Stigma is an attribute or characteristic that marks a person as different from others and that extensively discredits his or her identity. Ancient Greeks coined the term stigma to describe a mark cut or burned into the body that designated the bearer as someone who was morally defective, such as a slave, criminal, or traitor. Sociologist Erving Goffnan resurrected the term, defining stigma as an attribute that spoils a person’s identity, reducing him or her in others’ minds “from a whole and usual person to a tainted, discounted one.” Stigmatizing marks are associated with negative evaluations and devaluing stereotypes. These negative evaluations and stereotypes are generally well known among members of a culture and become a basis for excluding, avoiding, and discriminating against those who possess (or are believed to possess) the stigmatizing mark. People who are closely associated with bearers of stigma may also experience some of the negative effects of stigma, a phenomenon known as stigma by association.
Stigma does not reside in a person but in a social context. For example, within the United States, gays and lesbians are stigmatized across a range of situations, but not in a gay bar. African Americans are stigmatized in school but not on the basketball court. This contextual aspect of stigma means that even attributes that are not typically thought of as being stigmatizing may nonetheless lead to social devaluation in some social contexts (e.g., being heterosexual at a gay pride rally). Some marks, however, are so pervasively devalued in society that they cause bearers of those marks to experience stigmatization across a wide range of situations and relationships. The consequences of stigmatization are far more severe for these individuals than for those who experience stigmatization only in very limited contexts.
Stigma Types and Dimensions
Goffman categorized stigmatizing marks into three major types: tribal stigma, abominations of the body, and blemishes of character. Tribal stigmas are passed from generation to generation and include membership in devalued racial, ethnic, or religious groups. Abominations of the body are uninherited physical characteristics that are devalued, such as obesity or physical deformity. Blemishes of character are individual personality or behavioral characteristics that are devalued, such as being a child abuser or rapist.
Stigmas also differ on important dimensions, such as the extent to which they are concealable, controllable, and believed to be dangerous. These differences have important implications for how the stigmatized are treated by others, and how stigma is experienced by those who have a stigmatizing condition.
Some marks (e.g., obesity) are visible or cannot be easily concealed from others, whereas others (e.g., being a convicted felon) are not visible or can more easily be concealed. Individuals whose stigma is visible must contend with different issues than do those whose stigma is invisible. The visibly stigmatized are more likely to encounter avoidance and rejection from others than those whose stigmas are concealed. Consequently, the former may be more likely to interpret others’ behavior in terms of their stigma and be more concerned with managing others’ treatment of them. People whose stigmas are concealable, in contrast, have a different set of concerns. Although they may be able to “pass” or hide their stigma from others, they may be preoccupied with figuring out the attitudes of others toward their (hidden) stigma and with managing how and when to disclose their stigma to others. They must live with the fear of others finding out about their stigma, and of being discredited. They may also have a harder time finding others like themselves to interact with, which may lead to social isolation and lowered self-esteem.
The perceived controllability of a stigma is also important. Stigmas are perceived as controllable when the bearer is thought to be responsible for acquiring the stigmatizing mark or when it is thought that the condition could be eliminated by the behavior of the bearer. Obesity, drug addiction, and child abuse are examples of marks generally perceived to be controllable; whereas skin color and physical disability are examples of marks generally thought to be uncontrollable. People with stigmas that are believed to be controllable are more disliked, rejected, and less likely to receive help than are people whose stigmas are perceived as uncontrollable. Perceived controllability can also affect the bearer’s behavior. Those who view their stigma as controllable, for example, may focus more on escaping or eliminating it than might those who perceive their stigma as uncontrollable.
Functions of Stigma
Most scholars regard stigma as socially constructed, meaning that the particular attributes or characteristics that are stigmatized are determined by society. This view is supported by evidence of variability across cultures in the attributes that are stigmatized. For example, obesity is severely stigmatized in the United States, far less so in Mexico, and is prized in some cultures. Even within the same culture, the degree to which a particular attribute is stigmatizing can change over time. For example, in the United States, being divorced was much more stigmatizing in earlier than it is today. Some commonalities exist across cultures, however, in what attributes are stigmatized.
