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An Exploration of Social Bias


Social bias can take a wide range of forms, including gender-bias, racial and ethnic bias, and age-related bias. Social bias and its related concepts of prejudice, stereotyping, and discrimination, is a difficult issue to address in the United States today, primarily because many people wish to believe that this major social problem is irrelevant in the 21st century. Fiske notes that in many social environments, including university campuses, the subject of bias is off-limits because people worry that discussing the issue itself constitutes a form of prejudice that may result in major cultural misunderstandings which could undermine the social cohesion of a particular environment. However, in the field of social psychology, bias remains an important concept which has serious implications for our understanding of intergroup relations, the manner in which bias can manifest itself, the impact that bias has on individuals' concept of self, and the strategies which can be used to help individuals and groups overcome the challenge of bias.

Social Bias

Stereotyping, Prejudice, and Discrimination

While all forms of bias utilize category-based responses in which an individual is stripped of his or her unique identity to be treated as an interchangeable member of a social group, social psychologist researchers have identified three distinct types of category-based bias: stereotyping, prejudice, and discrimination. Stereotyping occurs when an individual uses his own assumptions and experiences about a particular social group to inform his perception of an individual member of that same group. According to Todd and colleagues, stereotyping serves a variety of psychological purposes for the perceivers (those who are stereotyping), such as enhancing social identity and providing information about the expected behavior of groups. However, the negative impact on those being stereotyped can be profound because "ascribing a set of attributes to a group can reduce its members to preconceived caricatures and relegate them to marginalized positions in society" (Todd et al., p. 95). Similarly, prejudice and discrimination both serve to divide a social group into in-group and out-group categories based upon the mainstream's perceptions about a particular group. However, prejudice and discrimination are not synonymous: prejudice refers to learned attitudes such as fear and dislike, the stereotypes which justify these attitudes, and the desire to control or otherwise dominate the target group; whereas discrimination represents the behavioral biases which enable one group to deny another access to rights, liberties, and freedoms which are enjoyed by the rest of mainstream society.

Subtle and Blatant Bias

The manner in which bias is expressed can play a significant role in both its acceptance by others and in the impact that stereotyping, prejudice, and discrimination have on the targeted individual or group. Fiske notes that subtle bias tends to be cool and indirect whereas blatant bias tends to be emotionally hot and direct. This means that the former is less recognizable, even to those who are exhibiting subtle bias towards others, whereas the latter is so obvious as to be undeniable. For example, Yoo and colleagues study of Asian American college students found that while instances of recognizable blatant racism such as anti-immigration laws and overtly racial violence have become less prevalent over the last 40 years, Asian Americans are still more likely than other racial groups to experience this form of racism. This is due, in part, to physical characteristics which mark them as different in certain settings, thus rendering them more vulnerable to violence, insult, and ostracism than other racial groups. According to Yoo and colleagues, subtle bias has become the dominant form of bias in the late 20th and early 21st centuries; however, it is often difficult to identify because this form of bias operates "automatically, implicitly, unconsciously, and unintentionally [and often] involves omissions, inactions, or failure to hep rather than a conscious desire to hurt" (p. 324). For example, among Asian American college students, subtle bias often manifests itself in stereotypical and prejudiced expectations that they are either model minorities, perpetual outsiders, or a threat to American values as representatives of the 'yellow peril' (Yoo et al.).

The Impact of Bias on Individuals

Although bias in all of its form can have a significant and negative effect on the cohesion of social groups, its impact on individuals is no less profound. Those who are targeted as victims of blatant bias may find themselves as members of the social out-group, excluded by the in-group through overt means such as governmental legislation, violence, and outright extermination. Factors such as attributional ambiguity and stereotype threat can both contribute to negative self-concepts in individuals who are targets of bias, especially when in-group perceptions of the target group or individual in question become self-fulfilling prophecies. As Todd and colleagues point out, stereotypes, discrimination, and prejudice "tend to be self-validating and self-perpetuating" (p. 95), often making them difficult for targets of bias to overcome, since they undermine individual self-worth, autonomy, and confidence. However, in certain personalities, experiences of bias can evoke a strong and resilient response in which the target of bias rejects external perceptions of his or herself and becomes highly driven to overcome stereotypes, discrimination, and prejudice in order to prove that the perceivers perception of them was incorrect.

Conclusion: Overcoming Social Biases

Both the reduction of blatant forms of bias in the United States over the last several decades and trends towards increased demographic diversity throughout the nation provide hope that it is possible for social biases to be largely kept in check, if not overcome altogether. Fiske suggests that, under very specific conditions, intergroup contact can be a successful strategy for improving the relationship between members of socially distinct groups. For example, integrated classrooms where all students are given equal status and share a common goal can help to improve the self-esteem and academic performance of minorities because students' similarities in this setting come to outweigh their perceived differences. Additionally, Todd and colleagues suggest that encouraging individuals to develop the ability to consider the psychological perspectives of others in a wide variety of social situations may help to decrease intergroup prejudices and other instances of social bias. As both of these strategies indicate, overcoming social bias is not a simple matter, but rather requires collective and thoughtful action from both those who are targeted victims of bias and those who both commit acts of bias and those whose inaction and silence allows its perpetuation.


Fiske, S. T.. Social beings: Core motives in social psychology (2nd ed.). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.

Fiske, S.T. & Molm, L.D. Bridging inequality from both sides now. Social Psychology Quarterly, 73(4): 341-346.

ItchyBrainsCentral. Research paper on culture and laws. Online.

Todd, A.R., Galinsky, A.D., & Bodenhausen, G.V.. Perspective taking undermines stereotype maintenance processes: Evidence from social memory, behavior explanation, and information solicitation. Social Cognition, 30(1): 94-108.

Yoo, H.C., Steger, M.F., & Lee, R.M.. Validation of the subtle and blatant racism scale for Asian American college students. Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology, 16(3): 323-334.