Social Psychology

Student Learning Program

Chapter 5: Forming impressions of groups: Establishing stereotypes (pp. 145–160)

Ask Yourself?

In this topic

  1. The Content of Stereotypes (pp. 146–149)
    1. Stereotypes include many types of characteristics
    2. Stereotypes can be either positive or negative
    3. Stereotypes can be accurate or inaccurate
  2. Seeking the Motives Behind Stereotyping (p. 149)
  3. Motives for Forming Sterotypes: Mastery Through Summarizing Personal Experiences (pp. 149–157)
    1. People notice some members more than others
    2. Some information attracts more attention than other information
    3. Social roles trigger correspondence bias
    4. Social roles and gender stereotypes
    5. Between-group interactions generate emotion
    6. Learning stereotypes from the media
    7. Gender stereotypes and the media
  4. Motives for Forming Stereotypes: Connectedness to Others (pp. 157–158)
    1. Learning stereotypes from others
    2. Social communication of stereotypes
  5. Motives for Forming Stereotypes: Justifying Inequalities (pp. 158–160)
The Content of Stereotypes
Stereotypes include many types of characteristics

In 1922, Lippmann introduced the term stereotype as “pictures in the head”; that is, simplified mental images of what groups look like, and what they do.

Next to physical appearance, interests, goals, activities, occupations, and characteristics, stereotypes also incorporate personality traits, and emotions or feelings.

Jackman and Senter (1981) demonstrated that gender stereotypes are held more strongly and confidently than ethnic stereotypes.

Stereotypes can be either positive or negative

Stereotypes can include negative, but also positive, characteristics.

Even positive stereotypes can have negative consequences: overestimated uniformity (while people like to be thought of as unique), rigid expectations, and reinforcement of the group's weakness and dependence.

While the set of beliefs might be positive, “benevolent sexism” reinforces the weakness and dependence of women as a group.

Stereotypes can be accurate or inaccurate

Some stereotypes are accurate in direction and/or degree. This is not surprising because people “sort themselves” into groups, creating real group differences that may be reflected in stereotypes.

Stereotypes can also be inaccurate. There are a lot of examples of inaccurate stereotypes (SP p. 148). In one sense, every stereotype is inaccurate when it is viewed as applying to every group member.

Research activity: Stereotypes

Seeking the Motives Behind Stereotyping

Early theorists traced prejudice and negative stereotypes to deep inner conflicts in individuals with authoritarian personalities. These are individuals who cannot accept their own hostility, believe uncritically in the legitimacy of authority, and see their own inadequacies in others.

However, prejudice and stereotyping seem to be the rule rather than the exception, so it's not only a few disturbed individuals who are prejudiced and have stereotypes.

Motives for Forming Sterotypes: Mastery Through Summarizing Personal Experiences

Positive or negative impressions of individual group members form an important part of people's overall impressions of a group, even when people have interacted with only one or two members.

Henderson-King and Nisbett (1996) demonstrated in their experiment that a single group member's acts can activate thoughts and feelings about the entire group, even when the group is familiar (SP p. 150).

Case study: The influence of encounters with individual group members on stereotypes

People notice some members more than others

Our attention is drawn to what is unusual, unexpected, or salient. Therefore, distinctive individual group members have a disproportionate impact on the formation of group stereotypes. This was demonstrated by Rothbart et al. (1978) (SP p. 151).

Some information attracts more attention than other information

The formed impressions of groups remain unchanged when encountering other group members whose appearance or actions are quite ordinary.

This is because associations are formed between unusual or distinctive characteristics and rare or infrequently encountered groups.

However, these associated characteristics might not actually be related, leading you to incorrectly overestimate certain characteristics of a group. This incorrect overestimation illustrates that you have formed an illusory correlation.

Hamilton and Gifford's (1976) research on group impressions demonstrated such an illusory correlation (SP p. 151).

Research activity: Illusory correlation

Social roles trigger correspondence bias

Observing behaviors of a group has a big impact on our impressions, even when these behaviors are shaped by a group's social role. The outcome of ignoring social roles as a cause of behaviors (a correspondence bias, see SP chapter 3) is the formation of stereotypes.

A lot of facts suggest that stereotypes of groups reflect the social roles that are occupied by those groups (see SP pp. 152–153).

Social roles and gender stereotypes

Men and women have the tendency to act in ways that are appropriate for their roles, which leads observers to incorrectly attribute their behaviors to the inner characteristics of men and women. This contributes to gender stereotypes.

This was demonstrated by Hoffman and Hurst's (1990) research on stereotype formation of fictitious groups (SP pp. 153–154). However as Schaller et al. (1996) showed, training can avoid inferential errors.

Between-group interactions generate emotion

People feel uncertain and concerned when interacting with novel groups, which influences stereotypes. The emotions are provoked by uncomfortable group encounters, and are transferred to the group itself when an interaction with a group is frequently accompanied by those specific emotions. This process is called classical or evaluative conditioning.

Learning stereotypes from the media

Our experience with members of other groups also comes indirectly from the media, in which biased messages are sent by stereotyping and underrepresenting particular groups.

Romer et al. (1998), for example, found that Blacks are overrepresented as crime suspects and Whites as victims, when compared to actual statistics (SP p. 156).

Gender stereotypes and the media

Commercials, cartoons, and other media reinforce gender stereotypes (for examples see SP pp. 156–157). This increases the observers' acceptance of gender stereotypes.

Motives for Forming Stereotypes: Connectedness to Others
Learning stereotypes from others

Stereotypes and prejudice can be picked up by children through observing and imitating parents' and teachers' words and deeds, which reflect social norms. When stereotypes and prejudice are deeply embedded in social norms, children learn them as part of growing up.

Pettigrew (1958) showed that people who adhere most closely to the social norms of their culture show the most prejudice (SP p. 158).

Social communication of stereotypes

Social communication may also strengthen stereotypes. Impressions formed by second-hand information (being told by others) are more stereotypic than impressions formed by first-hand information (observing about the group yourself), and remain stereotypic after direct experience with the group.

Motives for Forming Stereotypes: Justifying Inequalities

Stereotypes often serve to justify and rationalize existing social inequalities by portraying groups as deserving their social roles and positions on the basis of their own characteristics (for examples see SP pp. 158–159).

A reason for this justification is the “belief in a just world”; people deserve what they get, and get what they deserve, which comforts us.

This belief leads us to blame victims for their misfortunes, which was demonstrated by Lerner and Simmons' (1966) research (SP p. 159).

So what does this mean?

Stereotypes include many types of characteristics, which can be positive or negative, accurate or inaccurate. Stereotypes can be learned through personal experience with group members, which may cause a bias because people notice extremes; associations are formed between unusual characteristics and infrequently encountered groups, which might not actually be related. Social roles, emotions generated by between-group interactions, and social learning all contribute to stereotypes. Stereotypes and discrimination are often accepted and endorsed as right and proper by members of a particular group, becoming social norms. Motives to form stereotypes can be traced to mastery, connectedness, and justifying existing social inequalities.

Next topic

Using stereotypes: From preconceptions to prejudice

In this chapter

  1. Chapter 5 introduction
  2. Forming impressions of groups: Establishing stereotypes
  3. Using stereotypes: From preconceptions to prejudice
  4. Changing stereotypes: Overcoming bias to reduce prejudice
  5. Chapter overview (PDF)
  6. Fill-in-the-blanks
  7. Multiple-choice questions