The journalist Walter Lippmann introduced the notion of stereotypes in 1922 and described them as “pictures in our heads”. Current psychological theory conceptualizes those “pictures” as cognitive structures or schemas that represent widely shared beliefs about the defining characteristics of social groups (Operario & Fiske 2004). Any group might be subject to stereotypes, but the most commonly studied stereotypes are those based on race or ethnicity, nationality, religion, sex, and age. The beliefs that compose stereotypes may include physical characteristics, personality traits, behavioral tendencies, etc. Although stereotypes have traditionally been associated with exclusively negative beliefs about social groups, they generally include positive beliefs as well. For example, stereotypes of older people include not only such negative traits as forgetful and sad, but also positive traits such as wise and family-oriented (Hummert et al. 2004).
As cognitive structures, stereotypes serve as resources that help individuals to organize and respond to new people and situations (Ashmore & Del Boca 1981). Social stereotyping refers to this use or application of stereotypes in person perception and social interaction, including communication (Leyens et al. 1994). Just as stereotypes are not exclusively negative in content, they are not exclusively negative in their application. Nevertheless, because stereotypes are often applied without conscious awareness of their influence (Greenwald & Banaji 1995), and because their negative aspects tend to outweigh the positive, they have the potential to lead to judgmental bias and prejudiced behaviors (Operario & Fiske 2004).
The Role Of Social Stereotyping In Communication
One major communication theory, Communication Accommodation Theory (CAT; Giles et al. 1991), has included stereotyping in its model of the communication process. In the initial conception of CAT (labeled at that time Speech Accommodation Theory), Giles et al. showed how group identity processes can influence communication behavior, outlining the conditions under which an individual (e.g., a Welshman) might choose to converge to or diverge from the linguistic style or accent of an outgroup member (e.g., standard British speaker) in interpersonal communication, as well as the consequences of that convergence or divergence.
In explaining certain kinds of divergences and convergences, Giles et al. drew on Social Identity Theory (SIT; Tajfel & Turner 1986), which posits that individuals’ identification of themselves as members of social groups is important to maintaining self-esteem. As a result, according to SIT, they are motivated not only to see the social world in terms of ingroups (groups of which they are members) and outgroups (groups of which they are not members), but also to maintain the status of their ingroups relative to outgroups as a way to preserve their self-esteem. As CAT has evolved, it has expanded its focus beyond group linguistic style to include other aspects of group identity and representations as influences on communication behavior more generally. In particular, CAT has incorporated stereotypes of outgroups into its model of the communication process, accounting for how individuals may choose to accommodate or not to the stereotypes in their interpersonal communication with outgroup members.
The Communication Predicament of Aging Model (CPA; Ryan et al. 1986) illustrates how age stereotypes may affect the communication accommodation process. This model describes what can occur when a younger individual meets an older person. According to the model, the recognition of age cues such as grey hair, wrinkles, etc. can trigger negative age stereotypes in the younger person. Negative age stereotypes include beliefs about age-related deficiencies such as poor hearing and memory that are associated with beliefs about appropriate or necessary communication accommodations to address those deficiencies (e.g., speak more loudly, use short and simple statements, be repetitive). The younger person who adapts his or her communication to the older person in line with these beliefs, rather than with attention to the unique abilities of that individual, is over accommodating to the age stereotype
As CAT has continued to evolve, its models have incorporated the individual characteristics of communicators as predictors of both their reliance on negative as opposed to positive stereotypes of outgroup members, and their proclivity to approach the interaction as intergroup rather than interpersonal (Williams & Harwood 2004). One example of this evolution is the Age Stereotypes in Interactions Model (ASI; Hummert et al. 2004), which extended the CPA model to interactions between older people and middleaged individuals, as well as to those between older people and their peers. It also included such factors as the age salience of the situation and the role of the characteristics of the older person in triggering positive or negative age stereotypes and subsequent communication accommodations to negative age stereotypes. In brief, research has supported the predictions of this model, showing that negative age stereotyping and communicative over accommodations to those stereotypes are most likely to occur with younger perceivers, in situations which increase the salience of age differences, and with individuals whose physical appearance suggests advanced age and whose personal characteristics are consistent with traits associated with age-related declines (Hummert et al. 2004).
