Stereotypes are generalized beliefs about the characteristics that are associated with the members of a social group. In 1922, the journalist Walter Lippmann first popularized the term stereotype, which he described as the image people have in their heads of what a social group is like. Early researchers examined the content of social stereotypes by asking people to indicate which psychological traits they associate with various ethnic and national groups (e.g., Germans, Blacks, Jews). This research indicated that there was a good deal of consensus in the public’s image of these social groups, with generally strong agreement about which characteristics are typical of each group. There was also a tendency for these “pictures in our heads” to contain more negative than positive characteristics.
Origins of Stereotypes
Recent research shows that stereotypes tend to cluster around two broad themes. One theme concerns competence: Are members of the group smart and successful? The second theme concerns warmth: Are members of the group likeable, friendly, and unthreatening? Perhaps unsurprisingly, members of the dominant (majority) social group tend to regard their own group as both competent and warm. Many other groups are regarded with a mixture of ambivalent stereotypes. Some groups, such as women and the elderly, are commonly seen as being quite warm but lacking competence, whereas other groups, such as Asians and Jews, tend to be seen by the majority group as being quite competent but lacking in warmth. Only relatively few groups (e.g., the homeless, drug addicts) are seen as lacking on both dimensions. In general, however, this research confirms that the stereotypes of many social groups are marked by at least one negative theme.
Much research in recent decades has examined the cognitive processes underlying stereotyping. From this perspective, stereotypes serve a knowledge function, organizing and structuring one’s understanding of the social environment. The social cognition perspective emphasizes that stereotypes arise from the normal, everyday operation of basic mental processes such as attention, memory, and inference. In everyday life, a person is potentially exposed to information about the members of various social groups in diverse ways. One may see them on TV, hear friends talk about them, or actually encounter them in person. The social cognition perspective asserts that the stereotypes a person forms will be determined by which aspects of this parade of information he or she pays attention to and remembers. Essentially, there is a basic process of learning involved in the formation of stereotypes, but this process may not necessarily be objective and unbiased. Indeed, an important question that has not yet been fully addressed is the extent to which everyday learning processes result in stereotypes that are reasonably accurate.
Certainly, it seems intuitively unlikely that one would form wildly inaccurate stereotypes, and even if one did, it is still unclear how he or she could maintain them in the face of continual disconfirmation. Yet social cognition research suggests that it is indeed possible for people to be systematically biased in what they “know” about social groups. People often possess an extensive mental database containing evidence supporting the apparent accuracy of their stereotypes, but this seemingly compelling evidence may be substantially illusory. First, for people to form accurate images of a social group, they would need to be exposed to representative samples of group members; however, representative samples may be hard to come by (especially for groups that are personally encountered less frequently) if the media, gossip, and other forms of public discourse focus selectively on the more negative aspects of a social group’s behavior. Even if a representative sample of behavior is available, people would still have to be equally sensitive to all types of presented information for their mental image of a group to be objectively accurate. Research suggests that again, there is a tendency to pay greater attention to negative information, especially when it is associated with a distinctive social group (such as a minority group). And when people start out with a clear expectation about what a group is like, they may be biased in what they perceive and remember in subsequently encountered information about the group. Although it is an open question just how accurate most social stereotypes are, available research shows that exaggerated and inaccurate stereotypes can form and be maintained under at least some circumstances.
Consequences of Stereotyping
When a person encounters a member of a stereotyped group, the stereotypes associated with that group may be automatically activated; that is, the specific characteristics that are seen as typical of the group may become more accessible in the person’s mind. This process of stereotype activation can happen even in cases in which a person does not personally endorse or accept the stereotype as accurate. As long as there is an association between the group and the stereotypic characteristic stored in memory (e.g., from frequent exposure to common cultural images of a group), the stereotype can become activated upon encountering a member of the stereotyped social group. If this happens, the stereotype can exert a host of effects on the way this person is perceived and treated. Most of these effects occur rapidly, involuntarily, and often without any awareness that they are taking place.
Social psychologists have developed several ways of detecting that stereotypes become activated in people’s minds rapidly and automatically. For example, research indicates that many people are influenced by gender stereotypes in this manner. Participants are exposed to a series of photographs of men and women, and after each photograph, they have to respond to a target word as quickly as possible. After seeing a picture of a man, people tend to be reliably faster to respond to stereotypically masculine concepts (e.g., “strong”) but reliably slower to respond to stereotypically feminine concepts (e.g., “soft”). The converse pattern happens after exposure to a picture of a woman. Thus, merely encountering a picture of a person is all it takes for gender-related stereotypic concepts to become more accessible in the minds of perceivers. The automatic activation of stereotypes is common but by no means universal. Substantial individual differences exist, and the immediate context is important too. For example, in a situational context in which ethnicity is more salient than sex, the same set of target photos might evoke automatic racial stereotypes but not gender stereotypes. In most cases, however, a person does form some kind of rapid impression of another person, and often this impression is based partly on the application of activated stereotypes regarding some (but probably not all) of the target person’s social groups.
