Once we’ve categorized someone as a member of a group, whatever information our mind has stored in our schema about that group – our stereotype – comes into play in the way we think about them. We’re not unbiased observers, no matter how much we may want to convince ourselves that we are.
Remember that schemas are mental structures that influence what people notice, think about, and remember. Let’s develop that idea, and see how it works in the case of stereotypes.
What we notice:
Remember also that we are motivated to pay careful attention to information that is deemed relevant to us. Thus, if we hold a stereotype that a particular group is dangerous, our mind should deem members of that group as especially notable. In fact, research shows that the more people hold the stereotype that Black Americans are dangerous, the more their attention is drawn to Black faces in their environment.
Other people become relevant when contextual features make “them” a particular concern. For example, research shows that IF we are feeling anxious AND the idea of terrorism has been activated in our minds, we become especially attentive to “Middle Eastern looking” faces.
Think about how important that is, in places like airports, where many people are anxious to fly, and where the loudspeaker reminds us of the current terror threat level. Perhaps it’s no wonder that many people’s attention is drawn to men with thick beards, or people speaking Arabic or other foreign languages. This attentional bias is leaking our underlying stereotypes. Our attention is only directed toward certain people because of the beliefs and expectation we have associated with particular groups.
How we think about information:
Stereotypes don’t just direct our attention to particular information, they also influence how we interpret it. More specifically, we tend to interpret ambiguous information in line with our existing stereotypes. In one classic study, white participants watched two men arguing, culminating in one man ‘shoving’ the other. The “trick” to the experiment is that all participants were actually watching a video recording, not a live broadcast as they expected. Some participants watched as a black man ‘shoved’ another man (either white or black). Others watched as a white man shoved another man (either white or black). Participants were asked to describe the interaction, and their responses were coded by people who didn’t know which version of the video they saw.
The researcher found that when the ‘shover’ was black, a proportion of participants spontaneously labeled the shove as aggressive. Very few participants labeled the behavior that way when it was performed by a white man. In this case, a stereotype linking violence, aggression, and or criminality to black people influenced the way white participants evaluated the event. Not only that, but whereas participants blamed the ‘shoving’ conducted by a white man on the context, they were more likely to blame the ‘shoving’ conducted by a black man on his nature, showing another way that stereotypes influence the way we interpret behavior.
That study was conceptually replicated with black and white children, who evaluated ambiguous behavior of children presented in comics. The researchers found that both black and white children evaluated black characters as more mean and threatening than white characters (similar to the cartoon that opens this post). Once stereotypes exist, even when they are about our own group, we may use them to disambiguate information we perceive.
What we remember:
Finally, stereotypes influence what information we remember about people, often biasing our recall in the direction of the stereotype. In other words, rather than remembering information about people accurately, we may fill in certain details using our stereotypes.
Demonstrating this, researchers asked participants to read and evaluate college applications. All participants read the same application from Emily Chen. Among lots of other information provided in her application, participants saw that Emily had scored 640/800 on her math SAT.
After reviewing her application, some participants were asked to recall the SAT math performance of “the female high school student whose materials you just read.” Other participants were asked to recall the SAT math performance of “The Asian-American high school student whose materials you just read.” Still others were asked to recall the SAT math performance of the “high school student whose materials you just read.”
In the last instance, no relevant social category was cued for participants, whereas in the first two, either the applicants gender or her ethnicity was activated. Results shows that when asked to recall the scores of the “Asian-American” student, participants recalled her scoring better (compared to their memory when no category was activated). In contrast, when asked to recall the scores of the “female” student, participants recalled her scoring worse (compared to their memory when no category was activated). In other words, participants remembered her performance in line with the stereotype. Because Asians are stereotyped to be good at math, recall was biased to assume the student performed well. Because women are stereotyped to be bad at math, recall was biased to assume that the student performed poorly.
In the same way, we may remember a person we met as more kind, more aggressive, more outspoken, or more selfish than they actually were, just because our stereotypes suggest that they must have been.
So here is the ominous thing… if stereotypes influence how we interpret information (and in fact, make us do so in stereotype confirming ways) AND what information we readily recall (notably we recall information in line with our stereotypes) – well crap; you might realize just how darn good they are going to be at maintaining themselves, but that’s a discussion for a few weeks from now…
Why do we do this:
We use stereotypes for a variety of reasons, some of which I’ll explore in the next post. We may be filling in details we don’t have, we may be expanding the amount of information we feel we have about a topic. We may be distracted or unmotivated.
But we may also be pre-programmed to use stereotypes simply because doing so is cognitively efficient. Stereotypes have been labeled as energy saving devices because when we use them, we maintain cognitive resources to focus on other things; that is, we don’t have to waste any effort or time to understand a new person, and can instead focus on finding our airport gate, finishing our homework, or discussing the latest fashion trends. Unfortunately that energy that we save, may lead us to make inaccurate assumptions. Stay tuned…