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Why are stereotypes so difficult to eradicate?

Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton, professor of psychology | February 2, 2011

In a number of previous posts (e.g. this one, and this one) I have talked about the conditions under which people are most likely to apply stereotypes. A question that I’m often asked, however, is why stereotypes persist, even when so many people explicitly disavow them. It’s almost as if we were addicted to stereotypes: we use them despite our best intentions to the contrary.

One important reason may be that when we use stereotypes, we don’t ourselves experience their negative consequences. The indignity of having people make assumptions about you on the basis of surface characteristics, the discrimination that often follows from stereotypes, the threat of confirming a stereotype — these consequences tend to fall on the targets of stereotypes, rather than on perceivers.

But did you know that, on top of this, stereotypes actually confer cognitive benefits to perceivers?

Imagine yourself in the following study. You are given time to study a set of ten traits about three different people. Take some time to form an impression of each person.

Nigel: Caring, Honest, Reliable, Upstanding, Responsible, Unlucky, Forgetful, Passive, Clumsy, Enthusiastic

Julian: Creative, Temperamental, Unconventional, Individualistic, Sensitive, Fearless, Active, Cordial, Progressive, Generous

John: Rebellious, Aggressive, Dishonest, Dangerous, Untrustworthy, Lucky, Observant, Modest, Optimistic, Curious.

After studying these lists for a little while, look away, and see how many traits you can remember about Nigel, Julian, and John, respectively. Go ahead, close your eyes, test yourself.


Now, let me take you through the same exercise, but with a twist. I’ll ask you to study the same people, but I’m going to give you some labels about them:

Nigel the Doctor: Caring, Honest, Reliable, Upstanding, Responsible, Unlucky, Forgetful, Passive, Clumsy, Enthusiastic

Julian the Artist: Creative, Temperamental, Unconventional, Individualistic, Sensitive, Fearless, Active, Cordial, Progressive, Generous

John the Skinhead: Rebellious, Aggressive, Dishonest, Dangerous, Untrustworthy, Lucky, Observant, Modest, Optimistic, Curious.

Once again now, look away: what traits do you remember about each of these people?

Neil Macrae, Alan Milne, and Galen Bodenhausen conducted just this study in 1994, except that they had different people in the “no-label-given” and the “label-given” conditions to avoid practice effects. Nevertheless, based on the study’s findings, my guess is that the second time around, you remembered the first five words within each list better. Why?

Because they were stereotype consistent.

(source: Wikimedia commons)

More to the point, traits like “honest” and “responsible” are consistent with stereotypes of doctors, “creative” and “temperamental” are consistent with stereotypes of artists, and “rebellious” and “dangerous” are consistent with stereotypes of skinheads. The mere label — the stereotype — helped people in Macrae and colleagues’ study, and presumably you as well, remember them better, by essentially allowing you to organize these traits into a ready-made, coherent impression of the person. Words 6-10 in each list are not strongly associated with the stereotypes, and the researchers showed that recall on these words was not different depending on whether the study participants got a label or not.

One conclusion from this study is that we remember stereotype-consistent information better — in other words, stereotypes can help us remember more information with less effort, provided that the information is consistent with the stereotype and fits into the organized “whole.” But that’s not where the story ends. You see, what I didn’t mention was that while participants were learning about Nigel, Julian,and John, they were also doing another simultaneous task — they were listening to an audio documentary about Indonesia! We already know that participants who got the stereotype labels had better recall of stereotype-relevant information, but the more surprising finding is that the participants who received the stereotype labels also did better on a test about the audio documentary.

Thus, the stereotypes benefitted participants in multiple ways — they were able to not only remember more (albeit selective) information about Nigel, Julian, and John, but they were simultaneously better able to attend to the audio documentary. In other words, the stereotypes gave them an information-processing advantage while they were multi-tasking. They did better on both tasks.

