Self-stereotyping occurs when individuals’ beliefs about their own characteristics correspond to common beliefs about the characteristics of a group they belong to. This is generally measured in one of two ways. The first involves measuring the degree to which individuals describe themselves using characteristics that are commonly thought to describe members of their group in general. For example, it is a common belief that women in general are poor at math. Assessing whether individual women feel as if they are poor at math would be consistent with this way of measuring self-stereotyping. The second way researchers measure self-stereotyping is by determining the amount of similarity between how individual group members see their group (or a typical group member) and how they see themselves. For example, researchers may ask individual members of a fraternity how similar they are to a typical member of their fraternity. Some researchers use the term self-stereotyping to describe when being a member of a group that is viewed negatively decreases self-esteem, when members of a group endorse stereotypic beliefs about their group, or when the behaviors of individual group members are consistent with stereotypes about their group. However, these uses of the term do not fit the prevailing definition.
Historically, self-stereotyping has been important in social psychology because prominent theorists thought that it was an unavoidable consequence of group membership. Conceptualizing self-stereotyping more broadly than is done today, they argued that being viewed a certain way because of one’s group membership undoubtedly should affect how individual group members see themselves. The modern importance of self-stereotyping stems from the functions it is thought to serve. Some researchers argue that self-stereotyping can translate into beliefs and behaviors that help support existing inequalities between groups in society. Other researchers argue that self-stereotyping fulfills the need to feel close to other group members. From this perspective, self-stereotyping is beneficial in that it creates a sense of group unity and solidarity. Research documenting other functions of self-stereotyping needs to be done.
When and Why
Although early theorists thought self-stereotyping was virtually unavoidable, modern researchers show that the occurrence of self-stereotyping depends on several things. One is how easily one’s group membership comes to mind. The more easily this occurs, the more likely an individual is to self-stereotype in line with beliefs about that group. How easily a group membership comes to mind increases as a function of how unusual it is within a given social environment. For example, being the only woman or African American at a board meeting will bring these group memberships to mind and, therefore, enhance the likelihood of self-stereotyping. A group membership will also come to mind more easily if divisions between different groups are made noticeable. For example, if two men and two women engage in a discussion and tend to find agreement, then their respective gender identities will remain largely in the background. However, if a disagreement along gender lines emerges, then their gender identities will become more noticeable and self-stereotyping will be more likely to occur.
Self-stereotyping is also determined by efforts to maintain an optimal level of closeness to the group. The closer individuals feel to the group, the more likely they are to see themselves as possessing characteristics associated with the group. Conversely, when group members perceive themselves as distinctly different from other members of their group, they engage in self-stereotyping to lessen this feeling.
Feelings as if one’s group is threatened also increase self-stereotyping. Threat can come in the form of being a low-status or minority group, as well as feeling that the group is not sufficiently different from other groups. Response to threat, however, depends on how close a person feels to the group. People who feel very close to their groups are more likely to respond to temporary and chronic threats to status with increased self-stereotyping than are people who feel less close to their group. People who feel very close to the group are motivated to maintain ties to the group and thus cope with the threat in ways that protect the group and their place within it.
Finally, interpersonal relationships act as pathways through which individuals come to self-stereotype. People who think close others, or a new person with whom they want to affiliate, hold stereotypic beliefs about their group, are more likely to see themselves in a stereotypic manner.
The understanding of self-stereotyping has evolved over time. Researchers are now in a better position to describe how and when it will emerge. However, several important unanswered questions remain. One question is whether self-stereotyping occurs for both positive and negative group characteristics. Some research has found that self-stereotyping only occurs for positive traits, whereas other research has found self-stereotyping on positive and negative traits. Another question concerns the consequences of self-stereotyping. For example, it would be useful to know when self-stereotyping does and does not lead to corresponding behavior.
- Hogg, M. A., & Turner, J. C. (1987). Intergroup behavior, self-stereotyping, and the salience of social categories. British Journal of Social Psychology, 26, 325-340.
- Pickett, C. L., Bonner, B. L., & Coleman, J. M. (2002). Motivated self-stereotyping: Heightened assimilation and differentiation needs result in increased levels of positive and negative self-stereotyping. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 82, 543-562.
- Sinclair, S., Huntsinger, J., Skorinko, J., & Hardin, C. D. (2005). Social tuning of the self: Consequences for the self-evaluations of stereotype targets. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 89, 160-175.