Prejudice, Discrimination, and Conflict: A Natural Phenomenon?

Updated on March 29, 2017

Human beings organise themselves into groups as part of their everyday existence, seeking to affiliate with people who share similar characteristics, goals, or other aspects of life. Whenever a group is created a separation occurs between those who are in the group and those who are not, these units are referred to as ingroups and outgroups respectively, and are a concept of social identity theory. Social identity is part of an individual’s self concept which derives from their membership of a social group (or groups) together with the value and emotional significance attached to the membership of the ingroup.

Ingroup members often form favourable stereotypes of the group and derogatory stereotypes of the outgroup which can lead to prejudice and discrimination of outgroup members. But is prejudice, discrimination, and thus conflict an inevitable part of human social groupings? This article will seek to answer this question in the affirmative that prejudice, discrimination, and conflict are inevitable, and further, that these types of behaviours are often adaptive responses to the environment humans have experienced throughout their development.

Prejudice is the preconception of opinion or attitude toward an outgroup and is defined as the feelings component of attitudes an individual has towards an outgroup, or member of an outgroup, and not a personal but rather an affective response to the category as a whole. Discrimination, on the other hand refers to the actions received by members of outgroups that are the target of prejudice. Often researchers limit the terms prejudice and discrimination to their pejorative form, focusing on negative racial and sexual attitudes and actions of ingroup members.

Tajfel (2010) broadly defined an ingroup as having two or more people who are to some extent socially and psychologically interdependent “for the satisfaction of needs, the attainment of goals, or the consensual validation of attitudes and values”. In developing social identity theory Turner (1979) used the term favouritism rather than prejudice and bias rather than discrimination to explore intergroup relations. They describe ingroup favouritism as the tendency to favour the ingroup over the outgroup, in behaviour, attitudes, preferences or perception, whereas they saw ingroup bias as the application of favouritism which is unfair or unjustifiable because it goes beyond the objective requirements of the ingroup, and is not directly beneficial to ingroup members.

The tendency of humans to develop ingroups is likely passed on from our earlier ancestors, who were only able to survive by forming close-nit families, tribes, and ethnic groups with some researchers believing that the powerful emotional aspects of social identity cannot be explained except as part of the evolved machinery of the mind. With ingroup’s developing positive distinctiveness, social identity, positive emotional regard, and camaraderie, whereas outgroup relations can be hostile.

There is also evidence that social identity occurs at a very young age, well before explicit knowledge of outgroups is possible. Rushton (1989) found that infants were able to distinguish kin from non-kin early on, recognising their mother’s voice within 24 hours, their mother’s smell within six days, and their mother’s image within two weeks. This was extended to a consciousness of their own ethnicity when Aboud (1988) noted that:

"Recent developmental psychological studies have found that even very young children show clear and often quite rigid disdain for children whose ethnic and racial heritages differ from their own, even in the apparent absence of experiential and socialization effects".

This process involves the child sorting people into basic kinds by sex, colour, age, and size with evidence showing that infants expect race to run in families, and understanding very early which race they belong to, and which they don’t, well before social influence can take place. This process of categorisation and ingroup development is also evident in other animal species, most notably chimpanzees who divide the world into us versus them the same way humans do. Of course humans do not create ingroups solely on the basis of immutable characteristics, however the more an individual has in common with the ingroup, the more rapport and cohesion will occur, and conversely, the more prejudice and discrimination of the outgroup is possible.

The conflicting theories of intergroup relations, and specifically the definitions of what constitutes prejudice and discrimination, raise some important questions about how both prejudice and discrimination could be viewed. From the literature it can be assumed that ingroups and outgroups are an inevitable part of human organisation, and that for an ingroup to even exist some form of prejudice has to occur. It can also be assumed that whenever ingroups and outgroups exist, that some types of discrimination follow. But where the development of ingroup prejudice, and the actions of discrimination increase an ingroup’s likelihood of survival, is it reasonable to categorise this behaviour as negative?

A more logical approach could be to separate prejudicial and discriminatory behaviours as either rational or irrational. Rational if the behaviours increase the individual’s inclusive fitness and the ingroup’s objective requirements, and irrational if the behaviours have either neutral or negative effect on the ingroup. However, subjectively assessing intergroup relations based on an idea of fairness completely alters the research. The current zeitgeist is to not only deny the biological necessity of some important aspects of ingroup behaviour, but to also apply a selective morality of an ingroup’s behaviour by the effect it has on the outgroup.

Empirical evidence and the historical record conclusively show that humans have always created ingroups and outgroups as part of their existence, with individual’s gaining identity and esteem from their membership of ingroups. Prejudice of outgroup members can also be said to be an inherent part of ingroup behaviour, which translate into discriminatory actions and occasional conflict; sometimes minor, sometimes major, but always there. However, disagreement and controversy surround the origins of group behaviour with some researchers taking it upon themselves to attempt to reconstruct group behaviour in line with popular theories. If resources were instead focused on working with human nature rather than opposing it, social organisation would only benefit.


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    • powered2020 profile image

      powered2020 5 years ago from New Zealand

      Thank you lone77star for your insightful comments. My article focussed on the biological realities of intergroup competition without touching on the spiritual - however I do happen to agree with your point of view.

      Spirituality, morality, humility and so forth are some of the qualities that separate us from animals and make peace and unity possible. Although I believe that at present these dimensions are only possible within and between some groups of humans rather than all, and until all humans are capable of the same humility conflicts are inevitable.

    • lone77star profile image

      Rod Martin Jr 5 years ago from Cebu, Philippines

      Fascinating. This is a topic that has been very dear to me for many years.

      An award-winning essay touches on this topic:

      I think what you've written is all highly pertinent, but I also think there is a larger issue behind all of this -- a spiritual one.

      Ego (from the spiritual perspective) is the source of selfishness, born out of ignorance (ignoring our connection to spirit and God, and turning toward a reliance on the continuity of physical law). With ego, we become vulnerable. Things take on a quality called "importance" and where things are important, disagreements arise. Chief among them is "identity." Us vs. them, me vs. you.

      One of the common elements of many of the main religions is that of humility. When religion is important, wars have started. When one is humble, things lose their importance. There is a better quality perpendicular to the dimensions of mortal dichotomies. Better than "importance" is that things merely "ARE." God is not important, He merely IS the I AM. Sounds almost Zen.

      Our languages feel clumsy discussing such things. Sometimes it takes awhile to understand the intent behind the words of wisdom.