The Psychology of Discrimination

Unlike most animals, human beings have the ability to form groups and perform actions in coordination to achieve desired results. Yuval Noah Harari in his book, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, uses this thread of reasoning to argue that this collective action is a major reason behind our control on our environment. This group-driven, goal-oriented behaviour means that each group then prescribes to an overt or underlying purpose, which gives the group identity. This identity creation differs between groups and leads to multifarious groups with varying goals. This separation is useful as it creates a basis for the division of labour and multiple types of tasks are completed by specific groups. However, over time, if stringent norms are created and rigidity enters the mix, then group separation leads towards discrimination. 

One of the first conceptualization of a theory to understand discrimination was put forth by Sheriff in 1960. In a series of experiments dubbed as the Robber’s cave experiments, he understood that discrimination between groups is dependent on the availability of resources. If the resource is limited and two different groups or more are vying for a share, then the more dominant group will try to give as less of the resource as possible to the minority group. This resource can be anything from land, mineral, oil, labour, money and so on. Most of our lives revolve around availing resource and some groups always try to keep themselves in a privileged position to get more access. This theory is known as the realistic group conflict theory. Here the assumption is that the groups are divided based on an identity of their own due to which they safeguard resources for their in-groups. 

Sheriff further realized that if these groups have goals that are bigger than the bickering for the resource, then they may be able to cooperate. Say for example a flood is predicted and the resource, say land, needs to be protected as it’s important for both groups. In a situation like that, the two groups would begin to work together in order to protect the resource from the flood. These are called as superordinate goals. In their presence groups can cooperate but in their absence, each group in an attempt to save the resource for themselves discriminates another group.

Following up on this view of discrimination, Tajfel and Turner in 1974 wondered whether group division itself has some rationale or could group simply be formed without any prior knowledge of any of its members. They experimented with a scenario precisely as such. They arbitrarily divided people into groups and gave them tasks where they needed to divide tokens between their newly formed group and the newly formed out-group. Bear in mind that no reason or rationale existed for this group division and yet through their research, they found that individuals tended to give more to their own group members even though there was no logical reason for why they belonged to that groups, but simply that they did. This finding was ground-breaking as it clearly demonstrated that as human beings we don’t need to have rationales for dividing ourselves into groups in terms of religions, caste, or races. The fact that we are categorized as groups is then enough for us to discriminate. The other finding that came out of Tajfel and Turners Self Identity theory was that individuals don’t discriminate to harm the out-group but to protect their in-group. This meant that discrimination did not necessarily mean intended harm but it was a by-product of in-group protection.

Sometimes certain groups are targeted and others are not, meaning that discrimination isn’t a uniform and universal behaviour but a more thought out and controlled activity. The BAIS map theories explain why this might be the case.

According to the BAIS map theories, non-dominant groups are viewed on two major dimensions – warmth and competence. If a group feels warmly towards another, then discrimination doesn’t take place and is usually replaced by aspects of protection or pity. But if the nondominant group is viewed low on the dimension on warmth then discrimination will take place. But the way in which discrimination will take place will depend on the view on the non-dominant group’s competence. 

If they are perceived to be low on competence and are not thought of as a major threat then more passive forms of discrimination will take place, such as avoidance of eye contact, lack of acknowledgement of their work and presence and so on. If they are viewed high on competence dimension then active forms of discrimination will take place, such as hitting, verbal abuse, and restriction of opportunities. If you take the example of the holocaust, Jews were viewed low on the warmth dimension as they were accused of taking away German jobs and wealth, which meant that they were high on the dimension of competence. All of which combined into creating the worst form of discrimination. 

These views portray discrimination as being dependent on the group composition and an outcome of the same. Some theorist, however, says that discrimination may be a personality trait and to dominate a member of a non-dominant group is, therefore, an outcome of having a disposition that looks to discriminated as the individual is oriented in that manner. 

  1. This three day workshop was a great introduction to CBT and covered a variety of content. The facilitator was well-informed…