Prejudice and Discrimination is Learned

Albert Bandura’s social learning theory “states that behavior is learned from the environment through the process of observational learning” (Bandura, 1977). It is Bandura’s belief that “humans are active information processors and think about the relationship between their behavior and its consequences” (Bandura, 1977). Furthermore, unless cognitive processes are at work, observational learning cannot occur (Bandura, 1977). Therefore, the same way a child can learn aggression from observation, they can also learn prejudice and in a nation that is becoming increasingly diverse, it’s essential that the appropriate actions, such as parental influence, are taken to reduce this prejudice as much as possible.

The famous Bobo doll experiment conducted by Bandura demonstrated the way “children observe the people behaving around them in various ways” (Bandura, 1961). The children observe individuals who were referred to as models. According to McLeod, “children are surrounded by many influential models, such as parents within the family, characters on children’s TV, friends within their peer group and teachers at school” (McLeod, 2011). Mcleod further states that the children observe the models and “encode their behavior” (McLeod, 2011). Later on, children may copy the behavior that was previously observed. Children “may do this regardless of whether the behavior is ‘gender appropriate’ or not but there are a number of processes that make it more likely that a child will reproduce the behavior that its society deems appropriate for its sex” (McLeod, 2011).

Children learn prejudice and practice discrimination “through living in and observing a society where prejudice exists” (What to Tell Your Child About Prejudice and Discrimination, n.d.). For example, children may learn it from watching television, or reading books or magazines. Prejudice is defined as “attitudes or opinions about a person or group simply because the person belongs to a specific religion, race, nationality, or other group” (What to Tell Your Child About Prejudice and Discrimination, n.d.). Discrimination on the other hand is “when people act on the basis of their prejudices or stereotypes, they are discriminating” (What to Tell Your Child About Prejudice and Discrimination, n.d.). Children’s thoughts and feelings are significantly influenced by the people around them. Therefore, they may observe that “some people won’t associate with members of certain groups or that members of some groups rarely, if ever, occupy influential positions in the school or community” (What to Tell Your Child About Prejudice and Discrimination, n.d.).


Sadly, “if no one addresses these instances of exclusion, a child may grow up thinking that this is the way it is supposed to be, and that people who have been discriminated against deserve this treatment because they are inferior in some way” (What to Tell Your Child About Prejudice and Discrimination, n.d.). Therefore, it is crucial for the issues of prejudice and discrimination to be addressed when and where they happen to express injustices “and to let children know such ideas and actions are unacceptable in a democratic society” (What to Tell Your Child About Prejudice and Discrimination, n.d.). Some ways parents can help their children with regards to prejudice include: “help[ing] [there] children become sensitive to other people’s feelings, make sure [there] children understand that prejudice and discrimination are unfair, [or to] teach [there] children respect and appreciation for differences by providing opportunities for interaction with people of diverse groups” (What to Tell Your Child About Prejudice and Discrimination, n.d.).

The social learning theory involves adopting someone else’s behavior. So this can mean that a child can adopt good behavior from a model such as holding the door open for someone or bad behavior, such as prejudice and discrimination. With the United States becoming so diverse, it’s even more important for children to “get along with people from varied backgrounds and abilities” (What to Tell Your Child About Prejudice and Discrimination, n.d.). In order for this to occur, children must be prepared “to live and work harmoniously and productively alongside others who represent various and many racial cultural groups, backgrounds and abilities in our society” (What to Tell Your Child About Prejudice and Discrimination, n.d.).


Bandura, A. (1977). Social Learning Theory. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Bandura, A., Ross, D. & Ross, S.A. (1961).Transmission of aggression through imitation of aggressive modelsJournal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 63, 575-82.

McLeod, S. (2011, January 1). Bobo Doll Experiment | Simply Psychology. Retrieved April 5, 2015, from

What to Tell Your Child About Prejudice and Discrimination: Printable Version. (n.d.). Retrieved April 5, 2015, from


  1. Morgan Leslie DeBusk-lane

    You make some very interesting points. I’ll elaborate a bit and hopefully offer some insight and pose a few questions.

    You stated that Bandura’s (1977) take on the cognitive process of learning as foundational to observational learning as evidence for modeling is interesting. Bandura (1978, 2001) molded these concepts together as modeling and reciprocal determinism to form the context of social learning theory and his take on cognitive psychology.

    This was some interesting stuff! As Bandura departed from the notion that learning occurred as a result of some form of reinforcement (behaviorism), he explored the concept that learning occurred by observation and instigated the cognitive processing of behavior. This concept, then explore further by his notion on reciprocal determinism—for which both the actor and environment are intimately involved whereby one influences the other and vise versa. This then clearly translates into a learning theory that best supports the entire picture surrounding learning—the environment, cognition, and behavior all play a pivotal role in the development, efficacy, and instance of learning (Bandura, 1978). This then helped support the development of cognitive behavioral theories.

    Not to jump too far off the bandwagon, but, based upon the logic that learning is founded by observation, then how would you explain the creation of prejudice from the beginning? I would posit that a great deal of this is explained by natural tendencies in like group participation and variances between in and out groups based upon locality and social structure. To be clear, I’m not arguing that prejudice or discrimination is not exacerbated or enveloped by observation—it clearly is.

    What are your thoughts on this?

    Bandura, A. (1977). Social Learning Theory. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

    Bandura, A. (1978). The self system in reciprocal determinism. American Psychologist, 33(4), 344-358.

    Bandura, A. (2001). Social cognitive theory: An agentic perspective. Annual Review of Psychology, 52(1), 1-26.

    Written by Morgan L. DeBusk-Lane

  2. Amy Marie Devine

    So up until about five minutes ago, I would have to say that I completely agreed with your post. And although I am not saying that you are wrong in your writing, I just read an article that gave me a somewhat different perspective and I really would like to share it with you. This article was rather interesting in some of the concepts and the way it was presented and gave a different perspective in looking at this cultural issue and how children see the world. They do perceive what is different, and will develop their own in groups and out groups based upon this and are not necessarily “colorblind” or have “blank slates” (Winkler,2009) . The writer of this article did acknowledge many ideas that children do see a pro-white society and they develop their own concepts about what this means for those who are in it, but also said that we should talk about it and encourage complex thinking about race, even within these young minds.

    Now, before you completely ignore my whole post as I could go on and on about the different concepts which were raised throughout this article, I encourage you to read it as I found it to be interesting. I also want to point out that I do completely agree with your article in that children do learn from what they see. I thought it was fantastic how you related the Bobo Doll experiment to race! It is absolutely applicable and you had an excellent post!

    However, I would like to encourage you to read this article as it provides such a unique perspective into how children learn and their conceptualization of race. The article can be found at:

    Happy reading and I hope you find this as interesting as I did!

    Winkler, E.N. (2009). Children Are Not Colorblind: How Young Children Learn Race. PACE, 3 (3), 1-8.

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