Is Discrimination an Inevitable Part of Human Nature?

Defining Terms: Discrimination vs Prejudice


  • An unjustified or incorrect attitude (usually negative) towards an individual based solely on the individual’s membership of a social group (McLeod, 2008).

Yinger and Simpson state "predjuice is sometimes explained as a result of the lack of contact with members of a minority group and sometimes explained as the result of the presence of such contact" (Dixon, 2005).


  • The behavior or actions, usually negative, towards an individual or group of people, especially on the basis of sex/race/social class, etc (McLeod, 2008).
  • According to The Psychology of Prejudice and Discrimination, it states that discrimination comes in all types of forms and it spreads from a specific individual to an entire culture (Whitley Jr, Kite, 2006).

Forms of Discrimination

Racial Discrimination:

  • This type of discrimination is most common, and it occurs when one specific person is treated worst than another due to their race, colour, ethnicity, and nationality.
  • An example of this is in South Africa. It was stated that during the years of 1948 to 1994 there was a racial segregation where non-white people where not allows to vote as well as lived in all white communities. (Minard, 1952)
  • Another example of racial discrimination was when the Nazis during World War II. It was said that the Germans forced the Jews to identify themselves but having to wear yellow stars. Racial discrimination got worst when the Nazis put the Jews in concentration camps. (Pettigrew, 1959)

"a biological taxonomy or a set of physical categories that can be used consistently and informatively to describe, explain, and make predictions about groups of human beings and individual members of those groups” (Naomi, 2002)

Age Discrimination:

  • This occurs when someone is being treated poorly on the grounds of age. (McLeod, 2008)

Gender Discrimination:

  • Apart from racial discrimination, gender discrimination is also another one that has a huge impact on the person. This type of discrimination happens everywhere and it is when one discriminates another due to their gender. (McLeod, 2008)
  • An example that shown about this kind of discrimination is towards women in a Western society. Women are discriminated against in the workplace as well as the home and the family environment. We see this when the mother receives custody of the children during a divorce as well as the fact that in the workplace women get paid a lot less then man. (Rogers, Frantz, 1962)

The Nature V. Nurture Debate in Relation to Discrimination



  • All genes and hereditary factors that influence who we are – from our physical appearance to our personality characteristics, (Lamy and Hodes,2006)
  • Discrimination is in some ways hard-wired into the human brain as an adaptive response to protect early man from danger. Through categorical difference, our ancient ancestors were able to identify people outside their “tribe” or family. By distinguishing between friend and foe their chances for survival increased. Evolution may have prepared our minds to be prejudiced; however, our environment and upbringing certainly influence how we behave according to those prejudices. Everyone is, in some way or another is a product of their surroundings, (Lamy and Hodes, 2006)

Stereotypes and Prejudice: A Natural Process?
Stereotypes occur naturally to help sort complex information into more simplified groups (Cole, 2001). Trees are generally green-leafed and have brown trunks and branches; books have a spine, a back and front cover and pages in between. Everything in the world, both living and non-living has a certain place, appearance and function (Bloom, 2001). In effect, knowledge of these physical and functional details about something helps us understand its use efficiently and, in theory, accurately (Bloom).

As a result of prejudice, stereotypes often develop. The extent to why they occur again appears to be affected by natural and environmental influences. Stereotypes are generated by grouping people with similar traits or characteristics together and, unfortunately, often work against the stereotyped group (Zimbardo, 1992). The racial history between white and black people is a prime example of this. Because people of a specific race, white Anglo-Saxons for instance, are often raised in communities of primarily one dominant race, availability heuristics are formed (Baumeister & Bushman). This means that people become accustomed to what they consider normal and anything that differs is considered quite unusual, strange and in some cases, frightening. Applying this to the example of racism, whites may wrongly stereotype black people because of their differences.



