Social Psychology - Chapter 5

In what ways can you observe groups? - Chapter 5


Forming impressions

Discrimination is any positive or negative behavior that is expressed towards a particular social group and its members. A prejudice is any positive / negative evaluation of such a group and its members. Stereotypes are positive or negative impressions / mental representations of a social group that people form by associating one (or more) common characteristics and emotions with the group. This can be based on physical appearance, activities, behavior, personality traits, emotions, feelings and goals.

A social group consists of two or more people who have a common characteristic that is socially meaningful for themselves and / or for others. Such socially meaningful characteristics differ from time to time and between cultures.

Social categorization

The process of identifying individuals as members of a social group because they have one or more such characteristics is called social categorization. Two positive effects of social categorization are mentioned:

It is a useful tool that enables us to effectively scan our environment and function. Categorization helps to ignore unimportant information - you only focus on the information that is relevant to you. This saves time, since you do not have to analyze every unique characteristic of each individual.

We feel connected to others through social categorization.

A known negative consequence of social categorization is that - due to the focus on similarities - the uniformity of group members is often overestimated. As a result, diversity is not recognized with negative discrimination as a result.


There are many similarities between forming an impression of an individual as the way in which we form impressions of groups. Yet there are also subtle differences.

First of all, stereotypes contain many types of characteristics and are very persistent. Examples of stereotypes relate to ethnicity or gender. In addition, one has the impression that only negative stereotypes can have negative consequences. This is not true, because positive stereotypes can also have negative consequences. An example of this is benevolent sexism, which emphasizes weaknesses and dependence on women as a group. Positive discrimination is also based on stereotyping. Finally, some stereotypes are accurate, others are not. They are inaccurate at the time that overgeneralization takes place and the stereotype is seen as applicable to every group member.


Motives for stereotyping

The earlier prevailing view on stereotypes was that especially people with an authoritarian personality stereotyped others. People with an authoritarian personality (based on Freudian ideas) would be prejudiced because they can not accept their own hostility, blindly believe in the validity of authorities, and see their own imperfections in others. Nowadays people think differently about this. Stereotyping is a rule rather than an exception. There are roughly three motives for forming stereotypes.

Motive 1: Mastery through summarizing personal experiences

Stereotypes can be learned through personal experiences with group members, but can also be biased because of the emotions that are triggered during interactions between groups and because people pay more attention to extremes or perceive incorrect group characteristics. Although the social roles often determine the behavior of the group members, others often attribute this to inner characteristics. Learning about groups can also take place through the media.

The insecurity that people feel as soon as they qualify with new groups also influences stereotypes. Why do interactions between groups almost always go hand in hand with excitement and fear, even though there seems to be no reason for such feelings before? This is because 1) there is a lack of knowledge about or familiarity with the other group members, and / or 2) the group members can pursue other types of goals that are accompanied by negative emotions such as anger and irritation. Uncomfortable encounters with groups are transferred to the group itself. This is also called evaluative / classic conditioning: a learning form in which an initial neutral stimulus is accompanied by a stimulus that provokes an (emotional) reaction, after which it triggers the reaction itself (without the second stimulus being necessary for this).

Behavior of a single group member can influence the thoughts and feelings of the whole group, even if one is familiar with the group. This indicates that stereotypes are persistent and that attention is mainly focused on information and individuals who really stand out (for example because it is unique or extreme). A common bias in observing groups is the illusory correlation: an observed association between two characteristics that are not actually related in reality.

There are many facts that suggest that group stereotypes reflect the social roles occupied by groups. Stereotypes are often created because the social roles, which are a cause of certain behavior, are ignored. This is also called the correspondence bias.

The media also has a large share in the formation of stereotypes. In the media often distorted messages are conveyed by stereotyping and under representation of specific groups. Research has shown that black people are more often represented as suspects of a crime and white people as victims of crime (Romer et al, 1998). With regard to gender stereotypes and the media, messages about women in the media can be summarized in one word: contradictory.

Motive 2: connectedness with others

Especially children, but also adults, are sensitive to picking up stereotypes by hearing and observing other people around them. When stereotypes and prejudices resonate in social norms that parents teach their children, they are taught during growing up. In addition, stereotypes can be strengthened through social communication. Information that one hears through others generally contains more stereotyping than first-hand information.

Sex stereotyping comes about because men and women are inclined to behave according to their social roles. This leads to their behavior being wrongly attributed to their inner characteristics. Training can help to counteract these incorrect conclusions.

