Prejudice Equations

There are oppressed or disenfranchised groups in many, if not all, communities. This page offers two equations to help students understand how prejudice and racism develop and operate. I’ll unpack each equation and apply them to a few historical and real world examples.

Equation 1: Value Offense + Saliency + Hasty Generalization = Negative Prejudice.

Equation 2: Saliency + Value Offense + Fundamental Attribution Error = Negative Prejudice


1. To give students a vocabulary to analyze the formation of prejudice, and for them to appreciate how and why our brains make these weak inferences.

2. To help students dissect historical prejudice, and to help them understand the profound injustices involved.

3. To encourage students to apply this equation to contemporary issues and value conflicts amongst groups of people.

4. To stop dehumanization spirals from forming and wreaking havoc.

The Parts of the Equations:

Each variable of these equations provides one piece of an explanation to describe how and why some minority groups are ascribed a lower status and labeled dangerous or sub-human. Why are Filipinos discriminated against in Kuwait? Why Irish immigrants in 19th century New York? Why Jews in 20th century Europe? Why Aborigines in Australia? Why black people in the United States? Why Mexicans in the United States? Why Native Americans in the United States?

Value Offense – A person or group damages something you value. This can be very simple: You value safety, and a person punches you in the face. You value cleanliness, and your friend tracks mud all over your house and sneezes on your pillow. It can also be more abstract: You value tradition, and the new people down the street won’t come to the weekly neighborhood barbecues. You value purity, and your neighbor stopped watering his lawn. You value equality, and you neighbor treats his wife and other women disrespectfully. Value offenses happen all the time, and if a person feels strongly about a large number of values (see values list), and pays close attention to the actions of others, there’s a good chance that this person will be offended pretty frequently.

Saliency – We are all bundles of traits, but only a few are considered meaningful. They might be intellectual traits like processing speed or working memory, they might be a cultural traits like your religion, heritage, language, or political views, or they could by physical traits like height, hair color, or skin color. By calling a trait meaningful, we are asserting that this trait helps explain a person’s behavior or character. This is the salient trait, or the trait that has causal significance. When an ethnic, religious, or racial group is a minority in a community, that trait becomes very noticeable to the majority.

Hasty Generalization – This logical fallacy mistakenly makes assumptions about a large population with information from a small sample. One Russian guy is rude to you, so you infer that all Russians are rude. One American is noisy in a European museum, so everyone infers that all Americans are loud and obnoxious. One dog bites, you so you run away screaming every time you see any dog, including funny little fluffy dogs.

Fundamental Attribution Bias – Because you know yourself and your day-to-day life extremely well, whenever you mess up, you are able to look at the situation and figure out what went wrong. You provide a situational explanation for your failure. When a stranger messes up, you have no knowledge of his or her situation, so your brain jumps to a character explanation for his or her behavior. We therefore tend to forgive ourselves of our mistakes but label others as fundamentally flawed. If you throw a candy wrapper on the ground, you know you did it because of the black widow you just saw crawling on it. If you see a stranger litter, it’s because he or she is scum. This works on a larger level as well. It’s pretty easy for you to infer the situation of people like you, but it’s feels hard to infer what the situation is like for other groups. Therefore, we tend to forgive people who are like us who make mistakes, and condemn people who are different.

Unpacking Equation 1:

Value Offense + Saliency + Hasty Generalization

A. Value Offense – Again, many values are abstract, and therefore it’s hard to figure out what will offend Bill’s sense of purity and what will offend Sally’s sense of purity. We’ll stick to a concrete example. Imagine that you are tripped at the mall. You are holding heavy bags, so you bash your nose on the ground. It hurts. Your value of safety has been egregiously offended. You turn your bloodied face around to see the culprit.

No prejudice yet. But it’s coming.

B. Saliency – Once a person has offended one of your values, you decide that one trait is significant to explain his/her moral failure. Which trait has causal significance? Through your tears, you see that the person who tripped you is a long-haired, tall, skinny, South Korean, teenager. As you look up in stunned silence, he laughs at you, and you notice his preppy clothes and glasses. You will feel a lot of negative emotions, and without consciously doing so, you begin spinning through causal inferences to explain why this person is so awful. Our brains quickly look for patterns. Have any other teenagers been mean to you? Any South Koreans? Any skinny or tall people? Any preppy people? You will likely land on the trait that seems most distinctive about this person in the specific context. If you are at an old-folks mall, the fact that he is a teenager will stand out. If you are at a regular mall, his age won’t be as noticeable. If you are in South Korea, his nationality won’t stand out, but it will if you are in Boise, Idaho. If you are in New Canaan, Connecticut, his preppiness won’t be noticeable, but it will if you are at a biker rally. Also, and very importantly, if you already have negative associations with any of these traits, these memories will quickly weigh in. My guess is that you would blame his age as the salient cause of his meanness. Teenagers are often portrayed as rude and menacing on t.v. and in movies, plus, many of us have had run-ins with rude teenagers, and many of us were rude teenagers.

But now that you’ve committed to a salient trait to help explain the value offense, you still aren’t prejudiced. Your brain has an important logical fallacy to embrace.

