Where do discrimination and prejudice come from?

by Marc Wilson / 10 October, 2017
RelatedArticlesModule - Prejudice discrimination

Photo/Getty Images

People’s attitudes to discrimination and prejudice usually stem from their childhood, says psychology professor Marc Wilson.

Why do people hate each other to the point that they’ll go armed to a “peaceful” rally because they want to protect a symbol of historic slavery?

The answer, for a group of Jewish researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, in the aftermath of World War II, was that bad acts are committed by bad people. These researchers – Theodor Adorno, Else Frenkel-Brunswik, Daniel Levinson, and Nevitt Sanford – proposed that the people responsible for the Holocaust displayed an “authoritarian personality”.

It came about, they said, because Germans of the time raised their children in a punitive and unaffectionate way, which made the children angry. Anger, as Yoda might say, leads to fear that can’t be diminished by telling your parents to stop being so mean. You love your parents and, besides, they’ll punish you if you step out of line. So, instead, you find a scapegoat to aggress against to make you feel better.

They also suggested that this authoritarian personality could be measured using their catchily named California Fascism Scale, which is now available online. According to my scores, I am a “liberal airhead” (but not quite a “whining rotter”). The F-Scale fell out of favour because of some fatal flaws and because, as it turns out, authoritarians could be found everywhere in the southern states of the US.

Theodor Adorno. Photo/Getty Images

Now we have new ways to assess people’s predisposition to authority, and there has been a resurgence in the view of personality-like ideas as the foundation for prejudice and discrimination.

One important development comes from Auckland emeritus professor John Duckitt. He synthesised decades of work to propose that there are two different, but complementary, personality-like pathways to prejudice. As with the Berkeley group, Duckitt sees these as blooming in childhood.

First – and here’s where Duckitt draws inspiration from Berkeley – imagine a childhood characterised by punishment for even the smallest transgressions. This Wednesday’s child is likely to become a conformist – how better to avoid a spanking than not to stand out? But the world is a dangerous place for this kid, with evildoers around every corner wishing you ill.

As a result, such a person will come to value legitimate authority, because those are the institutions and people who will protect them from evildoers. Such a person will see threats everywhere, because these people look different from them and profess different beliefs and ideologies. Boom, intergroup conflict.

Alternatively, imagine a childhood without enough hugs, he says. Such a child is more likely to develop a ruthless and tough-minded personality and grow to see the world as a jungle.

How do jungles work? The alpha predators are at the top of the hierarchy, with the prey on the rungs below, and this kind of person will want to be the predator. As a result, they denigrate people who look and think differently from them, because outsiders threaten social, political and economic hierarchies.

A wealth of research worldwide shows these ideas explain to a large degree how people see each other.

So, my recipe for making the world a better place is to hug your kids, but not too much. Be a role model and don’t be unnecessarily punitive. It ain’t rocket science.  

This article was first published in the September 30, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.


The art and soul of Te Papa
88235 2018-03-17 00:00:00Z Arts

The art and soul of Te Papa

by Sally Blundell

Twenty years ago, Te Papa opened with little space to exhibit its national art collection. Now, it is showing off its new dedicated art space.

Read more
Does chewing more help curb your appetite?
87918 2018-03-17 00:00:00Z Nutrition

Does chewing more help curb your appetite?

by Jennifer Bowden

Our appetite-control hormones are affected by chewing, according to some studies, whereas others show no change.

Read more
How Auckland rapper JessB went from face in the crowd to queen of the stage
88396 2018-03-16 09:42:00Z Music

How Auckland rapper JessB went from face in the cr…

by Vomle Springford

Auckland rapper JessB is making her mark in the male-dominated hip-hop scene with the release of her much-anticipated debut EP Bloom.

Read more
Defence Minister Ron Mark defends his use of military aircraft
88389 2018-03-16 07:02:40Z Politics

Defence Minister Ron Mark defends his use of milit…

by Craig McCulloch

Defence Minister Ron Mark is denying any inappropriate use of military aircraft after revelations he has used them to fly to and from home.

Read more
Corrections moves sex offenders from lodge close to school
88387 2018-03-16 06:55:59Z Crime

Corrections moves sex offenders from lodge close t…

by Eva Corlett and Sally Murphy

Corrections says it will review its processes after it was discovered 11 sex offenders were living less than a kilometre away from an Auckland school.

Read more
Rodney Walshe: One of Ireland's best-known exports to New Zealand
88222 2018-03-16 00:00:00Z Profiles

Rodney Walshe: One of Ireland's best-known exports…

by Clare de Lore

When he arrived here from Ireland in 1960, Rodney Walshe had nothing but a suit and the gift of the gab. They took him a long way.

Read more
Derek Handley talks Trump, business and coming home
88378 2018-03-16 00:00:00Z Profiles

Derek Handley talks Trump, business and coming hom…

by Clare de Lore

The nomadic New Zealander who’s set his sights on space travel is no longer an alien.

Read more
How Lisa Walker went from teenage Wellington punk to celebrated jeweller
88263 2018-03-16 00:00:00Z What's on

How Lisa Walker went from teenage Wellington punk …

by Mike White

The Anarchist jeweller has a remarkable show at new Te Papa gallery, Toi Art.

Read more