Stereotypes refer to beliefs that certain attributes, characteristics, and behaviours are typical of members of a particular group of people. The way we categorise social groups is often based on visible features that provide the largest between-group differentiation and least within-group variation (for example, skin colour, gender, age). We construct stereotypes from direct personal experience or, more commonly, from other people, or via the media. The media has a large influence on stereotype formation when we have limited opportunities for meaningful exchange with people from outside our own social group.
The benefits of stereotypes
The human brain has a natural tendency to categorise everything. At any one time, our brain is bombarded with an infinite number of stimuli. Without an efficient method of making sense of this information, our brains would become overloaded. By sorting stimuli (for example, experiences, objects, people) into categories, we can process our environments more efficiently. This frees up mental resources for other tasks.
Categorising people helps us to navigate our social world more efficiently. Social categorisation provides a sense of order and predictability that we can rely on to guide our interactions with others. Our stereotype for the elderly alerts us to speak loudly in their company. When we are ill, our stereotype for doctors leads us to seek out and trust their advice.
Differences in the tendency to stereotype
Researchers have demonstrated that individuals with a greater need for control are more likely to use stereotypes.
In addition, when we have limited mental resources available for making sense of our social environment, we rely more on stereotypes to make judgements and guide our behaviours. Reliance on stereotypes is more pronounced when we are distracted by another mentally taxing task, or when we are under emotional or physiological stress.
The problems with stereotypes
Some stereotypes are informed generalisations about a group of people. It is generally true, for example, that younger people have better hearing than older people. Yet many of our stereotypes are invalid— particularly when they are based on race, religion, or gender. Because of this, stereotypes can be problematic and counter-productive when working with diverse others.
Stereotypes are arbitrary ways of categorising individuals. No social group is homogenous. Stereotypes might not accurately represent the characteristics of a particular member of that group.
Research shows we that believe individuals from the same social group to be more similar than they really are. We also tend to exaggerate the differences between social groups. An American is likely to believe that all German people are very similar across a broad range of characteristics, and that Germans are very different from Italians.
Researchers also report bias in our categorisations of out-groups and in-groups. Out-groups are social groups to which we do not perceive ourselves as belonging. In-groups are the social groups with which we most identify. We perceive members of out-group members as sharing similar characteristics, but we think of in-group members as having unique characteristics and attributes.
Prejudice & discrimination
As well as shaping our beliefs about people, stereotypes drive social judgements. Prejudice refers to our feelings or attitudes about a group and its members. Prejudice is commonly associated with stereotypes; our evaluations of others reflect what we believe to be true about them.
Discrimination refers to differential (usually unfair or negative) treatment of individuals perceived to be belonging to a particular social group; for example, being overlooked in promotion or hiring, or being treated with hostility.
Discrimination is linked to stereotypes and prejudice. Strong egalitarian social norms, however, might deter a prejudiced person from acting in a discriminatory manner.
Bias in the workplace
Stereotypes, prejudice, and discrimination create physical and emotional distance between members of different social groups. Mild forms of bias can lead to awkward and uncomfortable interactions, intentional or unconscious avoidance, and interactions lacking warmth or civility. More extreme forms of bias can lead to tension and conflict, hostility, harassment, or aggression.
Stereotypes and other forms of bias can overshadow the strategic benefits of diversity by preventing all employees from contributing to work processes.
Companies that do not address internal bias might also face costly discrimination claims.
Researchers have shown that stereotyping and associated responses are automatic and unconscious. A particularly disturbing example involves a series of experiments in which participants played a video game. During the game, an individual who was sometimes White and sometimes Black appeared spontaneously, carrying either a gun or a different, non-threatening object. The participants were told to ‘shoot’ when the intruder was carrying a gun, but to press another key if the intruder was carrying a benign object. The results showed that the number of times the participants accidentally perceived the object to be a gun was much higher for the Black intruder than for the White intruder. The results were similar for White and Black participants, indicating that negative stereotypes can exist intragroup as well as intergroup.
Stereotypes are maintained and reinforced by powerful mental biases that filter out information that contradicts or challenges preexisting beliefs or attitudes.
Stereotypes are maintained by biases in the attributions we make about a person’s behaviour. When a person behaves in accordance with a stereotype, we attribute that behaviour to the stereotypical characteristic they share with other members of their group. This reinforces the stereotype. However, if an individual behaves in contrast to a group stereotype, we are more likely to attribute that behaviour to external causes, preserving the integrity of the stereotype.
Similarly, research shows we pay more attention to action that is consistent with a stereotype than to action that contradicts a stereotype.
When a member of a stereotyped group displays counter-stereotypical qualities, this might also evoke subtyping. Subtyping involves explaining an exception by assigning that individual to a subcategory of the stereotyped group rather than modifying the original stereotype.
Stereotyped individuals might act in a manner consistent with the stereotype as they react to out-group members. For example, if an outsider believes that a social group is aggressive, this might cause him or her to act antagonistically or with animosity towards members of that group. Stereotyped group members might then respond with to the outsider with hostility. This unintentionally reaffirms and reinforces the stereotype.
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