In a social or organizational context, prejudice refers to an attitude, usually negative, toward a person or a group of people because of their group membership. When this attitude is expressed behaviorally, the result is discrimination. At the core of prejudice are stereotypes and stereotype-based assumptions.
The Stereotyping Process
Although researchers have debated the precise definition of a stereotype, the term generally refers to a set of beliefs about the characteristics, attributes, and behaviors of members of a certain group. Stereotypes about groups of people are a by-product of categorization processes. Just as we categorize cars and foods, we also categorize people. Once categorized, generalizations about what we believe to be the defining features of a category (e.g., cars have four wheels) are assumed to characterize individual category members. When applied to individuals, generalizations based on categorization are called social stereotypes. Though people can be categorized along innumerable dimensions, distinctions are commonly made based on highly visible characteristics such as sex, ethnicity, and age.
Research evidence suggests that stereotyping serves multiple functions. First, social stereotypes can be cognitively useful. Because human processing is limited, categorizing people into groups and extrapolating about them on that basis can be functional by allowing us to simplify complex situations. Furthermore, because stereotypes create expectations, they allow us to make inferences about people’s characteristics that are more remote and abstract and serve a preparatory function. Second, stereotypes can serve a variety of social motivations, including self-enhancement needs. For example, social identity theory argues that humans have a need to belong to an in-group with a positive identity, and negatively stereotyping members of other groups may help bolster that positive identity.
The categorization of individuals and the social stereotypes that categorization produces serve multiple functions. Irrespective of its purpose, however, one of the most remarkable features of categorization is how rapid and automatic a process it can be. Another remarkable feature is how powerful and tenacious the resulting stereotypes can be. Once an individual is categorized and stereotypes are in play, we tend to process information about that individual based on generalized knowledge and expectations about the group he or she is a part of, not based on his or her unique individuality. Consequently, social stereotypes, which are inherently overgeneralizations, can become the basis of faulty reasoning and, ultimately, result in prejudice.
Impact on Information Processing
Several processes that result from stereotypes can lead to biased judgments and decisions. These same processes also serve to maintain and perpetuate social stereotypes by insulating them from potentially disconfirming information.
Stereotypes can influence the extent to which information is attended to. For example, individuals have a tendency to recognize stereotype-consistent information and process it faster than stereotype-inconsistent information, which sometimes is ignored altogether. Additionally, stereotypes promote a confirmation bias. If an individual is trying to understand why a particular outcome occurred, once that individual finds information that is consistent with his or her stereotype-based expectation, the information search is halted.
When stereotype-inconsistent information is not ignored, it is often causally attributed in a manner that is consistent with the stereotype. For example, research has documented that although stereotype-consistent information is often attributed to stable dispositional attributes, stereotype-inconsistent information is often attributed to temporary elements of the situation. Therefore, the inconsistent information is written off as a fluke.
Stereotypes influence the manner in which individual actions are interpreted. For example, the same behavior performed by people from differing social groups may be interpreted through a different lens. For example, the same work demeanor may be seen as “relaxed” when an employee is White but as “lazy” when an employee is Black. This suggests that potentially individuating information, which is often contrary to the stereotype, is assimilated into it and consequently disregarded.
Stereotypes have been shown to influence what people remember about a particular individual. Typically, memory is biased in the direction of expected stereotype-consistent attributes—what fits the stereotype is remembered more completely and more accurately than what does not fit the stereotype. There is also documentation of a tendency to “remember” stereotype-consistent events and behaviors even when they did not actually happen.
Organizational Factors That Moderate Stereotype Use
The impact of stereotypes, although powerful, is not inevitable or invariable. Many organizational factors can promote or inhibit the activation or use of stereotypes in the evaluation process.
Only when it is salient does a feature of an individual become the basis of categorization. Though certain highly visible features such as sex or race are often the basis of categorization, contextual elements such as uniqueness or scarcity can highlight their visibility. Thus, a woman’s sex is more likely to stand out when she is in the company of nine men than when she is with five men and four other women. More balanced proportional representations reduce stereotype use in evaluations.
Ambiguity in Performance Outcome
Stereotypes prevail in ambiguous circumstances. To the extent that a performance outcome is ambiguous in its implications and inference is required to interpret it, stereotypes will play a greater role in its evaluation. When information about performance is definitive, the output is objectively measurable, or there is broad consensus about its quality, the impact of stereotypes will be attenuated and the distortion they create avoided.
Ambiguity in Evaluation Methods
Ambiguity in the decision-making process can prompt the use of stereotypes. In the absence of explicit criteria to attend to, evaluators often selectively attend to different aspects of information, such that the information processed is congruent with stereotyped expectations. Structured decision making can preclude the use of stereotypes by forcing the consideration of multiple sources of information about an individual, requiring attention to explicit criteria, and ensuring that the same attributes are assessed and weighted equally for everyone.
Ambiguity about the Source of Performance
Stereotypes are likely to predominate when it is unclear who is responsible for a performance outcome—for example, when an individual is working in a group, with a partner, or under the tutelage of a mentor. In such situations, the stereotyped individual is apt to be seen as making less of a contribution to a successful outcome than others, a situation that can be avoided if work situations are structured so that individual inputs are clear and indisputable.
Motivation of the Perceiver
The motivation of the perceiver is a critical determinant of whether stereotypes are used. The more motivated an individual is to be accurate in his or her impression formation, the less likely he or she is to rely on stereotypes. Instances that are likely to be motivating are those in which the perceiver has a personal stake in the outcome of a decision, such as having to work with the person selected, or those in which the perceiver is accountable for his or her decisions and must justify them to a third party.
Social stereotypes are the result of the human tendency to categorize people, places, and things. They create a powerful tendency to distort information to conform to stereotype-based expectations, and they are highly resistant to change. Despite the force of stereotypes, their effects are not inevitable; organizational conditions can both facilitate and hinder their use and the prejudice they promote.
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- Heilman, M. E. (2001). Description and prescription: How gender stereotypes prevent women’s ascent up the organizational ladder. Journal of Social Issues, 57(4), 657-674.
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