Difference between Prejudice and Stereotype

Updated on May 31, 2017

These terms get thrown around pretty often lately, especially with communities becoming more and more diverse. Having so many different types of people living and working together can be a challenge. But while you know being prejudiced and thinking in stereotypes is wrong, can you distinguish between the two concepts? Let’s see that the difference between prejudice and stereotype is.



Prejudice is a preconceived idea. Just like the name implies, it is a notion we have before judgement. This means that you may form an opinion based on a person’s visible traits such as gender, race, ethnicity, or social group.

Although the term has a negative connotation, this type of thinking has proved useful for our ancestors, in a time when the rules of man did not apply everywhere and when conflicts were common. Therefore, two people from rival communities knew to steer clear of each other in order to avoid an imminent confrontation. In time, ideas of whom to look out for spread and this type of assumption was passed down to children and spread through entire communities.

Although this prejudgment was useful in times when survival was difficult, today prejudice creates a divide. As we evolved past the basic need to survive, harmony and understanding in communities and among residents is important. However, many of the assumptions people have passed down through the years managed to get to current generations as well.

At its worst, prejudiced behavior will lead to exclusion of certain individuals. A prejudiced employer might pass off hiring a person based on race or might not expect someone to perform well because of gender issues. In extreme cases, prejudice can lead to violent and harmful behavior toward people of a certain group.

A French man displaying some stereotypes people have about French people

A stereotype is a set of traits automatically pinned to people belonging to a specific group. Making a stereotypical judgement means seeing a person as the representation of all our ideas of the group. For example, a stereotype is that French people typically eat baguettes, drink wine, have a superiority complex, and are great lovers.

Stereotypes can be both positive and negative. Therefore, you can assume that a person is conceited just because it fits the French stereotype, just as well as you can assume that a person will always be punctual just because he is German and it fits the German stereotype.

Stereotypes developed as a survival necessity in times when people did not have the luxury of living in peace with other people and when resources were scarce and fought over by different groups. Having already assigned sets of attributes to pin on everyone meant making safer calls and staying away from certain people.

At its worst, stereotypes are annoying when acted upon. Most people fall into one category or another, therefore it is easy for others to expect them to act a certain way. Expressing surprise and disappointment about not seeing that person comply with the idea in your head is very rude. A good example in this respect would be to ask a man from Texas where his hat is, based on the stereotype that Texan men wear hats.

Prejudice vs Stereotype

So what is the difference between prejudice and stereotype?

Both prejudice and stereotype were developed at a time when people needed to make quick decisions on whom to trust. Without the modern day means of protection offered by the state and with fewer laws governing the lands, people were more exposed to threats coming from each other. This is why caution dictated that they first analyzed a person before approaching him. This manner of thinking, paired with past experiences with different groups, lead to the creation of stereotypes and prejudices.

Of the two, prejudice has a worse connotation as is implies taking actions to exclude and avoid an individual based on his belonging to a group. Stereotype, on the other hand, is a more neutral concept in this respect. Therefore, while not hiring a woman as a contractor is prejudiced because you assume she does not have the strength to do the job, expecting her to actively try to get pregnant simply because she is the right age and she is married is a stereotype.

Prejudice could imply specific courses of action. If you are prejudiced against a person and you discriminate against that person, you will avoid them or block their access to certain resources. On the other hand, if you have stereotypical type of thinking, you might simply expect someone to fit a category.

Stereotypes might not be altogether wrong as they are built on things observed in time with individuals of a certain group: teenagers like to play video games and soccer moms drive mini vans. The problem arises when you act on them and expect these ideas to apply to every member of the group you meet.

Comparison Chart

A prejudgment; an assumption of what a person is likePatterns observed in a group, applied to one person from that group
Is usually negativeCan be both negative or positive
Close to discrimination, although it is not necessarily impliedDoes not imply as much emotional involvement
May be harmful when acted uponMay be annoying when acted upon