Stereotypes are typically conceived of as cognitive categorizations of people into groups that are accompanied by descriptors of group members. Early discussions of stereotypes referenced them as “pictures” of groups or “types” of people (Lippmann 1922/ 1965). According to researchers, many attributes are used as a basis of stereotype-based categorization, including race, sex, age, class, religion, and body type (see, e.g., Schneider 2004). Stereotypes provide cognitive benefits, much like other schemas (Fiske & Taylor 1984). As a form of categorization, for example, stereotypes function as energy-saving devices (Macrae et al. 1994) and cognitive tools (Gilbert & Hixon 1991) that preserve information-processing resources, because they allow people to “chunk” information into familiar and, therefore, meaningful units (Hamilton & Sherman 1994).
Function Of Stereotypes
Although valuable because of their cognitive efficiency, stereotypes become detrimental when they have undesirable consequences for those who use the stereotypes or for members of the groups they target. These consequences may occur when stereotypes provide an inaccurate or false basis for judgment or when they lead to unwarranted prejudice and discrimination. Stereotypes facilitate prejudice when they foster “an avertive or hostile attitude toward a person who belongs to a group, simply because he belongs to that group, and is therefore presumed to have the objectionable qualities ascribed to the group” (Allport 1954/1979, 7). Stereotypes are discriminatory when they extend prejudice into behavior. Thus, whereas stereotypes as a cognitive structure are neutral, stereotypes-in-use may have more tangible social consequences (Fiske 1998).
Additionally, stereotype-based information processing itself may be biased in some ways. For example, Hamilton and Gifford (1976) asserted that some stereotypic judgments may be explained by illusory correlation (i.e., erroneous inferences made about the relationship between two categories on the basis of their perceived common cooccurrence). To test the illusory correlation, Hamilton and Gifford provided participants with considerably more information about “Group A” than about “Group B.” Moreover, the information they provided about Group A was commonly associated with desirable characteristics. The results suggested that when an association occurs frequently (i.e., Group A often has desirable characteristics), it is likely to be more recognizable than other associations. Moreover, once recognized, this association (and not others) is used as a basis of comparison. In Hamilton and Gifford’s study, participants polarized Group A and Group B by attributing desirable and undesirable characteristics to each group respectively. The authors argued that this polarization was based on an illusory correlation produced by participants in that it was not supported by the initial information their participants had about these groups.
Researchers have also found other types of bias in information processing. For instance, stereotype-consistent information is more likely to be remembered than stereotype-inconsistent information, unless the inconsistent information is especially salient (i.e., stands out as noticeable; Lyons & Kashima 2003). Similarly, negative content is more notable than positive content, and is therefore more likely to be part of stereotypes (Schaller & Conway 1999).
Integrating Stereotyped Cognitions And Communication
As forms of (sometimes biased) information processing, stereotypes are directly integrated with communication in several ways. First, they affect the ways we communicate. Second, we communicate about stereotypes (i.e., they may be the content of our talk) as part of interaction. Third, communication about stereotypes works to teach, perpetuate, and change stereotypic beliefs. Each of these is discussed briefly in the following paragraphs.
First, stereotypes may affect the ways in which we communicate with others. In some cases, the manner in which this occurs can be construed as beneficial. Manusov, Winchatz, and Manning (1997), for example, conducted a study in which US students interacted with students from other countries. Prior to their interactions, each student’s attitude toward the other students’ nationality was assessed. Coding of behaviors from the video tapes of the subsequent interactions showed that US participants who had more positive stereotypes of their interaction-partner’s nationality tended to gaze at their partner more and use more direct body orientation than those who held less positive stereotypes. Overall, more positive stereotypes appeared to play out in relatively affirming – if biased – communicative ways. Likewise, positive behaviors resulting from stereotypes appear to affect other judgments, also in a manner that seems to benefit the interaction. Le Poire and Yoshimura (1999), for example, found that participants who smiled more with female than with male confederates perceived the former as more pleasant than the latter. This occurred although both confederates were instructed to show the same facial expressions and demeanor. The researchers concluded that gender stereotypes predicting that women are friendlier and smile more often than men explained these findings.
Other times, however, the link between stereotypes and communication may be much more problematic. For example, Olaniran and Williams (1995) showed that visaapplication interviewers use stereotypic expectations to determine whether an applicant should be approved for a requested visa. In one instance, an interviewer’s interpretation of averted eye gaze as indicative of lying, exacerbated by stereotypes of Africans as “sneaky,” was consequential for a West African applicant whose own cultural norms prescribed that he show respect for authority precisely through averted eye gaze. In conjunction with other cues from the application process, the interviewer denied the applicant’s request for a visa.
A second integration between stereotype-based cognitions and communication occurs whenever people hear others talk about stereotypic beliefs and observe stereotypes embedded in others’ actions. One application of this form of connection between stereotypes and communication comes from researchers who study ethnophaulisms, which are terms that malign racial or ethnic groups and become part of the cultural lexicon (see, e.g., Mullen 2001; Tracy 2002). More generally, researchers have begun to explore the myriad ways that communication about stereotypes is situated within interaction. Mokros, for example, explored how stereotypes communicated in everyday interaction may help to negotiate and construct identity and, more generally, meaning. He used video-taped ethnographic research data to gain insight into “how otherness [in the form of stereotypes-in-talk] is employed to resolve practical problems of identity within interaction” (Mokros 2003, 255).
The third form of integration between stereotypes and communication discussed here involves the processes through which stereotypes are learned through communication. Communicating about stereotypes works to create and maintain those categorizations within a larger social system making them “publicly accessible situated knowledge structures” (Semin 2000, 603). We even learn values about the stereotyping process itself through communication. For example, in many cultures, stereotyping is considered “an unsavory practice to be avoided or concealed” (Bodenhausen & Macrae 1996, 232), and this value is taught through communicative means. The general term given to the reproduction of stereotypic knowledge over time through communication processes is stereotype maintenance (Kenrick et al. 2002). Research in this area has focused largely on the cognitive processes that underlie this reproduction.
More recently, however, Kurylo (2006) emphasized the role that interaction plays in this reproduction. For example, in addition to more obvious forms of talk that involve stereotypic beliefs, Kurylo found that stereotypes may be communicated in an implicit form when the group, descriptors referenced by the stereotype, or both are omitted (e.g., “You know what they’re like”). This finding provides support for Boss (1979) who argued that, when communicated, stereotypes often require others to interpret their meaning in order to make sense of the stereotype. Those who witness a stereotype communicated become complicit in the stereotyping process if they acknowledge they have understood the stereotype. This is one means through which we work together to reproduce stereotypic knowledge as meaningful, regardless of whether we communicate the stereotypes ourselves.
Whereas stereotyping is conceptualized primarily as a form of information processing, it is linked with communication in several ways. In itself, the process of stereotyping is benign. But given its ties to cultural mores, problematic associations, and prejudicial behavior, stereotyping-in-use is best understood within its larger social framework.
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