Does discrimination fit a prototype?

In this blog post, I discuss what information people use to decide whether a behavior constitutes discrimination. Similar to the way people organize categories and identify objects, I review research showing that people rely on prototypes when deciding what is and is not discrimination.

Imagine a deli in New York City, packed near lunchtime. People are crowded into the store, and a long line waits at the register. Everyone is hungry and in a hurry. The cashier notices a Black man walk in, look around, and then attempt to quickly leave. Thinking the man is stealing something, the cashier stops him and performs a pat-down in front of the other customers. As it turns out, the man has taken nothing. Is this an example of discrimination?

If this event sounds familiar, it may be because you heard about the story when it happened to Oscar-winning actor Forest Whitaker or you have heard of similar stories. Either way, whether you answer that the cashier’s behavior is discrimination or not may depend on how closely the incident matches your prototype for discrimination.

Prototypes are culturally shared cognitive representations that guide the categorization of objects and events (Rosch, 1973). Just like the way you look for shared characteristics between a robin and an ostrich (e.g., wings, beaks, feathers) before categorizing both as “birds,” research suggests people look for specific characteristics of the situation before deciding whether a behavior is discrimination (Inman & Baron, 1996; Inman, Huerta, & Oh, 1998; O’Brien, Kinias, & Major, 2008; Simon, et al., 2013). For example, one feature of prototypical discrimination is that the event is a between groups rather than within groups phenomena (Baron, Burgess, & Kao, 1991). Stated differently, the expectation is that members of the same group do not discriminate against one another, but members of opposite groups do. Did you notice in the opening example, I did not mention the race of the cashier? Would you be equally likely to label the event as discrimination if the cashier were Black, instead of White? Probably not.

Another feature of the discrimination prototype is status asymmetry, which refers to the expectation that perpetrators of discrimination are from high-status groups (e.g., Whites, men) and victims from low-status groups (e.g., minorities, women), not the reverse. Simon and colleagues (2013) reported that Whites adhere less than Blacks to the status asymmetry feature of the discrimination prototype. In their research, White participants perceived similar levels of discrimination regardless of whether the perpetrator was White and the victim Black or the reverse. Black participants, however, reported more discrimination when the perpetrator was White and the victim Black than the reverse. The researchers suggested this pattern of results might reveal underlying motivations of both groups. For White people, thinking about discrimination in broad terms (i.e., more than just White on Black) may foster a positive image of the ingroup and allow them to label instances when Whites are not treated fairly as discrimination (see, discrimination happens to us, too!). For Black people, however, thinking of discrimination in narrow terms (i.e., primarily White on Black) may reinforce the persistent nature of discrimination, highlighting the need for remedies (see also, Unzueta & Binning, 2012).

Building on the recognition that people apply aspects of the discrimination prototype according to their motives, a graduate student colleague of mine, Stefanie Simon, and our mutual advisor, Dr. Laurie O’Brien, conducted a series of studies investigating whether prototypes contribute to group differences in judgments of discrimination. Specifically, we were interested in the role of two relatively understudied factors of the discrimination prototype—intent of the perpetrator and harm done to the victim (Swim, et al., 2003)—in shaping judgments of discrimination from people in high and low status groups.

In three separate studies, we found support for the idea that people from high status groups focus more on the intent of a perpetrator than harm to a victim when making judgments of discrimination. Moreover, we found that people from low status groups focus on the intent of a perpetrator as well as harm to a victim when judging a behavior as discrimination. This difference in focus led people from low status groups to perceive more discrimination overall than people from high status groups. We believe this difference may account for some of the gap between White and Black people’s perceptions of discrimination (Norton & Sommers, 2011), especially in instances where information about intent is ambiguous.

Return now to the example at the beginning of the post: was it discrimination? In many ways, the example represents a situation when people from high and low status groups are likely to use prototypes to reach different conclusions. Because information about intent is somewhat ambiguous (i.e., did he stop the man because he wanted to prevent stealing or because the man was Black) and information about harm is not especially severe (e.g., compared to say physical harm or job discrimination) the situation leaves room for people to perceive the behavior how they want to. Although people may reach different conclusions, they are using information about their prototypes for discrimination to get there.        


Baron, R. S., Burgess, M. L., & Kao, C. F. (1991). Detecting and labeling prejudice: Do female perpetrators go unnoticed? Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 17, 115-123.

Inman, M. L., Huerta, J., & Oh, S. (1998). Perceiving discrimination: The role of prototypes and norm violation. Social Cognition, 16, 418-450.

Inman, M. L., & Baron, R. S. (1996). Influence of prototypes on perceptions of prejudice. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 70, 727-739.

Norton, M. I., & Sommers, S. R. (2011). Whites see racism as a zero-sum game they are now losing. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 6, 215-218.

O’Brien, L. T., Kinias, Z., & Major, B. (2008). How status and stereotypes impact attributions to discrimination: The stereotype asymmetry hypothesis. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 44, 405-412.

Rosch, E. H. (1973). Natural categories. Cognitive Psychology, 4, 328-350.

Simon, S., Kinias, Z., O’Brien, L. T., Major, B., & Bivolaru, E. (2013). Prototypes of discrimination: How status asymmetry and stereotype asymmetry affect judgments of racial discrimination. Basic and Applied Social Psychology, 35, 525-533.

Swim, J. K., Scott, E. D., Sechrist, G. B., Campbell, B., & Stangor, C. (2003). The role of intent and harm in judgments of prejudice and discrimination. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84, 944-959.