When prejudice turns into discrimination and unlawful behaviour

by Verena Braehler

Published: 29 Jul 2016

The Commission called on the UK government to review its hate crime strategy to tackle the dramatic rise in race hate crime after the EU referendum. Since then, the UK government has published its plan for tackling hate crime, called Action Against Hate.

Today we published a new research report on Prejudice and unlawful behaviour led by Professor Dominic Abrams, Hannah Swift and Lynsey Mahmood at the University of Kent that helps us understand the bigger picture of hate crime and other types of unlawful behaviour which come about because of people’s prejudice.

We all use social categories when we interact with other people and navigate through our daily lives. This has practical reasons, for example to find out which church to enter, and social reasons, for example how to address someone when you meet them for the first time.

However, sometimes the way people categorise one another can be influenced by prejudice. Abrams describes prejudice as a bias that devalues people because of their perceived membership of a social group. That means that a lower value, status or importance is attached to a person of that group.

Prejudice can manifest itself in different forms. It can be direct and explicit, for example when a younger person tells an older person that they cannot participate in a sport activity because they are too old. It can also be more indirect and subtle, for example when an older patient in hospital is being patronised by relatives and hospital staff who mean well but stop the older person from taking his or her own decisions.

"Prejudice always has the potential to cause harm."

Regardless of its form and intention, prejudice always has the potential to cause harm because it reduces the value, status or importance attached to people from ‘the other group’.

Some people try to justify prejudice or discrimination by arguing that a particular ‘outgroup’ poses a threat to their own (sometimes dominant or majority) ‘ingroup’ in society. This perceived threat can be realistic (dominant group feels their safety and health is threatened), symbolic (values or way of life is threatened) or economic (jobs or property is threatened).

We commissioned the research so we can understand more about how social categorisation and prejudice work. We also wanted to explore the link between individuals’ prejudice and particular acts of unlawful behaviour. Knowing that not all groups in our society are affected by prejudice in the same way, we wanted to shed light on the different experiences of people with different protected characteristics. Finally, we wanted to find out what works to prevent or respond to unlawful behaviour that comes about because of prejudice.

"We know much less about all of this than we assumed."

It has been a surprise to us and to the researchers that, in fact, we know much less about all of this than we assumed. The researchers looked at 228 pieces of evidence, including 24 evaluations of interventions, and found that there is little robust evidence that directly links individuals’ prejudice with particular acts of unlawful behaviour. This means that although we can assume there is a link, what this link looks like and how it works is still not very clear.

However for the first time we are able to draw a complete picture of what we do know about prejudice and unlawful behaviour and found some interesting connections:

  • disability discrimination can often be driven by structural barriers, over-simplistic categorisation and patronising stereotypes. Some studies showed that people with mental health conditions experienced more negative attitudes than people with physical disabilities
  • there is some evidence that there is less prejudice towards Black and Asian people than towards Eastern European people
  • Muslims are amongst the most targeted group for prejudiced attitudes and this is often linked to a perceived cultural threat
  • expressions of religious prejudice often focus on visible differences like wearing a hijab
  • age stereotypes can be particularly damaging for older people who are often treated in a benevolent and patronising way which can affect the way they see themselves or even their ability to do some things
  • attitudes towards women can appear to be positive but may mask more benevolent or patronising forms of prejudice. There is a disconnect between apparently positive attitudes and the high levels of violence against women and girls
  • attitudes towards same-sex relationships and marriage have become more positive over time, although support tends to be greater among younger age groups. However, one piece of research showed that helping behaviour, like lending money for a parking fee, was lower towards a person perceived to be homosexual, compared to a heterosexual person

These are just some of the insights that this research has brought together. Although we understand that prejudice affects people differently, we have also found out that solutions do not need to be group-specific to be effective and that using educational methods to change attitudes works well across a number of groups.

Find out more about our work on prejudice and unlawful behaviour.