Stereotype is generally defined as a consciously or unconsciously held rigid belief or expectation about a group that does not easily permit exceptions. Stereotyped beliefs are held by a group (commonly called the ingroup) and involve an agenda that benefits the ingroup at the expense of the stereotyped group (commonly called the outgroup or target group). Stereotypes help the ingroup members feel good about their group and themselves relative to the target group. A stereotype often concerns a trait that is important to the ingroup’s identity and emphasizes the distinctness and inferiority of the outgroup. Relatedly, stereotypes maintain sociopolitical hierarchies in society. They can serve as a justification for believing that certain groups are superior to others and as a rationale for oppressing target groups.

While the phenomenon of stereotyping has been defined and explored primarily in social and cognitive psychology, it has many implications for counseling and has been taken up and discussed by many scholars in counseling psychology. These discussions often focus on the sociopolitical aspects of stereotypes, including the relevance of stereotypes to prejudice and to counseling training, competence, and process.

History of the Term

The term stereotype comes from two Greek words meaning “solid” and “a model.” In English, it first meant a metal printing plate. The term evolved to become associated with the act of stamping out the same image or text over and over; by the beginning of the 20th century, it connoted rigid, repetitive behavior. Soon thereafter it was applied to cognitive processes of categorization that were consistent and predictable. Early discussions of categorizing objects asserted that stereotypes were useful but also resulted in a certain number of errors. When applied to the social domain in the 1930s, stereotype came to denote the misattributions commonly applied to ethnic groups (e.g., Germans are scientific minded; Turks are cruel). Thus, stereotypes became linked to prejudice and discrimination and were often considered negative. At this time stereotypes ceased to involve exclusively errors in cognition and became a social phenomenon resulting more from cultural influences than from individual experience.

In the latter 1970s and the 1980s scholars began exploring the cognitive processes of stereotyping, relating stereotypes to cognitive schemata or theories. Using general principles of cognitive processing to illuminate how stereotyping occurs, the discussion at times ignored the sociopolitical context of the phenomenon. In contrast, when the field of counseling took up the term in examining the impact of prejudice and ethnocentrism on counseling process and training, scholars consistently focused on the sociopolitical underpinnings of stereotyping.

Perspectives on Stereotyping

In discussing stereotyping, counseling scholars often draw heavily on conceptualizations generated by other fields. A discussion of these perspectives can flesh out the phenomenon’s meaning for counseling.

Stereotyping as a Social-Cognitive Phenomenon

Stereotypes have been explored a great deal in terms of the cognitive processes of attending to, organizing, and interpreting social information or stimuli encountered in everyday life. Social psychologists have done the majority of this work, applying principles of cognitive psychology to social stereotyping. The premise is that people do not have the capacity or resources to consider and analyze every new stimulus as if it were the first piece of information ever received. To process all incoming stimuli efficiently and effectively, people create sorting mechanisms, expectations, and assumptions, often called cognitive schemata. Schemata are systems that help people make sense of the complex sets of stimuli that constantly confront them. Schemata are organizing principles that prioritize what to focus on and that categorize and organize the information for interpretation. For example, we have a schema that helps us efficiently differentiate a table from a chair based on multiple expectations about the attributes of each of these objects. From a social-cognitive perspective, stereotypes are a type of schema—rules and expectations we have about people from different groups.

Schemata often become automatic and unconscious. Thus, stereotype holders are not often aware of the expectations and assumptions that influence their thinking, emotions, and behavior. When asked explicitly, they deny holding these stereotypes, but the stereotypes manifest their influence in implicit ways.

Often, the experiences that give rise to stereotyped beliefs are also implicit and embedded in a society’s culture. Implicit messages that give rise to stereotypes are broadcast by societal institutions. For example, the media do not explicitly state that Whites or men are superior to people of color or women, but they present a preponderance of heroic characters that are White men, while presenting people of color and women in secondary and supporting roles. This imbalance in portrayals communicates stereotypes about racial and gender hierarchy, including that White men have greater abilities and are more important than people of color and women. As a result, many members of the society unconsciously hold such stereotypes.

To understand stereotypes, social-cognitive scholars have drawn on rules for how unconscious cognitive sorting and organizing processes function. For instance, based on rules of human cognition, groups that stand out (e.g., groups who are in the minority and are judged to be different from the majority) and traits that stand out (e.g., traits that are not often seen in mainstream experience) are often paired to form stereotypes. In the example, Blacks stand out as a minority group visibly distinguishable from Whites, and criminality stands out as an infrequent, deviant trait, so the two can be connected easily in the White person’s mind. Even though the connection does not exist in reality, the distinctiveness of both the group and the trait creates fertile ground for them to be paired in a stereotype.

