What is Stereotype?

Stereotypes reflect fairly precise categories of social or cultural ‘knowledge’ and refer to mental representations of particular shared beliefs about the characteristics (e.g., personality traits and behavior) of a group and its members.

The contents of these shared beliefs are:

  • over-simplified and over-generalized
  • variable across cultures—different cultures may possess different stereotypes
  • fairly slow to change within a cuture—as shown by the studies of Katz and Braly (1933) and Karlins et al (1969).

The contents may be based on:

  • a grain of truth (based on limited experience)
  • illusionary correlation   Opens in new window (a false impression due to an unusual and thus distinctive association between group members and a characteristic)
  • false propaganda (due to political or inter-group motives and justification).

As Pennington (1986) notes, stereotyping involves categorizing people into groups on visible cues, such as gender, nationality, race, religion, bodily appearance Opens in new window, etc.

By stereotyping, we assume that all members of a group share the same characteristics. Assigning individuals to these groups, we presume they possess the same characteristics based on little information other than their possession of the noticeable trait or cue.

While stereotyping is an in-built cognitive process, it is important to realize that the cues seen as important to categorize (e.g. gender, skin color, religion, etc) and the content of the stereotype itself (e.g. personality traits) are not fixed, but historically determined and changeable over time.

Stereotypes serve to exaggerate the similarities within groups (‘those people are all the same’) and exaggerate the differences between groups (‘they are not like us’).

Stereotyping, therefore, literally involves pre-judging an individual, and, although it serves the important functions of categorizing and generalizing knowledge, it can lead to unrealistic perceptions, and intergroup hostility.

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The process and effects of stereotyping

Stereotyping involves the:

  • allocation or categorization of an individual to a group based on some observable cue (e.g. skin color, clothing, accent, etc.)
  • assumption that all members of the group share the same characteristics.
  • assumption that the allocated individual also possesses those characteristics.

Stereotyping may influence the perception of the social world by causing:

  • unfair prejudgment and allocation of characteristics to individuals that may not be true of them.
  • confirmation bias—the selective allocation of attention towards, and memory of, information that confirms the stereotype.
  • exaggeration of perceived similarities within groups and differences between groups.
  • justification of discriminatory behavior towards stereotyped groups, based on the assessment of their supposed characteristics.

Karlins et al (1969) showed how the content of stereotypes concerning ‘Americans’ and ‘Jews’ changed over a 40 year period— the former seeming to become more ‘materialistic’ and the latter appearing to be less ‘mercenary’, for example. Many studies have shown how stereotyping can lead to prejudice, e.g. Buchout (1974) and Duncan (1976).

McCauley & Stitt (1978) propose that stereotypes are now best regarded as probabilistic beliefs. People are asked to estimate what percentage of a group would possess certain characteristics, and this is compared to the estimate for people in general, to arrive at a diagnostic ratio.

Although the contents of stereotypes are usually derogatory, and stereotyping accounts for the thinking in prejudice, it does not explain strong negative emotions nor all the discriminatory behavior shown in society.

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