STEREOTYPES (Social Science)

Stereotypes constitute a person’s set of expectations about a social group’s characteristics, including traits, behaviors, and roles. They are the categorical associations perceivers make to group members based on their membership. Although cognitive in form, stereotypes are interlocked with affect and behavior: Along with prejudice and discrimination, stereotypes make up the tripartite foundation for the breakdown of intergroup relations.

Stereotyping stems from categorization processes that involve the self. Social identity theory contends that people conceptualize the self at different levels of inclusive-ness that range from the subordinate to the superordinate. At each level of abstraction, the corresponding identity (personal, social, or collective self) is salient, with reference to each varying by context. In perceiving the self through a social identity, the person views the self as part of an in-group that is distinctive and, under many circumstances, more subjectively positive than out-groups. Self-categorization theory continues this narrative:

Depersonalization of the self via in-group and out-group differentiation triggers group phenomena that include stereotyping.

Two principles of self-categorization theory structure stereotypes: comparative fit and normative fit. In the former, also known as meta-contrast ratio fit, the smaller the perceived intragroup difference in comparison to inter-group differences, the more the group embodies a coherent unit. Thus, people are categorized into groups that minimize within-group differences and maximize between-group differences. Furthermore, normative fit requires that these differences, both within and between, align with the perceiver’s normative beliefs about the group—that the group fits expectations. An interaction between comparative fit and normative fit processes guides stereotype construction. Under the first principle, within-group variability decreases, increasing perceived homogeneity between group members; under the second, perceived group categories reflect a perceiver’s expectations about that group or the content of normative beliefs.


A two-dimensional framework inherited from person perception literature illustrates the content of stereotypes. Person and group perception use two recurring dimensions that are variations of warmth/morality and ability/competence. One example, the stereotype content model, argues that stereotypes immediately answer two key questions for the perceiver: Do out-group members intend good or ill toward me and my group? and Are they able to act on these intentions? The answers to these questions produce stereotypes in four quadrants: ambivalent (or cross-dimensional) stereotypes (e.g., elderly people are stereotypically nice but incompetent, rich people are stereotypically competent but not nice); stereotypically neither warm nor competent (e.g., poor people); and stereotypically both warm and competent (e.g., middle class).

UTILITY: FORM FITS FUNCTION

Because stereotypes stem from the differentiation of "us" from "them," stereotype targets usually fall outside the cultural default (in the United States): not young, not white, not male, not heterosexual, not middle class, and not Christian. Groups whose members are the least (visibly) representative of the default receive the most stereotypes. The high prevalence of age, racial or ethnic, and gender stereotypes results in part from the speed of categorizing people on these dimensions.

Stereotyped targets are not exclusive to the visibly different. Stereotypes also form when a person perceives an illusory correlation between a group and a particular characteristic; in actuality, group membership and the characteristic might covary by chance or because of historical development, or not even covary at all, but perceiving a fundamental connection strengthens the stereotypic quality of the characteristic for that group. Stereotypes may reflect the perceiver’s knowledge of power relations in society. Some national stereotypes exemplify such contextual influences on stereotype formation, with perceivers relying on features of a nation—political, economic, religious, geographic, and status vis-a-vis one’s own nation, among others—to characterize its residents. Because they are shaped by the social context, stereotypes reflect cultural beliefs. As such, they shift over time—when social conditions change, societies update their stereotypes of groups because the social relations of those groups transform. As an example, many ethnic groups in the early twenty-first-century United States receive more favorable stereotypes than they did in the 1930s, including originally mistrusted immigrants (e.g., Irish, Italian, Jewish) who now join the mainstream.

Whatever their origins, stereotyping serves cognitive, motivational, and social purposes. For example, in the cognitive miser view, stereotyping saves mental effort. Facing cognitively overwhelming tasks and limited attention and effort, people rely on stereotypes to increase available on-line resources. People’s social interaction priorities also influence stereotyping. Many models of stereotyping posit two modes of impression formation, with some models arguing for an either-or competition between the two, and others placing them on the ends of a continuum. In either case, one mode emphasizes the need to make quick decisions through categorical information, whereas the other underscores the need to be accurate through effortful use of individuating information. The perceiver who must prioritize between these interaction goals is dubbed the motivated tactician. Using stereotypes can smooth interactions if both people agree on the stereotype or if the interaction is brief and inconsequential for the holder of the stereotype.

Because they are convenient, stereotypes often actively motivate perceivers to maintain them. Creating exceptional subtypes is one way to maintain an overall stereotype despite a few salient people who do not conform neatly to the group. Subtyping allows the perceiver to cognitively isolate people who are stereotype-inconsistent by explaining that while they belong to the stereotyped group, they do not entirely represent the group.

At the societal level, system justification theory argues that people stereotype to maintain the status quo, even at the expense of one’s own group. Some researchers argue that minority groups’ own negative stereotypes demonstrate the system-justifying effects of stereotypes. Some researchers also suggest that complementary stereotypes (e.g., poor but happy, rich but miserable) increase support for the status quo because they satisfy people’s desire to perceive their world as fair and legitimate.

