Written by Alan Barker, Freelance Writer, British Science Festival 

How do people become prejudiced? Harriet Over is delivering A Future Divided?, this year’s Margaret Mead Award Lecture for Social Sciences at the British Science Festival.  She told Alan Barker how her research addresses a controversial question.

How would you define prejudice?

Well, as a psychologist, I would say that prejudice is having a relatively negative attitude to one group – and we could distinguish that from discrimination, which is treating someone unfairly because of the group they belong to.  Obviously, prejudice is of interest to economists, historians, political scientists and sociologists, but I’m interested in the contribution of individual psychology and how children come to develop particular attitudes about social groups.  If we can understand the process by which prejudice and discrimination are acquired, then we can use that knowledge to inform interventions to reduce the prevalence of these social problems.

Have you been able to determine at what age someone can become prejudiced?

There’s interesting research that suggests that, in the first few days of life, infants prefer to hear their native language.  That might suggest that there’s a kind of core based on familiarity that contributes to these social problems later. Other aspects of intergroup relations develop later.  It also depends on what kind of group we’re talking about.  For example, gender is a very salient social category to children living in the Western world and sensitivity to gender categories emerges very early. 

What the difference between active prejudice and simple liking?

Interestingly, children seem to develop a preference for their own group before they develop dislike of another group. From at least the age of five, children will give more resources to members of their own group than to members of another group. Only later in their development do some children show signs of actively trying to harm members of other groups.  That suggests there might be different developmental mechanisms for in-group preference and out-group derogation.

What’s your work and what will you be talking about in your lecture?

I will discuss my research investigating the different factors that contribute to children’s developing attitudes towards social groups.   I will present research my collaborators and I have conducted on the origins of group preferences, loyalty and dehumanisation.

Are you going to provide us with strategies to help parents stop their children becoming prejudiced?

I strongly believe that interventions to reduce prejudice should be based on solid empirical research.  I am interested in contributing to existing research-led interventions to reduce prejudice but doing so takes times and resources. It’s a long road ahead.


A Future Divided? is on Thursday 7 September at 12.30.  Book tickets on the British Science Festival website.