Of course, stereotyping is a social as well as a cognitive process. The culture, characteristics, and views of the ingroup are important in the development of stereotypes. Fertile ground for a stereotype is increased if the target group is viewed as deviating from the ingroup on the trait in question. It is also increased when the trait is one that the ingroup deems important to its identity. To most Whites, not being a criminal means that one has the favor and help of society’s institutions (e.g., the police), and thus one has more value and power in society. Thus, the stereotype that Black and Latino males are criminals can serve to make Whites feel more valuable and powerful by creating a false contrast on an attribute or status that is important in White culture.

Stereotypes also have an emotional component. If an ingroup has strong negative feelings about a trait they perceive in a target group, a stereotype is likely to develop. The in-group’s emotions about the target group also come into play: Greater negative feelings toward the group can result in more negative stereotypes about the group. In fact, simply putting people in a bad mood has been shown to elicit more stereotyped judgments of others.

This emotional component of stereotyping contributes to a vicious cycle. When ingroup members experience what they perceive as a negative encounter with target group members, they develop negative feelings about the target group and what they perceive as its undesirable traits. This gives rise to increased negative feelings and expectations (stereotypes), which influence their interpretation of and reaction to future encounters, resulting in further affirmation of the stereotype.

The social-cognitive approach also helps explain why stereotypes are rigid and hard to change. People are more likely to process accurately and remember information that is consistent with stereotypes they hold. Many studies have shown that stereotype-consistent information is easily remembered and readily accepted without question. People also tend to remember (but with a different purpose) information that is contrary to the stereotypes they hold. They pay very close attention primarily to figure out how to explain or interpret the information so that their stereotype remains unchallenged. The new information may be distorted or misperceived to fit the stereotype.

Of course, new information can cause a person to modify or even abandon a stereotype, but this happens only rarely. From a cognitive perspective, people tend to see what fits with what they expect, and they often misperceive what is there, to fit their expectations. This happens in categorizing or characterizing objects as well as people. When this cognitive tendency is added to the emotional component of stereotypes and to the individual and group dividends gained by maintaining a stereotype, it is clear why contrary information often does not produce a change in a stereotype.

One way in which evidence contrary to a stereotype is absorbed without threatening the hold of the belief involves the process of subtyping. People create a slightly different subcategory of the larger target group to hold an individual member of the group who presents with traits that are inconsistent with the stereotype. For example, to absorb the fact that many Blacks are successful and law-abiding, Whites create subtypes (Black businessperson, educated Black), while maintaining the general negative stereotype that Blacks are criminals.

Contrary information may also be processed as extreme: The perceiver may tend to exaggerate the level of the unexpected trait or behavior. Thus, a woman who is competitive or ambitious is seen as extremely (and negatively) so, whereas a man with the same level of these traits is seen as normal. Similarly, stereotypes may create what is called a shifting standard for judging the behavior of individuals from different groups. For example, if a teacher who holds the stereotyped expectation that Blacks are less intelligent than Whites sees the same test score from a Black and a White student, the Black student may be perceived as highly intelligent and the White student as of average intelligence. Due to the stereotype, the teacher maintains a lower standard for considering a Black student intelligent than for considering a White student intelligent. The Black student will be perceived as very smart for a Black person.

The social-cognitive perspective helps counselors understand the functioning and even some of the motivation behind stereotypes, but it is also limited because it more or less views stereotyping in a political vacuum, as if no power hierarchy of social groups existed. Stereotypes play a role in rationalizing and maintaining this hierarchy, and the hierarchy influences the nature of stereotypes.

Stereotyping as a Sociopolitical Phenomenon

Counselors draw upon the social-cognitive approach to stereotypes but often integrate it into a larger context. Sociopolitical factors and cognitive factors interact in both developing and maintaining stereotypes. Stereotypes emerge from the sociocultural context and are driven by power differentials between groups. As noted earlier, the distinctions between groups that are inherent in stereotyping can make the ingroup feel better about itself. To push further on this point, counseling has tended to look at the role of stereotypes in reinforcing power hierarchies between reference groups.

From the sociopolitical perspective, stereotypes grow out of a need to rationalize oppression and subjugation rather than simply out of cognitive processes and errors. For example, in the service of enslavement and genocide, stereotypes emerged that Blacks were childlike and Native Americans savage. Thus, sociopolitical expediencies influence the traits misattributed to a group.

