Stereotyping represents a category-driven, formulaic, and oversimplified process of making broad-brush suppositions and generalizations about a group of people to whom specified sets of characteristics are attributed. The characteristics ascribed to identified groups can be positive, neutral, or negative and can be originated and sustained relatively easily when there are clearly visible and discernibly observable features. Characteristics upon which stereotypes are formed and promulgated are innumerable, and a non-exhaustive categorical list includes cultural, ethnic, racial, age, gender, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status (SES), physical and mental disabilities, personality, careers (e.g., athletes, white-collar jobs, blue-collar jobs), sensory (e.g., hearing, sight, smell, touch, taste), regional (e.g., southern, northern, western, eastern), generational (“the sixties,” “old school,” “the me generation”), appearances (e.g., height, weight, skin color), and relational status (e.g., single, married, divorced, partnered). On an individual level, stereotypes imply that a person possesses the characteristics alleged to be part of the group being stereotyped. Accurate or not, these inferences shape beliefs and perceptions about the targeted individual. Last, stereotyping is a within and across-group social categorization process in which all communities around the world participate. As such, no one individual or group is immune from being stereotyped or from experiencing the relative impact of this always-present and conventional phenomenon.
Stereotypes and stereotyping are learned directly and vicariously, usually emanating from childhood and fostered actively and cumulatively by parents, family, community, school, religious institutions and the media in all of its forms (e.g., visual, print, auditory). A related issue is that a lack of familiarity with other groups (e.g., cultural, ethnic, racial) increases vulnerability to socially promoted images that fuel stereotyping. Intergroup conflicts and competitions minimize similarities and magnify differences. The utility of stereotypes and stereotyping across time, circumstance and situations suggests its sustainable permanence among our global citizenry.
Stereotyping serves multiple purposes. It positions persons seeking to simplify a complex world with degrees of freedom (df) to (a) organize and synthesize information, (b) control and at some level predict likely outcomes, and (c) decrease the amount of time it takes to absorb and make sense of myriad interpersonal and intrapersonal stimuli radiating from other individuals or groups. The challenges associated with this purpose are expressed in the human tendency to resist new information and input, fearing loss of the hitherto organized data and feeling forced to manage the need to construct new images and perceptions.
For persons holding meritocratic beliefs rooted in notions of superiority stereotyping allows persons in this type of in-group to justify ill-founded prejudices, engage in scapegoating, and to hold on to judgmental attitudes toward alleged “less than” and “inferior” out-group members. Finally, and at its negative extreme, stereotyping positions oppressors and persons bent on exploitation to evade and escape thinking of themselves as wrongdoers and justify continued exploitation. Abundant historical and contemporary examples of the latter purpose, seen across national (e.g., African American, American Indian, Asian-Pacific Islander, and Latino or Latina) and international groups throughout world history are replete in scholarship across disciplines (e.g., psychology, sociology, anthropology, and history).
The impact of stereotyping varies by individuals and groups and can be understood and appreciated within the contexts of circumstances; situations; the conscious and unconscious motivation and intent of the perpetrator; and the receiver’s unconscious and conscious awareness of, sensitivity to, and focus on the stereotype being expressed. Stereotypes and stereotyping distort perceptions and advance social judgments. Stereotypes and stereotyping stimulate overestimation of the occurrence of negative beliefs and perceptions of ethnic minority and other marginalized populations and thus, preclude really seeing the uniqueness of individuals and the groups to which they belong. Caricatures of athletes as “dumb jocks,” portrayals showing that “white men can’t jump,” images of female athletes participating in sports seen traditionally as male (e.g., basketball, football, baseball, soccer) as “tomboy” and “butch,” and perceptions of Asian athletes as “intelligent” and athletes of African descent as “natural athletes” and “less intelligent” represent just a few examples of impressions that fuel believable misperceptions. Information that persons notice, attend to, and process is impacted by this process of social categorization. Once learned, stereotyping is a difficult habit to break. What’s more, stereotyping becomes self-perpetuating for both the person engaging in stereotyping and the individual or group on the receiving end. Related, stereotyping influences self-perceptions particularly around competence and confidence, and these markers of self-doubt represent cornerstones to experiences of stereotype threat. Stereotype threat, essentially, is an anxiety-based response to an appraisal situation that carries with it the potential for the individual to confirm negative stereotypes about the group (i.e., cultural, ethnic, racial) to which he or she is a member.
Stereotyping relative to cultural, ethnic, racial, and other traditionally marginalized groups continues to be the focus of abundant scholarship, across disciplines. Scholars have examined stereotyping from historical and contemporary perspectives, and much has been learned about how stereotypes begin, persist, and are transmitted to individuals and groups irrespective of the region of the world where it continues to manifest.
Stereotyping is an ever-present social process whose impact worldwide is undeniable. The degree to which stereotyping impacts individuals and groups, however, varies based on the confluence of numerous factors. Also, the ways in which individuals and groups respond to stereotypes and stereotyping differs across myriad dimensions. The institutionalized and systemic nature of stereotyping precludes its eradication. That being said, engaging in difficult dialogues about this complex social force represents a reasonable approach to managing this pervasive social reality.
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- Katz, D., & Braley, K. (1933). Racial stereotypes of onehundred college students. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 28, 280–290.
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- Steele, C. (2010). Whistling Vivaldi: And other clues to how stereotypes affect us. New York: Norton.
- Stone, J., Chalabaev, A., & Harrison, C. K. (2011). Stereotype threat in sports. In M. Inzlicht & T. Schmader (Eds.), Stereotype threat: Theory, process and application (pp. 217–230). New York: Oxford University Press.
- Wininger, S., & White, T. (2008). The dumb jock stereotype: To what extent do student-athletes feel the stereotype? Journal of the Study of Sport and Athletes in Education, 2(2), 227–237.