* Environmental variables impact who we are. This includes our early childhood experiences, how we were raised, our social relationships, as well as our surrounding culture. (Lamy and Hodes,2006)

* Different branches of psychology taking one versus another approaches. Biological psychology, focus on the importance of genetics and biological influences, while behaviorism focuses on the impact that the environment has on behavior. (Lamy and Hodes,2006)

Nurture: The Harmful Effects of Discrimination
In Western culture, people are often characterised into groups by colour, personality types, body types, occupations, social class and political preference among others (Duncombe, 2007). This grouping may sometimes be helpful and may assist like-minded people to achieve a common goal. The harmful effects of stereotyping often come into play when minority groups in society are portrayed and labelled negatively (Duncombe, 2007). As a result, stereotyping of this kind can lead to the active discrimination of individuals simply for fitting into a certain social category (Duncombe, 2007).

Ageism, for example, is becoming increasingly present in many workplaces because of negative stereotypes related to a person’s age (Woolfe, 1998). Sexism is also a present issue in many different cultures, brought about by how males and females are expected to act within their environment (Russell, 1997). Racism is perhaps the most recognisable type of stereotyping throughout the world, with prejudice and discrimination occurring purely based on an individual’s ethnicity, nationality and cultural background. (Russell, 1997).

The other common theme is that humans and animals are afraid of what appears different (Duncombe, 2007). To some extent this fear is learned from experience but there is also a portion of it which is innate (Duncombe, 2007). Regardless, this fear of difference can result in the oppression and discrimination of others through acts of aggression.

In-groups v. Out-groups:

In 1906, American Sociologist William Graham Sunner introduced the world to the concept of "ethnocentrism" and the idea of social "in-groups" and "out-groups." He suggested that our in-groups are groups of which we're a member or with which we identify strongly. Ehtnocentrism - today often termed as racism - is the view that our own ehtnic group (or "in-group") is the "center of everything, and all other (groups) are scaled and rated with reference to it." (Damasio, 2003)

In Sunner's view, a strong "positive" attitude to our in-group automatically causes us to form strong negative attitudes (e.g. contempt, hostility and hatred) toward any out-group, (Damasio, 2003)

Antonio Damasio, a professor of Neuroscience, Neurology, and Psychology at the University of Southern California, describes race (a form of discrimination) in relation to the brain (Damasio, 2003):

"Lest it be thought that evolution and its baggage of genes has simply made things wonderful by bringing to us all these proper behaviors, let me point out that the nice emotions and the commendable, adaptive altruism pertain to a group. In the animal world, these groups include packs of wolves and troops of apes. Among humans, they include the family, tribe, city and nation. For these outside the group, the evolutionary history of these responses shows that they have been less than kind. The nice emotions can easily turn nasty and brutish when they are aimed outside inner circles toward which they are naturally targeted. The result is anger, resentment, violence, all of which we can easily recognize as a possible embryo of tribal hatreds, racism and war,"(Damasio, 2003)

Essentially, Damasio outlines that many human traits, such as discrimination, are a result of human groups adapting to the environment. Social groups have helped develop humans' internal milieu - including "less than kind" characteristics like discrimination. Although discrimination can often be described as "nasty and brutish," Damasio argues that it serves an important evolutionary function for humans. This natural function allows us to classify individuals as part of our "in-group" or "out-group." While the natural source of discrimination has resulted in violent discriminative conflicts, Damasio also argues that humans are not entirely bound to their genetic coding. This is described in Chapter 4 of Looking for Spinoza, in which he writes:

"The history of our civilization is, to some extent, a history of a persuasive effort to extend the best of 'moral sentiments' to wider and wider circles of humanity, beyond the restrictions of inner groups…," (Damasio, 2003)

By arguing this, Damasio communicates that, although discrimination may be a part of our "baggage of genes," humans have the agency to reject immoral sentiments.

The Optimal Contact Strategy: A Solution to Discrimination?

The contact hypothesis proposes that interaction between members of different groups reduces prejudice if—and only if— certain optimal conditions are present. For over 50 years, research using this framework has explored the boundary conditions for ideal contact and has guided interventions to promote desegregation.

