The Development of Prejudice in Children

Article excerpt

Prejudice

Being down on something you are not up on. A vagrant opinion without visible means of support. And so goes the popular vein. The academic definition is a little different: a negative feeling toward a group based on a faulty generalization (Pettigrew, 1980). While the popular conception talks about cognition, the academic adds the affective domain the world of attitudes. Three dimensions seem clear: (1) a cognitive component that is faulty and irrational; (2) a negative affective component; and (3) one based on the other. Prejudice is irrational because the information it is based on is inaccurate or insufficient to serve as an objective basis for any valid conclusion. We assume that what may be true about the whole is also true about each of the parts. We fail to make necessary qualifications or differentiations. Driven by the natural need to classify incoming information (otherwise we could not think) in order to render the world meaningful, we blow it. We classify stimuli into sets, overestimate the similarities among the members within a set, and overestimate the differences among the members of different sets. The result is d world view of sets existing apart from each other. No part of A is B, and no part of B is A. They just exclude each other. To the prejudiced person reality is separateness, differences, incompatibility, dissonance. In some areas of life there are no concentric sets with a common area. Men are different from women. And the two shall never meet. Blacks are blacks. Latinos are Latinos. Neither is white. And that is the way it is. Irrational thinking in prejudice constitutes the rationale for prejudicial attitudes: apprehension of outgroups, distrust, fear, discomfort. Although not necessarily so, these attitudes easily translate into behavior based on prejudice; avoidance, withdrawal, verbal hostility, individual acts of unfairness, physical attacks and ultimately, genocide. Prejudice is not something we do. That is discrimination. It is something we think and feel. We are not prejudiced because we are evil but because we are human and it is easy to fall into it. The infrastructure of prejudice is not moral depravity, but our regular thinking mechanism that just went wrong. The prejudiced child uses the same schemata for justifying prejudice and thinking about it as the child uses for thinking and justifying anything else. So it is with adults. And so it is with children (Pettigrew, 1980).

On Prejudice as Learned

Prejudice is learned. If there is a role for genetics, this role is not clear. Since it is difficult to isolate these two dimensions for the purpose of research, we may never know. Comprehensive reviews of the literature on the origins of prejudice in children have concluded that very little is DNA related (Aboud, 1988). While psychologists talk about the prejudiced personality, its development is explained almost exclusively in environmental terms (Allport, 1958; Dovido & Gaertner, 1986; Lynch, 1987; Katz & Taylor, 1988; Bar-Tel et al, 1989). However, some cognitive schemata associated with prejudice, such as "dichotomic thinking," may be more influenced by heredity. Perhaps. Both Piaget and Kohlberg conceive their developmental stages as being "natural." But it is not clear if they mean inborn, or partially inborn and partially environmental. The seemingly universal discomfort of very young children toward strangers has also been cited as an example of an inborn predisposition toward the initial stages of prejudice (Allport, 1958). However, prejudice appears to be an environmental issue and is treated as such.

On Ingroups

The same environment that welcomes the child into this world supplies the fertile soil for the development of prejudice. The family becomes a part of the new child and the child becomes a part of it. Within this setting, the concept of group develops. Prior to the age of three, normal children already know "this is my group," "it is a good group," "l like to be with them," "I enjoy doing the things they do. …