Shifting Standards

Shifting Standards Definition

Much of people’s conversation about others includes descriptions such as “he’s very tall” or “she’s smart” or “he’s really aggressive!” The concept of shifting standards refers to the idea that these descriptions are made with reference to some standard of judgment, and that this standard may shift depending on the person or object being described. How tall is tall? Presumably, standards of tallness—what qualifies as tall versus short—differ depending on whether a man or a woman (or a child) is being described. Similarly, standards for judging intelligence, aggressiveness, or any other attribute may shift or vary for different categories of people. Research on shifting standards has suggested that stereotypes about groups, such as beliefs that men are more aggressive than women or that African Americans are better athletes than White Americans, may lead to the use of different (shifting) standards to judge individual members of these groups. The result is that the same description or adjective label may mean something substantially different depending on whom it describes. For example, because standards for height and aggression are lower for women than men, a woman might be labeled “tall” if she were 5’9″ whereas a 5’9″ man would not; “interrupting a conversation” might warrant a label of “assertive” in a woman more so than in a man.

Shifting Standards Background

Shifting StandardsMany psychologists have been interested in how judgments are made—whether they involve objects (such as estimating the brightness of lights or the heaviness of weights), other people, or the self. Every type of judgment must be made with reference to some standard, and usually that standard is based on the immediately preceding context, or on what a person has come to expect. As psychologist Harry Helson noted in his theory of adaptation level, a normally lighted room will seem bright if you’ve been adapted to the dark, but will seem dark if you’ve previously been exposed to bright sunlight. With regard to judgments of people, a 1986 experiment by Paul Herr demonstrated that an individual may seem hostile if you’ve recently been thinking about nonhostile people such as Santa Claus or the Pope, but rather nonhostile if you’ve previously been thinking about hostile people such as Adolf Hitler and Charles Manson. The previous exposure provides the context in which the new target stimulus or person is judged.

Monica Biernat and her colleagues first argued in a 1991 paper that stereotypes about groups function in the same way as other context effects. Stereotypes provide people with expectations about what other people will be like, and therefore serve as standards against which we judge them. If one expects that men have lesser verbal skills than women do, or that African Americans are more athletic than Whites are, the standards will shift depending on whether one is judging men or women, African Americans or Whites. The result could be, paradoxically, that a man is judged even more verbally skilled than a comparably performing woman, or that a White actor is judged more athletic than a Black actor (because standards are lower in each case). But this doesn’t mean that no stereotyping has occurred, or even that reverse stereotyping has occurred. Instead, the stereotype gives rise to different standards, which leads people to judge individual members of groups in comparison with expectations for their groups as a whole.

Shifting Standards Evidence

To demonstrate that stereotypes lead to the use of shifting standards, a line of research has compared the kinds of subjective judgments people make of others with more objective judgments. For example, when asked to judge the heights of individual men and women (depicted in photographs), estimates in inches provide an objective indicator, but estimates in short versus tall descriptors are subjective (i.e., their meaning is not fixed). A typical finding in research comparing these judgments is that objective judgments reveal that people perceive the pictured men as taller than the pictured women. But when asked to estimate how short versus tall these same individuals are, perceivers generally judge the men and women as equally tall. Presumably this occurs because the standard has shifted: Even though the men are seen as objectively taller, they are not so subjectively tall because standards for tallness are higher.

In another demonstration of shifting standards, judges were asked to view photographs of men and women and estimate either how much money they made (in dollars earned per year) or to estimate how financially successful they were (a subjective judgment). The men were judged to earn more money than the women, but the women were judged more financially successful than the men. Again, because standards for financial success are higher for men than women, a woman could earn $9,000 less than a man and still be considered more financially successful.

Across a wide variety of domains—including estimates of athletic ability and verbal skill in the case of racial groups; estimates of writing quality and leadership competence in the case of gender groups— similar patterns have emerged. Indeed, the signature evidence that standards have shifted is that objective judgments reveal straightforward stereotyping effects (e.g., men are judged objectively better leaders than women), but subjective judgments show reductions or reversals of this pattern.

Evidence also indicates that this pattern extends to how individuals actually behave toward members of stereotyped groups. For example, in one study focusing on gender and athleticism, role-playing managers of a coed softball team favored male over female players in many decisions: Managers were more likely to choose men for the team and assign them to valued positions. At the same time, however, female players were praised more than were male players when they successfully hit a single while at bat. Because expectations for women were low, judges were more impressed by a hit from a woman than from a man.

Shifting Standards Implications

Judging others is a big part of social life, and in some settings, such as school or the workplace, the judgments people form may have real implications for their life outcomes. That stereotypes may tarnish these judgments has always been a cause for concern, but research on shifting standards has highlighted that the effects of stereotypes on judgments may be quite complex. Imagine the female softball player who finds herself benched, but patted on the back when she does get the chance to occasionally catch a ball. Or think of the African American employee who finds that he is lavishly praised for completing the simplest of tasks, but is nonetheless passed over for a promotion. This pattern of conflicting feedback must be disconcerting at best. It may also allow judges (the team manager, the employer) to deny the fact that bias is operating. More generally, the fact that standards shift means that the language we use to describe others is often slippery and imprecise. How tall is tall? How smart is smart? That depends on the standard at hand.


  1. Biernat, M. (2003). Toward a broader view of social stereotyping. American Psychologist, 58, 1019-1027.
  2. Biernat, M., Manis, M., & Nelson, T. E. (1991). Stereotypes and standards of judgment. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 60, 485-499.