Prejudices are generic ideas that are socially anchored and refer to members of a certain social group. Thus, prejudices are close to essentialism. In this context, prejudice occurs when generalizations and inferences clash: The behavior or assumed behavior of one member of a social group leads to an inference about the entire group, and the inference is then made about any other member of that social group. This phenomenon is called illusory correlation in social psychology. Thus, prejudice creates a non-existent connection between different people who are categorized into one social group.
These perceptual errors have far-reaching consequences: For example, psychologist Claude Steele found in a study that for members of prejudice-laden social groups, worrying about conforming to negative prejudices can lead precisely to their coming true. In this context, the mere knowledge of the existence of these stereotypes can limit one’s life path and, consequently, one’s performance, education, and career opportunities. Affected individuals are under constant pressure to prove themselves. Thus, the influence of prejudices on members of the relevant social groups is so great that they have an effect because they are embedded in society, not because individuals actually conform to these prejudices.