Prejudice in the sense of prejudging someone on the basis of incomplete information before getting to know them is probably inevitable. We all take cognitive shortcuts and respond to new encounters at least somewhat on the basis of previous encounters that may or may not be adequately generalizable to the new situation. However, prejudice in the sense of believing or acting in a way that is harmful to others is not inevitable. Certain personality types and group backgrounds are more likely to exhibit high levels of harmful prejudice, as much of the literature shows.
According to Altemeyer (2004), higher levels of harmful prejudice occur in individuals who display high levels of social dominance and/or right-wing authoritarianism (RWA). In those who display both, their levels of harmful prejudice tend to be the highest. While most individuals high in RWA are quite submissive to authority, those who score high in both actually want to be the authorities that other people submit to. Both groups and the combination tend to be quite dogmatic, so it would be very difficult to change opinions in these groups. On the other hand, fortunately, the truly high scorers are a small minority.
Graziano & Habashi (2010) similarly found that those who are agreeable – who tend to submit to authorities – can express prejudice, depending on who they follow. They describe theories of self regulation and social accommodation that explain how an otherwise agreeable person can display harmful prejudice.
The group norm theory of attitudes (Crandall, Eshlemen, & O’Brien, 2002) describes how the willingness to express or suppress prejudicial attitudes will vary based on group norms. We have seen this with people who watch Fox “News” or listen to Rush Limbaugh all the time; families are being torn apart as these watchers and listeners become ever more eager to express the prejudiced views that have been reinforced by the group of commentators they have exposed themselves to at length. Furthermore, it does not seem to be just the vocal expression or suppression of harmful prejudice that is affected; opinions are internalized, as can be shown, among other measures, by what jokes people think are funny.
Nevertheless, there are various interventions that have met with some success in the laboratory and in the field, including workplace diversity training, media campaigns, intergroup contact and cooperation, and reading interventions (Paluck & Green, 2009). Graziano & Habashi (2010) recommend operant conditioning, since people tend to have a startle reflex to new situations – with increased exposure, we learn there is nothing to be startled about. Indeed, in some mixed race neighborhoods and diverse schools, younger generations seem to have less harmful prejudices than their parents. But we must not let up on improving and embracing diversity.
As far as workplace scenarios, there are many instances of discrimination, from hiring to retaining to including to promoting. For example, someone may not get invited to luncheons where lower-level employees meet potential mentors. In organizations such as workplaces, it is vital that organizational leaders set a good example. The more a person is committed to their organization, the more they follow the leader if s/he is discriminatory; it only takes a mild preference for over-committed employees to boldly discriminate (Petersen & Dietz, 2008). Unfortunately, however, as managers identify with their group and perceive themselves to hold higher power, they have a tendency to discriminate more (Courtois & Herman, 2015); according to social identity theory, this identification as a “winner” becomes part of the manager’s identity and as s/he perceives more power, s/he has more investment in maintaining the status quo. This can be eased, however, by organizational commitment to diversity such that not all managers are white males, and diverse groups of managers work together; also clarify that others have power/responsibility besides managers. More value should be placed on the individual, not the status (Liberman, 2014).
Too much attention paid can make the situation worse, as when health promotion campaigns target obesity in the workplace (Levay, 2014). However, with the appropriate approval of diversity in the workplace by the upper levels of the organization, workplaces can be much more egalitarian.
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