Discussing Stereotypes, Prejudices, and Discrimination in Your Social Psychology Course  

Thomas Gilovich is the Irene Blecker Rosenfeld Professor of Psychology and codirector of the Center for Behavioral Economics and Decision Research at Cornell University. He has taught social psychology for more than 35 years and is the recipient of the Russell Distinguished Teaching Award at Cornell. His research focuses on judgment, decision-making, and well-being, and he is a coauthor of W. W. Norton’s textbook Social Psychology.  

Thomas Gilovich
Image Credit: Tom Gilovich

We social psychologists have it relatively easy when it comes to classroom teaching. Students tend to come to our classrooms deeply interested in the material because they are able to immediately grasp how social psychology applies to their lives. And much of what we talk about in class lends itself to the kind of storytelling that makes it seem as if the material teaches itself: how easy (and human) it is to rationalize our mistakes; why early information has more impact than information encountered later; or how painful it can be to resist the will of the majority.  

What’s true of social psychology generally is especially true of the social psychology of stereotyping, prejudice, and discrimination. Our students really care about this material because they encounter it in their lives every day, either up close and personal or in what they so often hear and read about ethnic, racial, religious, and social-class tensions—and efforts to overcome them. Every student is also a member of a majority or minority group—often a minority in one area and a majority in another—which makes it especially easy for them to apply the material they read about in the text or learn about in class to their own lives.    

At the same time, the material is emotionally charged, and so more than the usual amount of care needs to be taken in discussing the topics of stereotyping, prejudice, and discrimination. Some students will be reluctant to lend their voices to the discussion, some may find what is voiced upsetting, and the discussion can become tense or ingenuine. Here are some things we’ve learned from teaching this material ourselves that tap into students’ great interest in these topics while honoring the fears and anxieties that students can have when discussing them.  

Don’t forget to pick the low-hanging fruit. In the Sixth Edition of Social Psychology, a big part of Chapter 11, “Living in a Prejudiced World,” aims to make students aware of many of the stereotypes, prejudices, and forms of discrimination that influence so much of everyday social life. One way to do so is to have your students take one of the Implicit Association Tests offered on the Project Implicit website (https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/). A remarkable number of participants come away from the experience with a (sometimes unsettling) recognition that they harbor a stereotype they didn’t know they had. This can also be done as an in-class demonstration, asking students to tap on their desks in response to particular combinations of stimuli you present to them. This is a nearly fail-safe exercise for revealing widespread implicit stereotypes about gender and political orientation, for example. The paradigm pioneered by Hugenberg and Bodenhausen (2003) to reveal a greater readiness to perceive anger in Black faces than in White faces can also be used in the classroom as a reliable means of revealing implicit bias. 

Get students in touch with the scope of the (systemic) problems. Students know that the average White person in the United States is wealthier than the average Black or Hispanic person. But learning about the extent of these differences is illuminating to many people. This can be done as an in-class exercise before students are exposed to Figure 11.12 in Social Psychology by employing the procedure of Kraus, Rucker, and Richeson (2017): have students estimate how many dollars the average Black family has for every $100 owned by the average White family. Then show students the actual data: a lively and informative discussion is almost guaranteed to ensue.  

Such exercises and the discussions they prompt are also almost certain to reveal that there are substantial differences in people’s assessments of how much progress we’ve made in terms of equality and the expansion of rights for historically marginalized groups. An informative starting point for a discussion of those differences can be introduced by using the paradigm developed by Eibach and Ehrlinger (2006). This can be done in several ways. One is to have students assess, before coming to class, how much progress there’s been in terms of (pick one) racial relations, gender equality, LGBTQ rights, etc., in terms of where we are now compared to where we were 25, 50, or 100 years ago. Then, in class, have them assess the progress made in terms of where we are now compared to where we need to go—in terms of genuine, complete equality. You can then point out the different estimates the students made using the different frames, discuss the reasons for that difference, and the reasons why different people might spontaneously use one frame or the other. 

Explore, in real time, the anxieties that can accompany intergroup interactions. Members of minority groups sometimes worry about confirming common stereotypes about them; members of the majority sometimes worry about coming across as racist, sexist, or entitled; and political partisans sometimes worry about how quickly interactions with the “other side” can become nasty, even explosive. In a respectful and supportive classroom atmosphere, discussions about these worries can be both illuminating and reassuring. Ask students what they get anxious about when thinking about interacting with people from a different racial, ethnic, religious, or political group. If you’re worried about your students not owning up to any of these fears, you can use the common procedure (used in various tests of the Stereotype Content Model, for example—Cuddy, Fiske, & Glick, 2007) of asking people about the fears that other people in these different groups often have. It can also be helpful to cap these discussions by soliciting suggestions for what people can do to deal with or overcome these fears, including what the students themselves have done to do so. 

Discuss what social psychologists uniquely bring to the table on these issues. Chapter 11 draws on research from many disciplines—social psychology (of course), economics, criminology, political science, sociology, and anthropology. It is useful, however, to have a discussion with students about what social psychologists uniquely bring to the table. What phenomena in the chapter might only have been discovered or explored by a social psychologist? How have the laboratory experiments that social psychologists prioritize helped to shed light on phenomena uncovered by other types of behavioral scientists? Within psychology more broadly, how would members of the different subdisciplines approach the subject of stereotyping, prejudice, and discrimination? How would a developmental psychologist approach these subjects? A clinical psychologist? What questions would a neuroscientist ask that are different from those raised by a social psychologist? These discussions can give students a much richer sense of the depth and breadth of the material covered in Chapters 10 and 11, and a clearer understanding of the methods employed by social psychologists and how they can address important questions about human behavior.  

Ask, don’t tell. Discussions of group differences almost inevitably raise questions about privilege—discussions that can be especially illuminating. But they can also go off the rails unless one is careful because people often resist believing that they have benefited from privileges that others don’t enjoy (Phillips & Lowery, 2020). People are particularly likely to resist when someone tells them about how privileged they are. So have a classroom discussion in which you, and your students, ask, don’t tell. We have found in our classroom discussions, and in our research (Davidai & Gilovich, 2016), that when asked, majority-group students have an easy time thinking of privileges that they have enjoyed and sharing those advantages with the class. Having students share examples of those privileges, furthermore, can lead productively to deeper discussions of what might be done to address inequities in society. 

The Sixth Edition of Social Psychology is available now. Learn more here: seagull.wwnorton.com/socialpsych6


Cuddy, A.J.C., Fiske, S.T., & Glick, P. (2007). The BIAS map: Behaviors from intergroup affect and stereotypes. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 92(4), 631–648.

Davidai, S., & Gilovich, T.  (2016). The headwinds/tailwinds asymmetry: An availability bias in assessments of barriers and blessings. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 111(6), 835–851. https://doi.org/10.1037/pspa0000066 

Eibach, R.P., & Ehrlinger, J. (2006). “Keep your eyes on the prize”: Reference points and racial differences in assessing progress toward equality. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 32(1), 66–77.  https://doi.org/10.1177/0146167205279585 

Hugenberg, K. & Bodenhausen, G. V. (2003). Facing prejudice: Implicit prejudice and the perception of facial threat. Psychological Science, 14(6), 640–643. 

Kraus, M.W., Rucker, J.M., & Richeson, J.A. (2017). Americans misperceive racial economic equality. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 114(39), 10324–10331.

Phillips, L. T., & Lowery, B. S. (2020). I ain’t no fortunate one: On the motivated denial of class privilege. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 119(6), 1403. https://doi.org/10.1037/pspi0000240

Leave a Reply