Motive 3: justifying social inequalities

Stereotypes often have the purpose to justify social inequalities. This happens because it is assumed that a group earn their social positions on the basis of their characteristics. As a result, victims are often blamed for what happened to them. This is because people often assume that people get what they earn and earn what they get.

The use of stereotypes

Stereotypes can be activated automatically, because a category is often used. Stereotype information comes to mind because things related to the group are perceived consciously or unconsciously. Stereotypes can also be activated by striking cues, the use of group labels and / or the presence of a group member. If only a single group member is present, the likelihood of stereotypes increases.

The explicit measurement of stereotypes by simply asking people about them brings practical problems. Many people give socially desirable answers because it is considered inappropriate to have prejudices / stereotypes. That is why the implicit measurement of stereotypes and prejudices is more reliable. These measurements are made by, for example, measuring the speed and accuracy of a response, because this way of measuring is difficult to influence by people in a conscious way. Nevertheless, these measurements can also give a distorted picture due to situational or social factors. A combination of these two methods is often used nowadays.

The impact of stereotypes

Stereotypes can influence our interpretations of behaviors of (other) group members, as well as our response to them. An example of this is the research that Payne (2001) did. This showed that subjects who were primed with the face of a black person recognized guns faster than test subjects who were primed with a white face. There are three factors that can lead to more stereotyping:

Less cognitive capacity: all effects that reduce the cognitive capacity of people increase the effects of stereotypes on judgments. Examples of this are, for example, time pressure and too complex information.

More power: this leads to stereotyping because many stereotypes are supported by the social position of the powerful persons and because powerful people generally have less need for the accurate observation of others.

More emotion: because strong emotions interrupt attention and impede accurate processing, emotion leads to more stereotyping.

Countering the formation of stereotypes can be done in the following three ways:

  • Suppress the stereotypical thoughts. Unfortunately, this is not always possible and can also cause a rebound.

  • Activating "contra-stereotype" information: as soon as the opposite of the stereotypical thoughts is put into perspective, this can cause the stereotypes to disappear.

Correcting: once stereotypes are recognized, and effort is made to correct them, they can disappear. The disadvantage is that it takes time and mental resources, and is therefore not always feasible. Once overly positive judgments of stereotyped groups are made (overcorrection) this can also help to prevent stereotyped thoughts.

Even if people have formed their judgments after much consideration, stereotypes can still have a lot of influence. For example, one always searches for evidence to confirm the stereotype. Furthermore, evidence is often interpreted in such a way that it fits the existing stereotype. Finally, information is always compared with the standards that one has formed about the group. For example, a man can say about a feminist essay written by a man: "That's a good essay, for a man."

It may be that people start to behave towards the stereotypes that exist about them. This is called the self-fulfilling prophecy. This also occurs in schools and on the work floor. Research shows, for example, that teachers give more attention and support to boys than to girls, and this can have positive and negative consequences for the performance of boys and girls, respectively.

Changing stereotypes

The contact hypothesis is that stereotypes can be reduced or even completely disappear if members from different groups come into contact with each other. The assumption is that contact with individuals of the group that do not match the stereotype of the group change the stereotype. Yet this does not always seem to be a solution, because powerful mechanisms underlie the stereotypes.

There are several problems in wanting to change stereotypes. Conversion is the idea that a stereotype can change / disappear by a single inconsistent experience. However, people often rethink inconsistency. If such "reasoning away" is not possible, the stereotypes can still be defended by subtyping. Subtyping is the formation of more specific social groups belonging to a broader social group (eg "students" in the "women" group). At such a moment we create a sub-category so that the stereotype remains for most people in that group. If inconsistent information can not simply be explained away and no subtypes can be made, contrast effects are often used. This means that the person from the social group who shows inconsistent behavior with the stereotype is seen as an exception to the rule.

Contrast stereotype behavior is behavior that is not consistent with the stereotype. This behavior is important in changing stereotypes. It is a requirement that this behavior occurs frequently and is especially effective if several and especially typical group members exhibit this contrast stereotype behavior.

Reducing prejudice

Good contact with members of other groups can reduce the prejudices about that group, even if the stereotypes do not change. This even happens when there is a single, positive experience with another group member. In fact, even more concise forms of contact can bring about positive feelings about the other group, just like simply imagining a positive interaction! Knowing what this already does with the prejudices, it will not be surprising that friendships between members of different groups have a very positive effect. Desforges et al (1991) and Wright et al (1997) showed that negative feelings towards a group can be reduced if someone from your own group has a friendship with someone from the other group.

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