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What motivates the formation of stereotypes?

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

Listening to a news show called “The World” on NPR yesterday, I happened on a story called “Iceland Real Estate” (click here to listen to the 5 minute segment). The story is about how a remote region in Iceland– boasting some of the coldest weather on the planet and snow for 9 out of 12 months– is being eyed by a Chinese millionaire as the site of an eco-resort with a golf course. The program interviewed Thora Arnorsdottir, news editor at Icelandic National Broadcasting, who expressed deep suspicion about the motives of this businessman since he had started his career working for the Chinese government. Right around the four minute mark of the program, the following exchange occurs:

Arnorsdottir “[Iceland] is a tiny little island.. and it makes you think… so [sigh], can it be they have a long term goal that we are not aware of?”
Interviewer: “And what do you think: do they have long term goals you’re not aware of?”
Arnorsdottir: “The Chinese ALWAYS have long term goals.”
Interviewer: “Hmm.”

Despite Arnorsdottir’s arguments about why one should beware of the motives of the Chinese developer, I found her last comment (“the Chinese ALWAYS have long term goals”) remarkable. Although the controversy surrounds a single individual (and what millionaire developer doesn’t have long term goals?), the characterization is suddenly about an entire nation– in effect implying the developer must have a long term goal BECAUSE he is a member of the group. One can almost picture the Red Army arriving in sharp-edged ships onto the shores of Iceland like the Fire Nation on Katara and Soka’s village in episode 2 of The Last Airbender cartoon.

Is the eco-resort a cover for something more sinister? Perhaps– certainly the golf course proposal doesn’t help — but Arnorsdottir’s comments made me think of an important function of stereotypes that we don’t often think about (this post and this post talk about other functions of stereotypes).

A common belief is that stereotypes flow from some kind of experience: personal encounters that are generalized, impressions from various sources, even lessons from parents. Yet sometimes, stereotypes are tools that help justify the negative attitudes that come with adversarial positions. In a fascinating series of studies by researchers at Ohio State (Alexander, Brewer, and Herrmann, 1999), the researchers proposed a functional theory of stereotypes, in which they posit that power relations actually give rise to the content of stereotypes. In other words, rather than stereotypes forming from experience, we create predictable stereotypes as a result of our power struggles with different outgroups- to justify, in some ways, our negative predispositions towards these threatening groups.

In one of their studies, the authors had college students imagine themselves as leaders of a group of students who were trying to secure the financial security of their campus in times of limited funding, and their job was to give their impressions about students from a nearby college. In the critical condition, the students were told that the students in the other college has similar resources to their own campus, that their college was comparable to theirs, and that the goal of these students was to claim all of the state funding available (in essence then, putting them in a competitive structural relationship with the in-group). Although the only information that the study participants received about the other group was their incompatible goal and their status, the study participants reliably went beyond the data, endorsing items that included “the group would take advantage of any efforts on our part to cooperate, and they would even try to exploit us;” “the group is extremely competitive and wants to dominate but will play by the rules;” and “the group has a strict, well-organized authority structure for decision making.” The authors also showed that when the power relations between groups change, their stereotypes changed reliably as well.

The general thrust of this theory is that in intergroup relations, when two groups have incompatible goals, and are both similarly powerful, these conditions are enough to “lead to a cognitive representation of the outgroup [as] hostile, untrustrworthy, monolithic, and opportunistic” (p. 80). The stereotypes arise solely from the power/structural relations between the groups, rather than from any pre-existing knowledge about the outgroup. According to the authors, these stereotypes arise to justify our suspicions, and even our hostilities, so that we can say to ourselves, “we are suspicious because of who they are” and remain on moral high ground.

Iceland, as the program notes, is in a position of relative power because it owns the land: as the ice caps melt, new shipping routes will open, some of which are in Icelandic seaspace. These realities create conditions of potential competition among nations, which give rise to stereotypes. The ascent of China as a major player in our world economy seems to parallel a rise in stereotypes of the Chinese as sly, as powerful, as unprincipled. Many people will say that the stereotypes are true, and that is why we have to be careful, but it is important to realize that the increasing prominence of China as an economic world leader, in and of itself, is partly responsible for these stereotypes.

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Copyright 2011 by Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton; all rights reserved.