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Psychodynamic Approach to Prejudice

Xenia Kozlov

The psychodynamic theory explains prejudice, stereotyping, and discrimination as processes, which occur on a personal level and aims to satisfy individual's needs, which are in their turn rooted in two counterpart instincts, Eros (life) and Thanatos (death). The main idea of the Psychodynamic model is that opposing diversity refers to abnormal functioning (James et al., 2013, p. 92).

I tried to find the place of psychodynamic theory using the CAB model and considering personal, social, and ideological levels of prejudice (Dovidio, Schellhaas & Pearson, 2019; James et al., 2013).

CAB, Prejudice & Psychodynamic model.

When being referred to prejudice, Psychodynamic model bases on three principles (James et al.,2013):

1. Predisposition to hostility, especially when facing or perceiving danger

2. Concept of aggression, which is related to Thanatos, as a result of frustration. Frustration is caused by the inability to gain experiences and feelings related to Eros (love, comfort, nurture). Further, it was supposed that external factors stimulate aggression, and the movement from frustration to aggression may move vice versa.

3. Prejudice is not ubiquitous (i.e., prejudice is abnormal).

Also, there are several phenomena explained by the Psychodynamic model: aggression displacement, scapegoating, personal authoritarianism, and the need for cognitive closure (James et al., 2013). Learning about those, I can make an assumption - while the first two refer rather to striving for wealth, the second pair seems to be directed onto preserving what was already gained. For instance, scapegoating (I also heard term "cascading aggression," e.g., Lansford, Malone, Dodge, Pettit & Bates, 2010) aims to aggression relief and thus gaining comfort, while the need for closure which is defined as willing to adhere existing rules to produce definite conclusions to create a cognitive shortcut between fact and conclusion, - maintains individual's status quo. These examples are more straightforward, for my understanding, because they describe pretty clear behaviors; authoritarianism and aggression displacement seems to be the original phenomena for these actions. At the same time, aggression displacement is assumed to be a prescribed behavior for powerless groups, according to an authoritarian personal worldview. Also, aggression displacement can become a result of scapegoating, and the need for closure is one of the measures for personal authoritarianism, together with F-scale, Dogmatic scale, Simple-structured beliefs measure, etc. (Jones at al., 2013). So, here is how the connections can look like:

Aggression displacement Scapegoating

Behavioral method/tacticsAction for leveling consequences of this method

← An action resulting in aggression displacement in scapegoating target

Personal authoritarianism Need for closure

Cognitive-behavioral pattern Action for the defense of this pattern

← Measure for personal authoritarianism

Social Justice

Social justice principles are promoting justice, equity, valuing diversity, and equal opportunities to all its members, and supporting the fair distribution of resources and support for their human rights. Any number of diverse factors, including race, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, age, disability, education, social class, political affiliation, beliefs, and so and so on - can lead to discriminatory behaviors from the groups or individuals who may have a degree of power in their hands (Bhugra, 2016). Prejudice as a negative attitude to individuals or groups based on these factors is the cause of discrimination and, thus, the obstacle for social justice. Moreover, bias prevents people from taking practical actions for human rights defense – when people are aware that prejudice and discrimination are worldwide, they may refrain from supportive actions (Kahn, Barreto, Kaiser & Rego, 2016).

Usually, three main approaches to overcoming prejudice and promoting social justice are named: establishing superordinate goals, jigsaw method, and mutual intergroup differentiation (Jones et al., 2013). In terms of the Psychodynamic model, all three must be considered about personal traits – in other words, an individual approach is needed. I believe, informing and training is crucial for both sides of discrimination process – first, according to intersectional theory, every individual's life is located on the intersection of related groups and institutions, so every individual is a unique combination of powerful and powerless traits; second, the movement towards social justice must be mutual. Powerful groups need to be taught responsibility as an inherent part of power (Kahn, Barreto, Kaiser & Rego, 2016); oppressed groups need to be supported and informed of how they can resist and where they can get help. Back to our concepts, a superordinate goal could eliminate the necessity of aggression and scapegoating. Mutual intergroup differentiation, probably, may help authoritarian people to understand that being different is normal. As for the need for closure, we cannot give critical thinking to all people, but we can use this narrowness as a benefit in a jigsaw model.

