Prejudice is generally defined in one of two ways:
1) A preconceived opinion that is not based on reason or actual experience. This is the broadest definition and allows for being biased in a positive direction (such as assuming that harpists are poised and elegant). Wikipedia goes a step further, saying an affective feeling towards a person based on that person’s perceived group membership.
2) An unfavorable opinion or feeling formed beforehand or without knowledge, thought, or reasons; unreasonable feelings, opinions, or attitudes, especially of a hostile nature (like thinking all wrestlers are vulgar and uncouth), regarding an ethnic, racial, social, or religious group.
Prejudice is one of the root causes of human conflict. Conflict, in turn, can result in crime, war, systemic repression, and mass murder. Writers note: anything that creates conflict between characters or between a character and society can be used in your writing.
Where prejudice comes from:
1) We tend to take on the attitudes—including prejudices—of the social groups to which we belong. Social groups include gender, race, ethnicity, nationality, social class, religion, sexual orientation, profession, etc., etc., etc. Adopting the attitudes of one’s social groups, including family, is often a means of fitting in and being liked. Thus, prejudice may serve a social adjustive function.
2) Sometimes assuming a host of characteristics based on knowing one is cognitively efficient. We don’t have to spend time gathering information or even stopping to think.
3) And sometimes, prejudice serves an ego-defensive function. If simply by being who we are we can feel superior to whole groups of people—e.g., all women, all blacks, all immigrants, all yellow ducklings—it helps counterbalance negative information about oneself (such as being chronically unemployed, ugly, or unpopular).
Like other attitudes, prejudice has cognitive, affective, and behavioral components.
Cognitive: overgeneralized beliefs or stereotypes. E.g., Yankees fans are arrogant and obnoxious.
Affective: prejudice, feelings about people that could be positive but are more often negative. For example, I hate Yankee fans. They make me angry.
Behavioral: the treatment of others. When negative, it is discrimination, and may lead to excluding, avoiding, or biased treatment of group members. Example: I would never hire or become friends with a person if I knew he or she were a Yankees fan.
Although people can hold positive stereotypes, prejudices, and discriminatory actions based on group membership—for example, giving preferential treatment to people who are like themselves—it behooves us to focus on the negative because that is what is most problematic.
First impressions: When meeting new people, we automatically note race, gender, and age because these social categories provide a wealth of information about the individual—albeit, based on stereotypes.
Categories of bias: Racism, sexism, ageism, sexual orientation, nationalism, class-ism, religious discrimination, linguistic discrimination, and more.
Self-fulfilling Prophecy: An expectation held by a person about how another person will behave, which leads to treating the person according to our expectations. The treatment can influence the person to act according to our stereotypic expectations, thus confirming the original stereotypic beliefs. (Think teacher expectations, employer expectations, etc.)
Confirmation Bias: Paying more attention to information that is consistent with our stereotypic expectations than to information that is inconsistent with our expectations..
In-groups and Out-groups: An in-group is a group we see ourselves as belonging to, involving a strong sense of belonging and emotional connection that leads to in-group bias and preferences. Out-groups are seen as different in fundamental ways, less likable, often resulting in discrimination. When an in-group’s goals are delayed or thwarted, an out-group is often blamed. This is scape-goating.
Bottom line for writers: stereotypes, prejudices, and discrimination can define characters and situations. Think thoughts, affects, and actions and how each can work with POV and plot.