Sociopolitical influence is illustrated by the change in stereotypes held about Blacks before and after slavery was abolished. Before abolition, Blacks were stereotyped as docile, dependent, and incapable of independent thought or action, that is, a group seen as benefiting from enslavement. After slavery was abolished, however, the Whites’ stereotype of Blacks tended toward aggressive, dangerous, wild, and uncontrollable. The belief in these traits played a role in justifying brutal treatment of Blacks by Whites both by law (e.g., Jim Crow statutes) and outside the law (e.g., lynching). Thus, the existence and nature of stereotypes can change based on the ingroup’s requisites for protecting its privilege and access to power and resources.

Such change suggests that stereotypes may not originate in experience. An initial negative encounter with a target group may not be necessary for a stereotype to develop. Some argue that sociopolitical forces give rise to stereotypes first, and then social-cognitive processes come into play, contributing to their maintenance and rigidity. Power differentials between groups, and the need to rationalize them, may be the starting point for the vicious cycle discussed earlier.

Implications for Counseling

Impact of Stereotypes on the Counseling Process

Among other things, counseling involves evaluating clients and their experiences, to gain an empathic understanding and choose appropriate interventions. Stereotypes have a deleterious effect on this process in several ways. First, they set expectations that limit the counselor’s openness to who clients are and what they are experiencing. If a counselor expects a female client to be weak and submissive, the counselor is more likely to ignore or misinterpret information suggesting the opposite. The counselor will misunderstand the client and impose this expectation on her. Such a response can invalidate the client’s experience and even negatively influence her sense of who she is. If, due to a counselor’s stereotype, a certain trait or experience of a client is always ignored, while evidence of another trait is always emphasized and focused on, the client may start to believe and behave as if the stereotype were true. Counseling scholars have noted that this is a form of oppression and must be avoided in counseling practice.

Even when counselors recognize information contrary to a stereotype, they may distort the information and the relationship. A counselor who holds stereotypes about female gender roles (that women are “feminine” by nature) and encounters “masculine” traits in a female client may perceive those traits as exaggerated, resulting in a distorted view of the client. Or a counselor may not take seriously a successful Black client’s vocational concerns if the counselor perceives that the client has achieved great success for a Black person. Holding this lower standard for certain groups has broad implications in areas within the counseling realm. At the individual level a school counselor may not encourage a Black student to pursue college, and at the institutional level, the allocation of resources to these groups will match the low standard of performance expected from them.

Stereotyping can lead to nongenuine and condescending relations between counselor and client. Because it is socially unacceptable to stereotype openly, White guidance counselors may evaluate the performance of Black students less critically in an attempt to avoid being perceived as stereotyping. Although this behavior may even come out of a desire to counteract racism (though it may also arise out of a motivation not to appear prejudiced), in essence it perpetuates prejudice and the stereotype by implying that the target group should be held to a lower standard.

Most people are not aware of the stereotypes they hold. Because stereotypes are unconscious, a counselor will perceive the aforementioned evaluations of clients as objective and perhaps not even linked to group membership. Thus, communication of the stereotype from counselor to client may be implicit and highly subtle, making it hard for either party to identify and counter. In fact, stereotypes often set off subtle, unconscious interactive patterns between the stereotype holder (counselor) and the target (client). The counselor’s expectations create both a cognitive and an emotional disposition toward the client that may be subtly communicated to the client through nonverbal and other behavior. The client may well respond to these cues in ways that the counselor interprets negatively according to the stereotype. The counselor, unaware of the impact the stereotype has already had on the client’s behavior, concludes that the client’s behavior represents clear evidence for the truth of the stereotype. Again, the vicious cycle ensues.

Stereotypes and Multicultural Counseling Competence

The multicultural counseling competencies specifically mandate that counselors be aware of the stereotypes that they hold and the impact these beliefs have on their work with clients. This implies that most, if not all, counselors hold stereotypes and must become aware of them and avoid their negative effects.

Some counseling scholars note that counselors must eliminate the negative effects of stereotypes to become culturally sensitive, an attribute mandated by the American Counseling Association’s code of ethics. The inverse relationship between cultural sensitivity and stereotyping can be seen when one considers stereotypes as a type of cognitive schema.

Schemata can be seen in two ways. On the one hand, they are flexible hypotheses that can be influenced by information coming in. For instance, when a piece of information is not accounted for by an existing schema, the schema may change and adapt to incorporate the new information. If a schema for chair is flexible, a newly encountered bean bag may be considered a chair. Scholars assert that flexible schemata about social groups characterize cultural sensitivity.