MEASUREMENT: THE EXPLICIT AND THE IMPLICIT

Although stereotypes may reflect a cultural belief, the individual with that knowledge does not necessarily endorse such a belief, as argued by the dissociation model of stereotypes. Nevertheless, regardless of one’s explicit prejudice level, a person may be primed to think of groups stereotypically. For example, the presentation of a group label facilitates the activation of subsequent stereotype-consistent associations for both low- and high-prejudiced people. Implicit stereotypes can persist, even when explicit stereotypes do not.

Incongruent results from explicit and implicit stereotype measures illustrate the dissociation between personal endorsement and cultural knowledge. They also demonstrate that perceivers are often unaware of their own cognitive associations, particularly if they are automatic. In addition, when egalitarian cultural norms discourage unfavorable prejudgments of others, and perceivers have a self-interest to refrain from these expressions, implicit measures can extract more information than can explicit measures. In short, implicit measures may detect what remains elusive from explicit measures. Regardless of whether a measure is explicit or implicit, stereotype measures reveal biases toward stereotype-consistent information.

Explicit measures are straightforward. As with other attitude measures, researchers can assess stereotypes through self-reports of impressions about target groups. For example, perceivers can express their impressions of immigrants in their own words, which the researchers then code into manageable categories. Stereotypes might include immigrant groups’ traits, behaviors, socioeconomic status, and life satisfaction, for example. Alternatively, perceivers can rate on a scale of how characteristically immigrants are hard-working, engage in criminal behaviors, experience poverty, feel welcome in the host nation, and so on.


Implicit measures reveal attention, attribution, and memory biases toward stereotype-consistent information. People prefer to confirm their stereotypes, at an immediate perceptual level, detecting stereotype-consistent information more easily. Although they then attend to stereotype-inconsistent information, if present, they tend to explain it away: The out-group’s success was a fluke, the successful out-group individual is not typical, and so on. In general, an out-group’s stereotype-consistent behavior elicits internal attributions to the group’s enduring dispositions; stereotype-inconsistent behavior elicits external attributions to chance or temporary circumstances. If a particular negative trait stereotype afflicts a target group, that group’s failures could be attributed to the supposed negative trait. If an out-group member does behave negatively and stereotypically (e.g., the criminal activity of a black person), situational factors will likely be disregarded in explaining that person’s behavior. People also better recall and recognize stereotype-consistent information than stereotype-inconsistent information if they are busy and operating in the complex environments typical of everyday interactions.

Researchers also devise priming methods to study automatic stereotypic associations. Some involve subliminal presentation of priming stimuli. Study participants then perform various tasks—including word searches, lexical decision tasks, fluency-manipulated tasks, and interpretations of ambiguous behaviors—in which they might produce responses that indicate stereotypic associations to the primes. Reaction speed, performance quality, and stereotypicality of responses indicate level of stereotype activation. Compared to this preconscious (subliminal) presentation of stimuli, other priming manipulations explicitly present stimuli; thus the perceiver postcon-sciously produces the activated associations. The implicit association test consciously primes two categories and then measures differential reaction times to concepts that are stereotype-consistent to one of the primes but not the other. People often react more quickly to negative words following out-group primes and to positive words following in-group primes. Also using postconscious priming, neuroimaging studies show increased amygdala (vigilance) activation to images of out-groups. Automatic associations escape a person’s conscious awareness, but implicit measures subtly detect what lurks beneath the surface.

CONSEQUENCES: THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND MORE BAD

Stereotypes might result from historical accidents, unduly generalize across people, and mostly derogate, yet they persist. Nevertheless, the costs of stereotyping have more extensive effects, especially for the target. First, the per-ceiver glosses over individuating information about a target (preference for stereotype-consistent information foregoes potential knowledge gain). On their side, targets are evaluated at the category level and not according to individual characteristics. They might even be classified with others in a group with which they do not identify.

Inaccuracies of three types plague stereotypes. Stereotypic inaccuracy refers to the overestimation of the target group’s stereotypicality or the underweighing of its stereotype-inconsistent qualities. Valence inaccuracy entails exaggeration of the negativity or positivity of the group’s stereotypes. Dispersion inaccuracy results from over- or undergeneralizing the variability between group members. Nonetheless, some other researchers argue for studying the accuracies contained within stereotypes because in this view they reflect reality.

The effects of stereotyping increase concomitantly with prejudice. Stereotypes along with prejudice strongly predict discrimination, so prejudiced perceivers are much more likely to act on their prejudice to negatively stereotyped groups.

Stereotypes reach beyond themselves. Stereotype threat describes targets’ awareness of their group’s negative stereotypes in a particular and consequential performance domain; they can ironically perform worse than those who do not care about that domain. Furthermore, stereotype threat leads to the targets fulfilling the stereotype that haunted them in the first place. Some examples are black students in an academic setting and women in mathematical tasks, for whom performance was labeled as diagnostic of their ability. Stereotype-threat effects differ from self-fulfilling prophecies because they affect people without encountering a prejudiced person.

Self-fulfilling prophecies, also called behavioral confirmation, perpetuate stereotypes through the perceiver’s expectancies of confirmation and the target’s behavioral confirmations of the expectancy. For the perceiver, one utility of stereotypes is in making the cognitive and social load more manageable. Stereotypes may also be useful for targets who want to fulfill their interaction partner’s expectancies so that they can avoid conflict or focus on an aspect of the interaction they deem more important. The process, however, perpetuates stereotypes in society.

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