Through a number of situations where "in-group" and "out-group" members interact, psychologists argued that the strategy would "reduce prejudices and increase social harmony," (Dixon, 2005). These optimal conditions between in-group and out-group individuals include:

  • Regular and frequent contact
  • A balanced ratio of contact between in-group vs out-group
  • Contact has genuine "acquaintance potential
  • The contact occurs over a variety of social settings and situations
  • Contact is free from competition
  • Contact is seen as "important" to participants that are involved (Dixon, 2005)

Arguments against the Optimal Contact Strategy

In 2003, an international group of scholars discussed the contact hypothesis's potential uses in the United Kingdom. Two years prior to the meeting, Britain suffered from a number of race riots in urban cities. Bruce Berry, a Bradford high school teacher, evaluated the hypothesis - arguing that the theory needs a "reality check." Psychologists remain skeptic about the strategy's practical use, particularly when acknowledging the following arguments: (Dixon, 2005)

  • Utopianism:Although the strategy's "optimal conditions" proved to be beneficial in reducing discrimination and prejudice, the researchers' self-created "ideal world" is far from reality, (Dixon, 2005). For example, researchers ensured that contact between groups was "regular and frequent." However, when applied to a real, segregated environment, this recommended "regular and frequent" contact with the opposite group is uncommon. Thus, this optimal condition for reducing prejudice and discrimination cannot be used within a real world setting.
  • Participants' Subjective Understanding of Contact: When applying the optimal contact strategy to participants, researchers explored their subjects' interpretation of the term "contact." Considering that the strategy relies on intergroup contact, researchers created rating scales and formal questions to gauge participants' subjective understanding of the word. However, while the surveys served as efficient methodological tools, they still failed to acknowledge their subjects' understanding of what is "a great deal" or "not a great deal" of contact with another group. (Dixon, 2005)

The Halo Effect: An Explanation for Prejudice and Discrimination?

Edward Thorndike coined the ‘halo effect’, which is a person’s cognitive bias. It is an observer’s impression of their surroundings that allow them to have specific feelings and thoughts about a person, place, or thing. It has been studied with its effect in relation to educational and judicial systems. The halo effect is referred to a person being perceived as having a halo. Positive feelings cause a positive predisposition toward the entity as a whole. It could also be used as a negative connotation, also known as the ‘horn effect’. In this case an individual would dislike one aspect of a person, place or thing, which would cause an overall negative predisposition toward everything about it. (Thorndike, 1920)

An example of the horn effect in regards to discrimination could be the ongoing issue with ISIS. ISIS gives people of Muslim religion a poor reputation. The extremist group is known for trying to promote their religion in wrongful ways through killing those who do not want to change their religion. Outsiders hearing about the tragic events and those who do not know much about the Muslim religion may view all people affiliated with those beliefs as terrorists or look down on them as a person.

Kelly's Personal Construct Psychology:

Kelly’s Personal Construct psychology also known as PCP is a personality and cognition theory developed by Psychologist, George Kelly. He created a psychotherapy approach aimed to help his clients discover their own ways of seeing the world (what he calls constructs). With this approach he suggests minimal intervention for the therapist; their job is to allow the client to put their observations and experiences into perspective in order to arise to their own conclusion. People create internal ideas of reality in order to understand the world they live in. Kelly states that we should look at individuals as scientists, we each have our own theories about how the world operates and we work around our theories in order to anticipate events; therefore, anticipation and predication are the main drivers of our mind.

Kelly’s theory in correlation to discrimination: He points out that discrimination may not be due to our biological predispositions, it could be a result of poor experiences with people of a different gender, ethnic origin, religion, class, intelligence, age etc that causes us to have our own personal constructs.

For example, if a male continuously has poor encounters with females who are between the ages of 19-22 his personal construct might be to stay away from females between that age group because he feels that he can anticipate an undesirable outcome. (Butt, T. 2004)

Discrimination in Understanding the Environment:

Genetics alone can’t explain all of human behaviour, studies show that roughly half of what makes is is inherited, meaning that the other half of our behaviour is a result of the environment acting on the individual.