By putting people into little boxes, we don’t have to think as much or as carefully about people. This frees up mental resources that can be devoted to other tasks, and yet we ourselves don’t suffer the negative consequences of having been put into that little box. This imbalance– cognitive benefits without negative consequences — make stereotypes easy tools for many of us to reach towards when, as we might say, the cognitive going gets tough. That’s a tough tool to give up from your cognitive “toolbox.”

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Cross-posted from Psychology Today.

Comments to “Why are stereotypes so difficult to eradicate?

  1. Stereotyping has become such a social normality these days that it is easy to ask the question, will we ever be without stereotypes? Society has become so fast paced that it is hard to slow society down enough, to get people to want to know more than what the current profile is on a race or gender. When instant gratification is present it is difficult to offer reason or otherwise a means to the norm of what people already think.

    I like the way you have displayed the study of “no label given” and “label given”. It says to me that a person without a label attached has a chance to flourish and sustain some type of individuality outside of being categorized. Having a label attached can put categorization into play and when that is present it is hard to get a viewer or person to think outside of the box, and it is guaranteed that it will take a lot of convincing and hard work to change people’s perceptions.

  2. I feel that stereotypes are so difficult to be eradicated because as human beings we take the easiest route. It is simply easier to judge someone and categorize them the moment you see them, than take the time to get to know them. In a fast paced,evolving, society it would be nearly impossible to take the time to meet everyone you passed. Our brain categorizes and tries to makes sense of things naturally, and in a sense this feature beyond our control hinders us to the outside world and possible relationships.

  3. However, in screenwriting, stereotypes could be the biggest hell. If the audience recognizes the type, then makes predictable expectations about reactions and happenings in the movie. If this is what really comes, it kills the magic.

    Very often, stereotypes in movies are the result of a writer not doing his homework and instead of investigating the depth of a character and his world, reducing all to common memories from the bank of data in the brain (or just what he saw in other movies). That could create a devastating effect: lack of life (humanity) in the characters… and hordes of people from the audience singing…”I can get no…satisfaction”!

    Therefore, stereotypes are not always a virginal help. Sometimes, they can incarnate the laziest kiss of death.

    Valentin Fernández-Tubau
    Screenwriter and psychologist

  4. Sorry for below, I had some typos. Here it is again.

    I guess James you may have a good point …seeing as how the “angry looking black guy dressed in hip hop gear” was probably not angry about being falsely accused of something he did not do –-simply because of the way he looks, or he was not angry about the inequities in the systems of education, housing, or work, and because he more than likely was not angry about people assuming he doesn’t value education, let alone his life. You’re right. He is probably not a good person to ask a question about algebra (unless of course he’s a drug dealer).

    I would also assume you to be correct about the middle aged man wearing a watch …he being a good source for reporting the time or giving directions and all. Never mind that he may lead you directly to the place where he plans to harm you just around the time he planned to cross paths with some naive individual who pulls stereotyping out of their tool box for “essential gamesmanship” (Ed Gein, Jeffrey Dahmer, Ted Bundy, George Bush, etc…). No way is he depending on these tactical assumptions of yours to seize upon the moment. And no way will the angry hip-hopper –who is probably not wearing a watch– arrive just in time to possibly assist you in saving your own life. Not a chance, as “group averages” would probably have it that he is the one that followed you AND the watch wearing, middle aged man. Of course the hipster watches what he already knew would happen as he shakes his head, sips his beer and walks away rambling some Marxist mumbo…

  5. Stereotyping is an important survival skill, especially when you live in an ethnically diverse, crowded country, where ethnic loyalty heavily determines social preferences, occupation, and political affiliation.

    Stereotyping allows you to maintain the house advantage, thereby minimizing the chances of bad interactions, and maximizing the odds of good ones. It is essential gamesmanship. A well dressed middle age man wearing a watch probably knows the time and can give reliable directions. A hipster probably knows the way to the nearest microbrewery. An angry looking black guy dressed in hip hop gear probably is not a good person to ask a question about algebra. Of course you never know strictly from appearances, but you know group averages, and its fair to use these when navigating through social interactions with strangers.

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