Social stigma occurs in every society. This universality suggests that stigmatization may serve some functional value for individuals, groups, or societies. At the individual level, putting someone else down may make one feel better about oneself as an individual. At the group level, devaluing other groups may help people feel better about their own groups by comparison. At the societal level, negatively stereotyping and devaluing people who are low in social status may make their lower status seem fair and deserved, thereby legitimizing social inequalities in society. Stigmatization may also serve a fourth function. Evolutionary psychologists propose that it may have evolved among humans to avoid the dangers that accompany living with other people. Specifically, they posit that humans have developed cognitive adaptations that cause them to exclude (stigmatize) people who possess (or who are believed to possess) attributes that (a) signal they might carry parasites or other infectious diseases (such as a having a physical deformity or AIDS), (b) signal that they are a poor partner for social exchange (such as a having a criminal record), or (c) signal they are a member of an outgroup that can be exploited for one’s own group’s gain.
Consequences of Stigma
Stigmatization has profound and wide-ranging negative effects on those who bear (or who are thought to bear) stigmatizing marks. Stigmatization has been linked to lower social status, poverty, impaired cognitive and social functioning, poorer physical health, and poorer mental health. These negative effects can occur through several pathways.
Stigma has direct negative effects on bearers by increasing their likelihood of experiencing social rejection, exclusion, prejudice, and discrimination. Research has established that the stigmatized are vulnerable to a variety of types of social rejection, such as slurs, slights, derision, avoidance, and violence. People who are stigmatized also receive poorer treatment in the workplace, educational settings, healthcare system, housing market, and criminal justice system. Stigma even has negative effects on family relationships. For example, parents are less likely to pay for the college education of their daughters who are heavy than of daughters who are thin. Discrimination can be interpersonal (e.g., when a woman is rejected by a man because of her weight) or institutional (e.g., when a woman is denied a job as a flight attendant because of institutionalized height and weight requirements).
Stigma also can have direct, negative effects on the stigmatized through the operation of expectancy confirmation processes. When people hold negative beliefs about a person because of the person’s stigma (e.g., believe that someone who has been hospitalized for mental illness is dangerous), their beliefs (incorrect or correct) can lead them to behave in certain ways toward the stigmatized that are consistent with their beliefs (e.g., avoid the stigmatized, watch them suspiciously, refuse to hire them). These behaviors can cause the stigmatized to respond in ways that confirm the initial evaluation or stereotype (e.g., they get angry, hostile). This can happen without the stigmatized person even being aware that the other person (perceiver) holds negative stereotypes, and even when the perceiver is not conscious of holding negative stereotypes.
People who are stigmatized are not always treated negatively by those who are not stigmatized. People often feel ambivalence toward the stigmatized; they may feel sympathy for the plight of the stigmatized while feeling that the stigmatized are dependent, lazy, or weak. People may also experience aversion and negative affect toward the stigmatized yet also desire to respond positively toward them to avoid appearing prejudiced, either to others or to themselves. As a result of these conflicting motives and feelings, bearers of stigma sometimes are treated extremely positively, and at other times extremely negatively. People behave more positively toward the stigmatized in public settings than in private settings, and report being less prejudiced on explicit measures of liking (such as attitude questionnaires) than implicit measures of liking (such as reaction time, or other measures of attitudes that are not under conscious control). These conflicting responses can make it difficult for the stigmatized to gauge how others really feel about them.
Stigma also has indirect effects on the stigmatized by influencing how they perceive and interpret their social worlds. Virtually all members of a culture, including bearers of stigma, are aware of cultural stereotypes associated with stigma, even if they do not personally endorse them. People who are stigmatized are aware that they are devalued in the eyes of others, know the dominant cultural stereotypes associated with their stigma, and recognize that they could be victims of discrimination. These beliefs are collective representations, in that they are typically shared by others who bear the same stigma. These collective representations influence how bearers of stigma approach and interpret situations in which they are at risk of being devalued, negatively stereotyped, or targets of discrimination. For some, their stigma may become a lens through which they interpret their social world. They may become vigilant for signs of devaluation and anticipate rejection in their social interactions.
