How do cognitive prejudices affect critical thinking?


Prejudices are stable negative attitudes towards groups or people belonging to this group. Prejudices are often not based on personal experience, but are adopted. Particularly weak personalities are based on prejudice.

Football World Cup 2006 in Germany. Fans from all over the world watch and celebrate the sports spectacle together. (& copy picture-alliance / AP)


Prejudices accompany our everyday life. Everyone has prejudices - just not yourself. How is this possible? Why do I recognize other people's prejudices but not my own? Why do I defend myself against the accusation that I have this or that prejudice and try to prove my judgment as realistic? So is prejudice something wrong or even bad? Aren't there also positive biases?

Cartoon: prejudice
In everyday understanding we use the term prejudice to denote pronounced positive and negative judgments or attitudes of a fellow human being about an object of prejudice, if we do not consider them to be realistic and the person concerned does not deviate from his opinion despite counter-arguments. Since we mostly only reflect our point of view in our judgments and judgments almost always contain certain generalizations, there are moments of prejudice to be found in every judgment.

Definition of terms

In this generality, the term prejudice is of little use. This is why prejudice research, essentially psychology, social psychology and sociology, has narrowed it down and set it apart from other judgments and attitudes. The concept of prejudice is essentially determined by its normative, moral content. According to this, prejudices do not differ from other attitudes by specific inner qualities, but by their social undesirability. The only prejudices that appear are social judgments that violate recognized human values, namely the norms of the
  • Rationality, that is, they violate the requirement to judge other people only on the basis of the most reliable and tested knowledge possible. Prejudices violate this norm of rationality through hasty judgments without precise knowledge of the facts, through rigid, dogmatic clinging to false judgments, in which valid counter-arguments are not recognized, and through false generalizations that conclude that individual cases have general validity.
  • Justice (equal treatment), that is, they treat people or groups of people unequally, their own group is judged according to different standards than other groups. Prejudices fail to adequately weigh up the particular circumstances in which members of other groups exhibit certain characteristics and behaviors.
  • Humanity, that is, they are characterized by intolerance and rejection of the other as a fellow human being and as an individual, they lack the moment of empathy, a positive empathy with other people.
Our definition, which includes these aspects of "social undesirability", limits the concept of prejudice in two ways: It only stands for negative attitudes (although positive generalizations such as "Jews are intelligent" can also be wrong) and is only for attitudes towards people , more precisely human groups. Prejudices are therefore stable negative attitudes towards another group or an individual, because they are included in this group.

Consent to the guilty statements
Due to this normative content, prejudices are not to be defined absolutely, but only in relation to an existing value system, namely as a deviation from the knowledge and moral standards of a society. The stock of prejudices has changed in the course of history and is different depending on the social groups (classes, ethnic groups, religious communities). What is now considered a ridiculous prejudice for everyone (for example the belief in witches) was once one of the undisputed certainties of the church, science and the public.

If one assumes that there are still strong differences in the level of knowledge and in the ideas about justice and humanity between generations, social classes, religious communities and ethnic groups, it is easy to see that it is often controversial whether the description expressed as valid of a group (stereotype) is right or wrong, just or unjust, humane or inhumane. This leads to the problem that everyone knows when people argue about "prejudices": Each party to the conflict gives examples of their point of view, cites experiences or tells stories like: "I know Turks who don't want to learn German at all ...", to prove their generalized judgment that "the Turks do not want to integrate".

Since prejudices are closely linked to positive self-image, self-interest and group conflicts, there is usually no third "objective" authority, so that the truthfulness of the judgments remains controversial. How can one verify right-wing extremist claims that "the Jews have too much power"? It is well known that counterexamples do little because they can be devalued as exceptions. Recognizing prejudices therefore depends on the ability and willingness to critically examine one's own judgments and evaluations for their rationality, their fairness and humanity and to include the possibly divergent perspectives of others. Since one is usually firmly convinced of one's own (pre-) judgments, especially when they affect important traits of one's own person or group, overcoming prejudices is a lengthy and painful process of relearning. Often it is associated with the abandonment of dominance and unjustified privileges.

In European history, too, the ability to criticize one's own worldview and dominate has been an - often difficult - process towards self-awareness and pluralism. The age of great voyages of discovery, which shook the Eurocentric view of the world and the unquestionable naturalness of morals and convictions, forced such a new worldview. With the denominational division of the European peoples since the Reformation, certain truths of faith became doubtful, and the philosophy of the Enlightenment finally saw it as its task to shed light on the darkness of prejudice and "ignorance". The demand for (religious) tolerance was closely linked to the demand for a prejudice-free attitude, namely to allow other (religious) convictions as well. The criticism of the philosophy of the Enlightenment in the 18th century was directed particularly against the dogmatic claim of religions to true judgments. In relation to the accusation of relying on fraud and ignorance, religion now had to justify itself to reason. The Enlightenment leaders have formulated one of the central questions that prejudice research is still concerned with today, namely the manipulation of prejudices - as "interest-determined lies" - in the service of certain interests.

Today's prejudice research examines the functions of this "wrong" thinking. Obviously, prejudices are not subject to any special laws of thought, but rather follow the general psychological rules of thinking, feeling and acting (see following section). A number of other theories attempt to explain how the individual differences in susceptibility to prejudice are to be explained. Other theories ask about the influence of the dynamics of group relationships on the development of prejudice, while still others deal with their transmission from one person to the next.

Source text

Dealing with prejudice

[...] In the meantime, the work of the social psychologist Jens Förster revolves less about the question of what prejudices are or how they arise, but more about how to deal with them properly. Can the individual arm himself against his own and foreign stereotypes, or is he helplessly at the mercy of them? What happens when you suppress prejudice? Such topics deal with three projects funded by the DFG, in which he is involved and which are all intertwined.

For example, the psychologist had students write essays about foreigners on the condition that they avoid any xenophobic cliché. When he subsequently subjected his test subjects to the association test, it became apparent that the intensity of their prejudices had not become weaker, but stronger. If prejudices are suppressed, they are all the more massive, according to Förster's hypothesis. "This is the well-known phenomenon of the pink elephant: if you are not supposed to think about it, you don't think about anything else." If, on the other hand, it could succeed, so his assumption, to "relax" thinking, to replace the suppressed negative associations with positive ones it may be easier to get rid of them.
Another phenomenon that he investigates in his projects is that of the self-fulfilling prophecy, the "self-fulfilling prophecy". Stereotypes not only influence the thinking of those who pronounce them, but also those who they are aimed at. For example, blonde students always performed worse in intelligence tests if they had been told blonde jokes beforehand. Even much more subtle influences have an effect. If women fill out a questionnaire with personal information before solving math problems and also have to state their gender in it, they perform poorly. Social psychology concludes from this: If you focus the attention of women more on their gender, you activate the unconscious prejudice in them that women are less gifted in mathematics. Conversely, men performed worse in the comparison test when their language skills were in demand.
It has been known since the early 1970s that expectations of failure impair performance. Förster's research goes one step further. He was able to show that performance is not reduced in general, but only in a certain way. For example, he had women and men weave thin wires in mosquito screens. If this task was announced as "embroidery", women usually worked faster than men, but also less carefully. If, on the other hand, the work was presented as a technical task, the effect was reversed: the men completed it faster, but more sloppily.
Positive conditioning, Förster believes, has a positive effect not only on speed, but also on creativity; a negative pre-setting, on the other hand, sharpens accuracy, self-discipline and the ability to analyze. As part of his third DFG project, he wants to test this hypothesis. [...]

Sabine Etzold, "Researcher, Singer, Provo", in: Die Zeit from April 28, 2005.