C. Hasty Generalization – You make a judgement about a large group based on a small sample. You eat three Skittles. They were all purple. You declare that all Skittles are grape-flavored. Once you have been offended and picked a salient trait, you declare that all people sharing this trait are subpar, not-as-good, or somehow flawed. Of course, we don’t sit down and calculate all of this. Our brains process it all very quickly and usually unconsciously. You push yourself off of the sticky mall floor, dust yourself off, and mutter to yourself that teenagers are ruining the country. Or skinny people, or South Koreans.

With that last piece of the equation, you have a prejudice, and any future encounter with a mean teenager (or whatever) will confirm your bias.


I don’t think it’s hyperbolic to say that history and literature are overwhelmingly jam-packed with examples of oppressed groups. Rather than give a specific lesson unpacking this information with students, I’ll run through a relatively recent example.

Muslims in America after 9/11:

Value Offense: On September 11th, 2001, nineteen people carried out the destruction of the Twin Towers, the attack on the Pentagon, and the hijacking of Flight 93. (Values: Safety, Health, Security)

Saliency: The nineteen people were all young men, Middle Eastern (some Saudi, some Lebanese, some Egyptian, some Emirati), beardless, fluent in English, Sunni Muslim, and followers of Wahhabism, a puritanical sect of Islam ideology.

There were about 1.5 billion Muslims living worldwide, but only about one million lived in the United States. For the vast majority of Americans, the fact that all of these men were Muslim became the most significant salient trait, with Middle Eastern ethnicity coming in at a close second. Most Americans disregarded the other information: Sunnis were not viewed in harsher light than Shiites; young men were not universally suspect.

Hasty Generalization: Because nineteen Muslims attacked America, all 1.5 billion Muslims are terrorists. So goes the Hasty Generalization. It’s obviously ludicrous when laid out in this way, but our brains take these shortcuts without our conscious approval. Once enough people came to the same conclusion, a widespread bias was created, and quickly re-affirmed with every instance of a single Muslim denouncing or acting against the United States.


Unpacking Equation 2: 

Saliency + Value Offense + Fundamental Attribution Bias = Negative Prejudice

A. Saliency – For this equation, saliency comes first. For a number of historic reasons, every community has a pre-loaded set of divisions and distinct social groups.

We grow up in communities pre-loaded with divisions and distinct social groups. We don’t always judge one group as being better or worse than another, only that they are distinctly different. Over time, some groups slowly blend into one another, while others are separated from the mainstream.

Recognizing a distinct group is not to prejudge its individual members. That takes two more steps.

B. Value Offense – Something you value has been damaged by a member or members of a distinct. It might be a concrete value offense – A Russian man may have stabbed you in the foot, or you may have noticed a Peruvian pouring chemicals into the sewer. Or it may be an abstract value offense – You don’t like the way the Laotian kids down the street are wearing their baseball hats – to the side and inside out, or you resent the fact that the new Sikh family down the street doesn’t go to the same church as everyone else.

C. Fundamental Attribution Error – Now that you are frustrated or annoyed with a group for offending your values, you mistakenly assume that their actions are caused by a deficiency in character. They are bad people. They are subpar. They genetically or culturally inferior to the pure and noble __________ (insert your group here). You don’t look to the specific circumstances that might have pushed them to their offensive actions because their world is too strange and foreign. They are different, and their differences cause them to do offensive things.

When you see members of your own group offend your values, you look to circumstances specific to the  individuals – you don’t blame the whole group because that would amount to blaming yourself, and you know you’re pretty great.


Irish Immigrants in New York in the mid-19th Century

The Potato Famine pushed millions of Irish people out of Ireland, and the pull of the booming American economy during the Industrial Revolution drew almost two million to New York and other eastern cities.

Saliency: Most Irish immigrants were very poor, and the vast majority were Catholic, which stood in stark contrast to the overwhelmingly Protestant US population. Catholics were already the source of some discrimination in the United States. But above all, it was the large number of Irish immigrating to the US that made them stand out. The United States received about 34 million European immigrants between 1824 and 1924, but no single group came in such a concentrated wave. Newcomers of many origins were discriminated against during this time, but the Irish personified immigration to the masses, much as Mexicans do today.


Value Offense: Residents of many Eastern cities felt threatened by the large number of newcomers. They worried that low-wage laborers would flood the market, they worried that large groups of poor people would turn to crime, they worried that they would threaten the stability of the current status hierarchy by challenging the elite , and they worried that Irish Catholicism would somehow threaten their Protestant way of life. (Values: Security, Economics, Tradition, Purity)

Fundamental Attribution Error: While many Americans surely sympathized with the plight and struggle of the Irish, the popular press and a large number of Americans characterized them as morally and genetically flawed and not worthy of full equality, whether legal or moral. Many were forced to live in crowded tenements and work difficult jobs. By way of justifying this mistreatment, a large body of dehumanizing literature and images were spewed into the popular press.

Consequences for Both Equations: 

For both equations, negative prejudice and discrimination ensue. Violence can quickly follow, and psychological damage can last generations (see Stereotype Threat). If this process goes unchecked, the results can be truly catastrophic. The philosopher Jonathan Glover describes a “Spiral of Dehumanization.” The following is Steven Pinker’s retelling of the process from his book, The Better Angels of Our Nature. 

“People force a despised minority to live in squalor, which makes them seem animalistic and subhuman, which encourages the dominant group to mistreat them further, which degrades them still further, removing any remaining tug on the oppressor’s conscience.”


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