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Discrimination, Stereotypes, and Prejudice: How to Tell Them Apart

One of the most common challenges students face when studying for the Psychological and Sociological Foundations section of the MCAT is navigating the thicket of terminology you have to memorize. A particularly common observation is that this section requires you to distinguish between several terms that sound similar or are used almost interchangeably in day-to-day life. This points to the importance of not just reviewing key terms and their definitions, but comparing and contrasting those definitions to understand how to successfully tell them apart on Test Day.

Discrimination, stereotypes, and prejudice are a high-yield set of related concepts in the Psych/Soc section – the MCAT absolutely loves to make sure you realize these aren’t synonyms and that you can tell these terms apart in different contexts. So let’s work through them and figure out how you can reliably tell them apart. Just a word of caution: this blog post does not contain all the information you should be aware of with regard to these ideas! By all means, refer to your content review books and textbooks for more details. However, you’ll be able to absorb those details better with a clear understanding of the basic differences between these concepts.

Look at Discrimination

Let’s start with discrimination. This one is the simplest: discrimination has to involve action (behavior or outcomes). The most straightforward example is individual discrimination, when an individual behaves differently towards other people depending on race, gender, sexual orientation, or any other demographic category. You should also be aware of the concept of institutional discrimination, which refers to discriminatory mistreatment that a group receives from an institution or a set of social structures. Another important distinction is that institutional discrimination can result from unconscious biases instead of deliberate discriminatory behavior. Regardless, the crucial point to remember that if a question stem describes behavior or outcomes, you should think discrimination.

How about prejudices versus stereotypes?

Neither of these deal directly with behavior. Let’s start with stereotypes: stereotypes reflect specific ideas about a certain group. Stereotypes are often negative, but do not have to be – for example, some stereotypes might include the idea that pre-med students are very hard-working or that Californians tend to be relaxed. Basically, if you can express an idea as “[members of X group] are [Y],” you’re dealing with a stereotype.

What about prejudice?

The crucial point is that prejudice refers to irrational positive or negative attitudes towards someone based on their perceived group membership. Prejudices are often negative but don’t have to be. Unlike stereotypes, prejudices don’t have to have any specific content – it’s entirely possible to like or dislike a group without there being a clear reason why. Even if there is a clear reason why, you can keep these concepts separate by understanding that prejudice refers to the positive or negative judgment you make while a stereotype refers to the basis for that judgment. For instance, let’s say you’re choosing who to work with in a study group and say to yourself, “Wow, I really want to work with Tara – I hear she’s got a master’s degree in physics!” In this case, your positive feelings about Tara before ever working with her reflect a prejudice in her favor, and the idea that people who have a master’s degree in physics are smart, hard-working, and great contributors to a study group is a stereotype that serves as the basis for that prejudice.

Let’s summarize this into three simple rules:

  1. If a question describes a pattern of behavior or unequal outcomes, it is talking about discrimination. The correct answer cannot be prejudice or stereotypes.
  2. If you can rephrase the material in the question stem as “[members of X group] are [Y],” you’re almost certainly dealing with a stereotype.
  3. If you’re dealing with an irrational positive or negative judgment, prejudice is very likely to be the right answer.

We wish you the best of luck in your prep process and hope that this has been useful, both in terms of helping you to distinguish between these three terms and in developing study strategies for the Psychological and Sociological Foundations section!

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