Once activated, stereotypes can exert a host of important effects on the way a person sees the world. For example, once a stereotype is activated, it can bias the way the person interprets ambiguous behavior. If one holds the stereotype that Arabs are dangerous, then even fairly mundane behavior by an Arab (or someone who looks vaguely like an Arab) can take on seemingly sinister overtones in one’s mind. In this kind of situation, ambiguous behavior is assimilated to the stereotypic ideas that are activated in the perceiver’s mind. Stereotypes can also bias the way a person explains social events. For example, leadership skill is stereotypically associated more with men than with women. A successful male executive is often credited with business savvy and leadership skill, whereas a successful female executive’s performance might be explained by favorable economic conditions or even blind luck. Because the causes of most events are often at least somewhat ambiguous, stereotypes can influence which elements of the situation stand out as causally important. Stereotypic outcomes readily suggest stereotypic personal causes (e.g., a male’s leadership skill), whereas counterstereotypic outcomes call for situational or temporary causes (e.g., favorable market conditions). Notice that these biasing effects of stereotypes tend to reinforce the stereotype’s apparent accuracy by adding to one’s mental database of confirmatory instances (simultaneously overlooking or discounting disconfirming instances).
Stereotypes may also be self-perpetuating in the sense that people who hold strong stereotypes may act in ways that bring about the confirmation of their beliefs. For example, if a person believes that African Americans are hostile, then he or she may interact with African Americans in a relatively unfriendly way; such treatment often tends to elicit a response that is also unfriendly, thereby seeming to confirm the expected hostility. This kind of self-fulfilling prophecy adds to the appearance of stereotype accuracy.
People form stereotypes about all kinds of social groups, but much of the focus of social psychological research has been on stereotypes about groups defined by basic demographic features (such as ethnicity, sex, or age). Because of the historical injustices associated with racism, sexism, and ageism, researchers have sought to understand the connections between stereotypes and discrimination in these particular domains. In most cases, it does not seem that people engage in generalized discrimination toward minority groups; that is, they do not tend to respond negatively or unfairly to group members generally, irrespective of context or circumstances. Instead, the forms of discrimination often align with the content of stereotypes. Sexist discrimination provides a clear example. Women face employment discrimination primarily in situations in which they seek to take on traditionally masculine roles (e.g., business executive), but not in cases in which they seek traditionally feminine roles (e.g., school teacher). Stereotypes create the expectation that women, despite their many positive qualities, “don’t have what it takes” to be forceful, effective business leaders. Research on racial stereotypes similarly shows that race-based discrimination against ethnic minorities is much more likely in stereotypic cases. In some studies, for example, African Americans and Latinos have been judged more likely to be guilty of blue-collar crimes (such as theft or assault) than a White defendant, but the pattern reverses for white-collar crimes (such as embezzlement or computer hacking). Thus, people do not discriminate against any particular group across the board; rather, the content of social stereotypes directs the focus and form of discrimination faced by the members of stereotyped groups.
Social psychologists are not the only ones to notice these connections between stereotyping and discrimination. During the 20th century, the general public also came to associate stereotyping of these groups with social injustice, leading to the common view that stereotyping is inappropriate and unacceptable. As a result, people often disavow stereotypic ideas, yet as previously noted, this personal rejection of stereotypes provides no guarantee that their activation and influence will be avoided. One strategy for avoiding unwanted stereotypic reactions is to try to suppress stereotypes, or prevent them from coming into one’s mind. Numerous studies have examined the effects of trying not to have stereotypic thoughts come to mind. This research emphasizes that, although the process of activating and using stereotypes is often quite efficient and largely automatic, the process of trying to squelch these stereotypes is typically much more effortful. It takes mental energy and focused effort to do it successfully. If perceivers have consistent motivation and ample free attention, they can succeed in suppressing stereotypic responses, but if their motivation lapses, or they become distracted, trying to suppress stereotypes can actually result in a rebound effect, in which the stereotypes become even more accessible than they would have been if suppression had never been attempted. Fortunately, there is growing evidence that it is possible for perceivers to unlearn unwanted cultural stereotypes and to become quite efficient in inhibiting these stereotypes. Research examining the most rapid responses that happen in the first seconds of encountering a member of a stereotyped group confirm that individuals can succeed in overcoming stereotypic biases and that this process of inhibiting stereotypic responses does not have to remain effortful and taxing (although it may start out that way).
Stereotypes play an important role in how people perceive and form impressions of others. Once an individual is categorized as a member of a particular group, he or she can come to be judged in terms of group-based expectations. In the absence of clear disconfirmation, the person can easily be seen as a “typical” member of that group, interchangeable with other group members. In contrast to such category-based impressions, perceivers can instead judge individuals on the basis of personal attributes, some of which may be typical of their group, but many of which are not. This process of individuation, though escaping the risks of inaccurate or exaggerated stereo-typing, requires a much larger investment of time and energy. To come to know an individual’s personal attributes, rather than simply assuming that he or she possesses group-typical attributes, requires fairly extensive contact and unbiased appraisals of the individual who is encountered. Given these demands, stereotyping may often be the default process guiding social perception when the need or desire for accurate impressions is not especially pressing.
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