Consequences Of Social Stereotyping In Communication
According to CAT (Giles et al. 1991), over accommodations to stereotypes in communication can have negative consequences for the individuals involved, whether they are the targets or perpetrators of stereotyping. As presented in the CPA model (Ryan et al. 1986), those consequences for the target of the over accommodation include lowered self-esteem, low satisfaction with the interaction, and the reinforcement of stereotypic behaviors. Together these consequences can contribute to a negative feedback loop that leads to greater age-related decline for the older individual. For the person who produced the over accommodative talk, likewise, consequences include the reinforcement of negative age stereotypes and low satisfaction with the interaction. To the extent that the individuals associate their low satisfaction with the intergenerational (i.e., outgroup) nature of the interaction, they might be expected to avoid such interactions in the future, further reinforcing their stereotypical beliefs. Empirical research has supported these consequences of over accommodation to stereotypes in intergenerational interactions (Hummert et al. 2004).
The predictions of CAT for social stereotyping have been most widely tested in the context of age stereotypes. However, Hummert & Ryan (2001) have shown that over accommodation of the type documented toward older individuals occurs in interaction with members of other groups that are similarly stereotyped: women, persons with physical or developmental disabilities, and those with mental illness. Other social psychological research has demonstrated that stereotypes about gender, age, race, and ethnicity emerge in communication in similar ways, resulting in bias and prejudice (Ruscher 2001).
Language And The Maintenance Of Stereotypes Through Communication
As discussed, communicating in ways consistent with stereotypical beliefs serves to reinforce the validity of the stereotypes, increasing the likelihood that they will be maintained and influence future interactions. To this point, the focus has been on how communicative styles such as overaccommodation may reveal social stereotyping in communication. However, social stereotyping can also be reflected in the language used to describe the behaviors of those in stereotyped groups in comparison to that used to describe the behaviors of members of ingroups (Fiedler & Schmid 2004).
In their linguistic category model, Semin and Fiedler (1991) identified four levels of abstraction, ranging from the most concrete to the most abstract: (1) descriptive action verbs, “John threw the ball”; (2) interpretive action verbs, “John got rid of the ball”; (3) state verbs, “John enjoys playing ball”; and (4) adjectives, “John is athletic.” According to Semin and Fiedler, perceptions of the stability of traits increases as language becomes more abstract. As a result, saying that “John threw the ball” tells the listener only about John’s behavior in this unique instance, whereas stating that he is “athletic” tells the listener not only how he behaves now, but also how he will behave in the future – the abstract term is therefore viewed as more diagnostic of John’s abilities than the concrete descriptor.
These characteristics of language in the context of social stereotyping are reflected in a phenomenon termed the linguistic intergroup bias (Maass et al. 1989). That is, individuals tend to use more abstract language in describing negative characteristics of outgroups and positive characteristics of their ingroups, whereas they tend to use more concrete language to describe positive behaviors of outgroups and negative behaviors of ingroups. The linguistic intergroup bias, then, is a communicative mechanism that reinforces negative components of outgroup stereotypes and positive aspects of ingroup stereotypes. This bias in communication may help to explain why the negative components of group stereotypes seem more robust, influential in behavior, and resistant to change than positive ones (Fiedler & Schmid 2004; Hummert et al. 2004; Operario & Fiske 2004).