Collective representations can have negative effects on the stigmatized by increasing their concerns that they will be negatively evaluated because of their stigma, a psychological state termed identity threat. Identity threat is not chronic, but situational; it occurs only in situations in which people are at risk of devaluation because of their stigma. When experienced, identity threat can interfere with working memory, performance, and social relationships and can increase anxiety and physiological stress responses. One form of identity threat is stereotype threat, concern that one’s behavior will be interpreted in light of or confirm negative stereotypes associated with one’s stigma. Stereotype threat occurs in situations in which negative group stereotypes are relevant and may be applied to the self and can impair performance in those domains.
Collective representations can also lead bearers to experience attributional ambiguity in situations in which their stigma is relevant. Attributional ambiguity stems from bearers’ awareness that they may be targets of prejudice and discrimination. As a consequence of this awareness, bearers of stigma (particularly those whose stigma is visible) who are treated negatively may be unsure whether it was caused by something about themselves (such as their performance or lack of qualifications) or was caused by prejudice and discrimination based on their stigma. Positive outcomes can also be attributionally ambiguous. As noted earlier, bearers of stigma are often exposed to inconsistent treatment and are aware of discrepancies between how the nonstigmatized feel and how they behave toward the stigmatized. As a consequence, bearers of stigma may mistrust the validity, sincerity, and diagnosticity of positive as well as negative feedback. This, in turn, can negatively affect their social relationships as well as interfere with their abilities to make accurate self-assessments.
Collective representations associated with stigma influence how bearers of stigma perceive, interpret, and interact with their social world. Through this process, stigma can have negative effects on bearers in the absence of any obvious forms of discriminatory behavior on the part of others, even if a stigmatizing mark is unknown to others, and even when no other person is present in the immediate situation.
Some psychological theories describe bearers of stigma as passive victims who cannot help but devalue them-selves because they are devalued by society. In fact, research shows that not all bearers of stigma are depressed, have low self-esteem, or perform poorly. Indeed, members of some stigmatized groups have higher self-esteem on average than do members of non-stigmatized groups. How bearers of stigma respond to their predicament varies tremendously. An important determinant of their response is how they cope with the threats to their identity that their stigma poses.
Bearers cope with stigmatization in a variety of ways. Some coping efforts are problem focused. For example, the stigmatized may attempt to eliminate the mark that is the source of stigmatization, such as when an obese person goes on a diet or a stutterer enrolls in speech therapy. This strategy, of course, is not available to bearers whose stigma cannot be eliminated. Bearers may also cope by trying to avoid stigmatization, such as when a person with a concealable stigma “passes” as a member of more valued group, or an overweight person avoids going to the gym or the beach. This coping strategy may severely constrain the everyday lives of the stigmatized. The stigmatized may also cope by attempting to overcome stigma by compensating, or striving even harder in domains where they are negatively stereotyped or devalued. For example, one study showed that overweight women who believed that an interaction partner could see them (and hence believed their weight might negatively affect the interaction) compensated by behaving even more sociably compared with overweight women who thought their interaction partner could not see them. Although this strategy can be effective, it can also be exhausting, especially in the face of enormous obstacles.
Other coping strategies focus on managing the negative emotions or threats to self-esteem that stigmatization may cause. For example, the stigmatized may cope with threats to their identity by disengaging their self-esteem from domains in which they are negatively stereotyped or fear being a target of discrimination and investing themselves more in domains in which they are less at risk. When they encounter negative treatment, another coping strategy they may use is to (often correctly) shift the blame from stable aspects of themselves (“I am stupid,” “I am unlikable”) to the prejudice of others. This strategy may protect their self-esteem from negative outcomes, especially when prejudice is blatant. Bearers of stigma may also cope by identifying or bonding with others who share their stigma. Similarly stigmatized others can provide social support, a sense of belonging, and protect against feelings of rejection and isolation. Furthermore, bonding with others who are similarly stigmatized may also enable bearers to enact social changes that benefit their stigmatized group, as demonstrated by the success of the civil rights movement and the gay pride movement. In sum, through various coping strategies, bearers of stigma may demonstrate resilience even in the face of social devaluation.
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