The psychology of prejudice (unpacking Plous)

Posted on January 19, 2010


Unpacking Plous: The Psychology of Prejudice

Rachel Rustad

Portland State University

Research in the intersections of peace and social psychology reveal that must know ourselves in order to be able to intentionally, consciously, and critically delve into what brings us to the place of prejudice and hate.  Yet, what brings us to this process of prejudice, to this process of hate?  Is it merely the fear of what our reptilian brain discerns as different from ourselves, from the groups we belong to and identify with? Is it difference that deters us from each other, or is it more of a subconscious process where difference represents something which we fear? Furthermore, when we talk about diversity and multiculturalism, do we wish to merely tolerate difference or do we wish to celebrate and encourage difference, as the key to diversity is not sameness but difference?

Plous (2003) illuminates some of the answers to these questions in his thoughtful and thorough analysis of prejudice and discrimination. Furthermore, Plous (2003) describes the ways in which our neurobiological processes shape the ways in which our social experiences are organized. Through an exhaustive presentation of numerous research studies on the connections between prejudice and categorical thinking, Plous (2003) reveals that the natural tendency to categorize can have disastrous effects when carried over to the social realm if it remains on an unconscious level (pp. 3-5). However if we bring these natural tendencies to our conscious awareness, we can minimize the potential negative consequences of categorical thinking by illuminating the ways in which our brains create boundaries between ourselves and the outside world with the intention of illuminating prejudice and hate in order to move towards acceptance and love (Plous, 2003, pp. 3-4).

Furthermore, Plous (2003) describes what we have to lose if we do not bring these deeply-rooted neurobiological processes to a conscious, present intentionality:

Despite the usefulness of categories in everyday life, they can be devastating when people falsely isolate themselves from the environment, from animals, and nature, or from each other. (p. 4)

Despite biological and genetic scientific evidence that race is on a continuum rather than a dichotomy, Plous (2003) utilizes the example of the social construction of racial categories in the United States, where the false pseudo-science of white superiority was manipulated to justify the centuries-long process of Black enslavement and exploitation through the system of white supremacy (p. 4). As Plous (2003) reveals, the disastrous consequences of covert and overt prejudice can be overcome if we bring to the public consciousness the connections between neurobiological processes of differentiation and survival and the social systems which we create.

If we want to create a just world where human rights and needs are not merely tolerated but revered, we must make a conscious effort to both know ourselves and know each other, and not merely despite of, but because of our differences. For as Audre Lorde (1984) so tellingly illuminated in her essay, The Masters Tools Will Never Dismantle the Masters House:

Advocating the mere tolerance of difference between [us] is the grossest reformism. It is a total denial of the creative function of difference in our lives. Difference must be not merely tolerated, but seen as a fund of necessary polarities between which our creativity can spark like dialectic. Only then does the necessity for interdependence become unthreatening. Only within that interdependency of different strengths, acknowledged and equal, can the power to seek new ways of being in the world generate, as well as the courage and sustenance to act where there are no charters. (p. 111).

By expanding the question from, what brings us to this process of prejudice and hate to, what brings us from this place of prejudice and hate to a place of acceptance and love.  By creatively bringing often subconscious interpersonal neurobiological dynamics to the forefront, Lorde (1984) describes how we can shift the way we see difference, and rather than fear it, we can celebrate it as a strength which unites us all.


Lorde, A. (1984). Sister outsider: Essays and speeches by Audre Lorde. Freedom, CA:

The Crossing Press.

Plous, S. (2003). The psychology of prejudice, stereotyping and discrimination: An overview. In

S. Plous (Ed.), Understanding Prejudice and Discrimination (pp. 3-48). New York: McGraw-Hill. Accessed online at:

Posted in: Uncategorized