates themselves as part of a group and transfers the responsibility of the outcome of their behaviour to the group as a whole.

“Immersion in a group to the point that one loses a sense of self-awareness and feels lessened responsibility for one’s actions.

Example: Groups of excited, rioting sports fans celebrating a big win can end up committing acts they would never do alone, such as vandalism or arson” – Psyche-Central 2008

Deindivduation can lead to increased anti-social behaviour including prejudice when people do not take responsibility for their own actions. Deindivduation is notably problematic in many current world issues. Examples of this are terrorists wearing masks or violent gangs acquiring matching facial tattoos, although this could also stem from SIT. This is also evidence of humans self-consciously yet simultaneously to an extent deliberately deindivduating themselves so that the group they are part of could in their eyes be responsible for their anti-social or violent behaviour as opposed to themselves personally and therefore they avoid internal responsibility or guilt for the actions they commit.

Obedience is a change in behaviour that is ordered by another person or group (Breckler, 2006). For example when a person picks up rubbish they have discarded on the floor when told to by an authority figure. Factors affecting obedience are both dispositional and situational.

Dispositional factors could be explained by Adorno’s authoritarian personality theory along with genetically certain people are naturally obedient.

Situational factors include setting, proximity to the authority and peer support (Milgrim). Obedience can lead to either pro or anti social behaviour depending on the orders given by the authority figure.

A theory of obedience is the agency theory (AT). Milgram (1974) explained the behaviour of his participants by suggesting that people possess two behavioural states in social situations:

The autonomous state is when people direct their own actions and take responsibility for themselves. The agentic state is the opposite, people allow others to direct their actions, and then relay the responsibility for the consequences to whoever gave the orders.

Milgram suggested that in order for someone to enter the agentic state they must perceive whoever is giving the orders to be qualified to dictate their behaviour and secondly the person being given orders needs to believe that whoever is giving orders will accept the responsibility for the outcome. Milgram’s evidence supports his theory as when participants in his experiment were informed that they would be held accountable for their actions they would rarely carry on with the experiment and obey the experimenter. However participants who said they wished to stop would carry on if the experimenter said that they would take responsibility.

Conformity is defined as a form of social influence where group pressure, real or illusory results in change of behaviour, usually where someone acts in a way similar to others as opposed to the way they would act if they were alone.

Two forms have been theorised, Informational social influence and normative social influence. Informational social influence is defined as when people conform to a group opinion because they are not sure of what the real answer is. Sherriff (1935) investigated this, discovering participants would often conform to an answer delivered by a group if they were unsure of the correct answer.

Normative social influence is an explanation for conformity based on our need to be accepted and the same as other people. This links to compliance, which although similar is separate from conformity. Generally compliance is following orders that we openly do not want to do from an authority figure, as opposed to conformity where we choose to act in a way, as we consciously or subconsciously believe it is the correct way to act and follow a group. Compliance and conformity can lead to anti-social behaviour and pro-social behaviour depending on the orders given or the group’s behaviour.

Real world examples of conformity are going along with a group decision that we disagree with because we desire to be part of that group and not rejected or excluded. Asch 1956 investigated this, conducting a study where multiple participants compared the length of a vertical line, sitting around a table answering one at a time. However there was only one real participant who would be second last to answer, as the other ‘participants’ would be Asch’s confederates who were primed to give a wrong answer on most of the trials. The results demonstrated a conformity rate of 32% with 74% of participants conforming on a least one trial. Conformity occurred even though the participants knew the answer they gave was wrong. This study appears to demonstrate that we commonly we conform to group behaviour. However the researchers used a biased sample as they only used males within the same age group, meaning that population validity was compromised and that the outcome should not be applied to females or older groups as none were tested. This research also used an artificial task in order to measure conformity meaning that ecological validity was also compromised and the outcome shouldn’t be applied to situations of conformity that occur in the real world.

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