  • People are aware that our DNA can determine good health or intelligence; however, it could also be responsible for many undesirable traits
  • The term multigenic inheritance is way too vague because nobody knows exactly how many genes are involved in determining given human traits, the environment also has a powerful effect on the expression of genes.
  • Psychologists and Psychiatrists express a great difficulty in determining the basis of behaviour, mainly because behaviour is one of the most complex human traits.
  • Behaviour is the environment, meaning that behaviour is not solely heritable, presents the total sum of internal and external stimuli to us (Steen, R. 1996)

The Environment's Effects on Genetic Traits

  • When considering behaviour we cannot solely look at genetic inheritance because our interactions with the environment largely effect our actions.
  • For example with the case of intelligence: although an individual may have intellectual superiority going for them through genetic inheritance, their experience with the environment can alter their intelligence. Take into consideration parental pre exposure of drugs, alcohol or disease or lack of adequate nutrition stunting the child’s growth. Challenging environmental stimuli’s are necessary to expand the child’s knowledge, especially during the most impressionable stage like childhood. (Statement relating this to discrimination)
  • External events can have a strong effect on the internal process; however, internal events could also affect external. Meaning, we cant do what we are not programmed to do, and we also cant do what we’re programmed to do if the environment doesn’t allow us. The environment cant replace or remove genes, it can only amplify or blunt the effect. (Steen, R. 1996)


Discrimination, which is often rooted in prejudice, involves negative actions towards a particular group of people. As outlined, discrimination can be applied to individuals of different race, age sex, etc. Consequently, as history has showed us, the effects of discrimination can be devastating - ranging from denying the elderly a workplace position to the unjust South African apartheid. Psychologists have tried to understand discrimination by attributing the phenomenon to two major pools of thought - nature and nurture. Scientists have tried to explain prejudice as an evolutionary, neurobiological process that allows us to distinguish individuals as "friends" or "foes." Arguably, this has resulted in societies teaching people to discriminate against specific, primarily minority, groups. By understanding the concepts of In-Groups and Out-Groups, the Personal Construct Theory, and the Halo Effect, psychologists have used these theories to justify both sides of the debate. The Optimal Contact Strategy attempts to solve the discrimination issue, but unfortunately, when applied to real world environments, the concept has many limitations. Nevertheless, discrimination never seizes to be a thought-provoking phenomenon that has challenged both psychologists and ordinary, discriminated-against individuals.


Baumeister, R.F. & Bushman, B.J. (2008). Social psychology and human nature. Belmont, CA: Thomson Wadsworth.
Bloom, H. (2001). Adventures for the mind: a cyberportal to science, art and history based on Howard Bloom’s books The Lucifer Principle and the Global Brain. Retrieved April 13, 2015 from
Butt, T. (2004). Understanding people. Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan.
Cole, J. (2001). Beyond prejudice: Our connection to others, the earth and our future. Retrieved April 13, 2015 from
Damasio, A. (2003). Looking for Spinoza: Joy, sorrow, and the feeling brain. Orlando, Fla.: Harcourt.
Dixon, J., Durrheim, K., & Tredoux, C. (n.d.). Beyond the Optimal Contact Strategy: A Reality Check for the Contact Hypothesis. American Psychologist, 697-711
Dominique Lamy, Richard M. Hodes, Nature and Nurture in Own-Race Face Processing,2006, Retrieved April 13, 2015
Duncombe, S. (2007). [Review of the book Typecasting: On the arts & sciences of human inequality. New York: International Journal of Communication. Retrieved April 13, 2015 from
McLeod, Saul. "Prejudice and Discrimination." SimplyPsychology. SimplyPsychology, 2008. Web. 8 Apr. 2015. <>.
Rogers, C. A., & Frantz, C. (1962). Racial themes in Southern Rhodesia: the attitudes and behavior of the white population (p. 338). New Haven: Yale University Press.
Russell, V. (1997). Racism and sexism – A collective struggle: A minority woman’s point of view. Retrieved April 14, 2015 from
Steen, R. (1996). DNA & Destiny: Nature and Nurture in Human Behaviour. Cambridge: Perseus Publishing.
Thorndike, E. L., "A Constant Error in Psychological Ratings," 1920
Whitley, Bernard E., and Mary E. Kite. The Psychology of Prejudice and Discrimination. Belmont, CA: Thomson Wadsworth, 2006. Print.
Woolfe, L. M. (1998). Ageism: An Introduction. Retrieved April 13, 2015 from
Zack, N. (2002). Philosophy of science and race. New York: Routledge. : full source reference
Zimbardo, P. G. (1992). Psychology and life. (13th ed.). New York: Harper Collins Publishers.

Unless otherwise stated, the content of this page is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License