On the other hand, schemata can be rigid expectations that influence what is perceived and how it is interpreted. They can impose a selective focus on incoming stimuli and prioritize information that poses no threat to the schema. Such schemata also affect how stimuli are interpreted, so even contradictory information may be interpreted in a way that supports the schemata, and the meaning of the information is distorted. Counseling scholars note that such rigid information processing is the basis of stereotyping.

Some counseling scholars state that, if counselors apply any stereotype of a particular group to all its individuals, the counselors are likely to misperceive and misunderstand the clients and fail to be culturally sensitive. Stereotypes block interpersonal communication and rapport; they can lead clients to early termination, alienation from the counseling process, and cultural oppression. To avoid these errors and outcomes, scholars suggest that counselors work to become more conscious of their information processing in client encounters and treat expectations as hypotheses whose fit with the particular client must always be evaluated. Such caution should be exercised even when counselor and client are members of the same group, as within-group variance may make automatic expectations erroneous.

In overcoming the negative impact of stereotypes on the counseling process, and promoting culturally sensitive counseling, counselors critically need self-awareness of their own cultural and group memberships and their influences on their expectations. Self-analysis should include exploring the origins of, and possible motivations behind, each expectation, bringing these to consciousness. Only then can they be held as hypotheses to understand others’ experiences and behaviors rather than rigid stereotypes kept in place by unknown agendas.

A self-aware counselor can be purposive and active in applying schemata to work with clients. An unexamined, passive, automatic application of schemata is likely to result in stereotyping the client. Counselors must actively explore and intentionally direct what stimuli they attend to, how they interpret the information, and what they do based on the information. Because many counselors have been socialized not to attend to group membership issues, inattention is the default. Inattention allows unexamined stereotypes to hold sway over what is acknowledged and how it is responded to.

Some counseling scholars, noting that stereotyping provides the ingroup with a self-definition distinct from and superior to that of the target group, assert that asking counselors to stop their stereotyping behavior is akin to asking them to give up a source of positive self-regard. They suggest that such work must be done in a safe environment and must include help in breaking down the connection between anti-target group sentiment and beliefs and positive self-construal.

Impact of Stereotypes on the Target Group: Stereotype Threat

Another effect of stereotyping on the counseling process is the impact on targets. Counselors must be aware of how stereotyping affects the ways both counselors and their clients present. Such understanding can help counselors develop interventions, especially at the programmatic level, that can mitigate the negative impact of stereotypes.

One impact that has been extensively explored is the phenomenon of stereotype threat. Stereotype threat is a situationally triggered phenomenon in which a target group member’s efforts to avoid confirming a stereotype lead to performance deficits. Stereotype threat can arise when a target group member approaches a task for which a stereotype expects poor performance by the target group. The individual tends to experience pressure to disconfirm the stereotype. Cognitive resources are marshaled to deal with this pressure, so they are not available for completing the task, and this negatively impacts performance. For example, when a female science student takes a biology exam she may be hampered by pressure to disconfirm the stereotype that women are not good in science.

The negative effect of the stereotype goes beyond the poor performance. It can cause target individuals to avoid domains in which a stereotype exists and their behavior may be evaluated. This can cause targets to avoid certain majors or fields, or even avoid speaking in class.

Thus, simply by their existence, stereotypes can produce the behaviors that they predict in target group members. An ingroup member need not react to a target based on a stereotype for the target to experience a negative effect. To mitigate these negative effects, counselors must do more than simply be aware of the stereotypes they hold and limit the negative effects of those on counseling. Scholars suggest that programs and interventions must reduce the stereotype threat experienced by targets. First, counselors must avoid ascribing clients’ difficulties exclusively to internal processes such as the internalization of stereotypes by targets. Modification of contextual and situational factors must also be considered important avenues for intervention. Second, programs and interventions must avoid being a source of stereotype threat themselves. Threat can occur when a program or intervention is presented as remedial, suggesting that those who need this intervention are inferior. Targets may often be identified as having a problem and be referred to programs created to help them. Participation in the program can then be seen as a confirmation of a stereotype. One suggestion is that programs and interventions be modified to challenge participants sensitively, rather than lowering the expected standard. Participation, too, must be reframed as an earned privilege, showing that the client is up for the challenge, rather than a punishment for poor performance. Such programs and interventions actively counter the stereotypes in the air and create an environment where participants can feel proud of both their group membership and their efforts in the domain of their choice. Pride can create a positive linking of these two in the perception of all, countering stereotypes as well as their negative impact.


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