Self-Stereotyping In Communication
Recently interest has developed in the phenomenon of self-stereotyping, i.e., behaving in ways consistent with negative stereotypes of one’s group (Levy 2003). Some selfstereotyping behavior may result from reactions to the overaccommodative or biased communication behaviors of others, as predicated in the CPA model (Ryan et al. 1986). However, other self-stereotyping in communication can occur as individuals describe their own actions in stereotypic terms (Hummert et al. 2004). For instance, older people may talk about having “senior moments” or not having the energy that they used to, echoing age stereotypes in their self-descriptions. A woman might describe herself as “a typical blonde” in a humorous excuse for an error, bringing a common sub-category of the female stereotype into the conversation. From a CAT perspective, the danger in such seemingly innocent remarks, even when made in jest, is that they reinforce stereotypical beliefs and emphasize the speaker’s category membership for both the speaker and listeners. Practically, they encourage listeners to think of the speaker as a member of a stereotyped group, with all of the characteristics associated with that group, rather than as an individual. For the speaker, they carry the danger of implicitly promoting stereotype-consistent behaviors in daily interaction.
Reducing Social Stereotyping In Communication
Several characteristics of social stereotyping create a challenge for reducing its influence in the communication process. First, from a cognitive perspective, stereotypes are useful heuristics that enable communicators to reduce their uncertainty when they encounter new people (Operario & Fiske 2004). Second, from a CAT perspective, communicators rely on stereotypes not because they wish to engage in biased and prejudiced communication, but because they wish to be effective communicators and adapt their communication to the needs of the other person (Hummert et al. 2004). Third, stereotyping in communication occurs most often at an implicit or unconscious level, so that communicators are unaware that they are basing their communication choices on stereotypical information (Greenwald & Banaji 1995; Hummert et al. 2004). Fourth, the ways in which stereotyping emerges in communication can be very subtle, occurring even at the level of word choice (Maass et al. 1989), and serve to reinforce the underlying stereotypical beliefs.
Psychological research on stereotyping shows that making individuals aware of their application of stereotypes, encouraging them to take the perspective of the other person, and providing them with individuating information on the other person can help them to control the tendency to rely on the stereotype as a heuristic (Hummert et al. 2004; Hummert & Ryan 2001). Awareness can help to reduce self-stereotyping as well. The linguistic intergroup bias (Maass et al. 1989) suggests that working on using more concrete language to describe the behavior of both ingroup and outgroup members would be another strategy to reduce not only the application of stereotypes in conversation, but also the strength of stereotypical cognitive representations.
Whether communication with members of stereotyped groups can change underlying attitudes and stereotypes of those groups has long been a question in intergroup research. Intergroup contact theory, as originally proposed, predicted that frequent contact with stereotyped group members would change attitudes. However, Brown and Hewstone (2005) argue that simple contact is not sufficient. Rather, their revision of intergroup contact theory predicts that communication will effect positive change in attitudes and stereotypes only when (1) group membership is salient during the interaction, (2) the communicator views the outgroup member as typical of the stereotyped group, (3) interaction with the outgroup member is sufficiently frequent, and (4) interaction with the outgroup member is assessed positively by the communicator. Harwood et al. (2005) have found support for this revision of intergroup contact theory in their study of age stereotypes in the context of grandparent–grandchild relationships. Harwood et al. also point out that focus on a family identity offers a way for grandparents and grandchildren to transcend ingroup/outgroup identities based on age groups.
Clearly, not all relationships with members of stereotyped groups can use the family as a transcendent, common identity. However, Wohl et al. (2006) review research demonstrating ways that prejudice toward outgroup members can be reduced, even among members of groups with a long history of conflictual relationships such as Israelis and Palestinians. They identify two strategies with communicative implications. One strategy shifts the group categorization level to a more inclusive level, such as the human family, or another joint identity shared by the two groups (e.g., African-Americans and White Americans can be jointly categorized as Americans). Another strategy increases the ingroup’s recognition of their responsibility (collective guilt) for harmful acts perpetrated against outgroup members. This can be accomplished in a variety of ways, such as emphasizing the illegitimacy or immorality of those harmful acts or asking members of the more powerful group to consider the advantages they experience due to their group membership.
As societies worldwide become more diverse, communication opportunities with members of outgroups should become more frequent. Strategies to insure that those opportunities result in positive interactions can serve to reduce stereotyping in communication. The research and theories reviewed here offer some suggestions for such strategies.
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