Allport Lens Model

According to psychologist Gordon Allport, prejudice has multiple causes and sources. In his Allport Lens model, he categorizes the origins of prejudice as historical, sociocultural, situational, personality dynamics and structure, phenomenological, and stimulus-object (Jones at al., 2013). I prefer this approach to analyzing prejudice because it acknowledges the multitude of causes that can be explained by individual and group differences.

The categories start broad and then narrow down. The first category, historical, suggests that prejudice is promoted to preserve the dominance of the established majority group (Jones at al., 2013). For example, if two opposing groups conflict with each other, the winning side may be deemed the dominant majority group. That group would then want to keep their dominance and, in doing so, show their prejudice toward the other (lesser) group. The next category of prejudice is sociocultural. According to this category of prejudice, beliefs, and values that are associated with success represent importance and those lacking the symbols of success are looked down upon (Jones at al., 2013). An example of this may be socioeconomic status. Those with a high socioeconomic status may value education level, income, and occupation as markers of success and therefore see themselves as more successful compared to those with a low socioeconomic status. Because they see themselves as more successful, they will show prejudice to those with less education, lower incomes, and occupations.

The situational category finds that bias comes from “actual or perceived competition” (Jones at al., 2013, p. 91) and the need to feel positive about one’s group or status (Jones at al., 2013). In this situation, the actual or perceived competition could be among social or cultural groups. Personality dynamics and structure focuses on the individual differences in prejudice, in other words, how and why individuals differ in their biases toward others (Jones at al., 2013). A person’s personality describes the way they interact with the world. Some personality types have distorted ways of viewing the world and oppose the idea of diversity while others do not (Jones at al., 2013). Personality dynamics and structure help to explain these differences. The phenomenological category explains how prejudice comes from an immediate experience and the assumption that historical, sociocultural, and character-based factors define the reaction and a causal explanation for prejudiced behavior (Jones at al., 2013). With this approach, a terrorist attack by a particular group may cause others to perceive anyone that looks like they belong to that group to be a terrorist as well. The last category, stimulus-object, is the most immediate cause of prejudice which focuses on the target of prejudice and how group differences explain negative treatment in a situation (Jones at al., 2013).

Social justice can be a way to appreciate differences in others. Understanding that others have different worldviews helps to understand people’s motivations and reactions to diversity (Jones at al., 2013). Though the text says this can be a way for liberals and conservatives to understand each other in politics, I think this can apply to any situation where there are differences between individuals. At least if two opposing groups can come to a mutual understanding about their differences this may promote more empathy and trust between groups and may diminish some of their prejudices.

From the previous course, we have learned that perception is formed by brain responses on stimuli and that usually perception operates in terms of multimodality (Lachs, 2019). We know that we do react to others’ emotions, mimics, and gestures, as well as react to our own thinking and imagination. We know how our best and worst selves were formed as a result of evolutionary processes (TED, 2017). We also know about the empathy, its cognitive and affective components (Bošnjaković & Radionov, 2018), and now we know the roots of bias, its function, the role of memory (Jones et al., 2013). So, knowing all these, trace the way of emerging bias, from the brain to behaviors and ideology. What do you think is the most important factor in shaping bias? Do we still need biases from the perspective of evolution? What biases should be addressed first, why and how?


Bhugra, D. (2016). Social discrimination and social justice. International Review of Psychiatry, 28(4), 336-341, DOI: 10.1080/09540261.2016.1210359

Bošnjaković, J., & Radionov, T. (2018). Empathy: Concepts, theories and neuroscientific basis. Alcoholism and Psychiatry Research, 54(2), 123-150.

Dovidio, J., Schellhaas, F., & Pearson, A. (2019). Prejudice. Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Psychology. Retrieved 16 Jan. 2020, from

Jones, J. M., et al. (2013). The Psychology of Diversity: Beyond Prejudice and Racism. John Wiley & Sons, Inc., ProQuest Ebook Central. Retrieved from

Kahn, K.B., Barreto, M., Kaiser, C.R., and Rego, M.S. (2016). When do high and low-status group members support confrontation? The role of the perceived pervasiveness of prejudice. British Journal of Social Psychology, 55, 27-43. DOI:10.1111/bjso.12117

Lansford, J., Malone, P., Dodge, K., Pettit, G. & Bates, J. (2010). Developmental Cascades of Peer Rejection, Social Information Processing Biases, and Aggression During Middle Childhood. Development and psychopathology. 22. 593-602. 10.1017/S0954579410000301.

TED. (2017, May 31). The biology of our best and worst selves | Robert Sapolsky. Retrieved from

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