Stereotypes are gross generalizations about people. A stereotype is a category-based cognitive response whose affective counterpart is prejudice and whose behavioral counterpart is discrimination. By judging others not on knowledge of their individual complexities but on their inclusion in an outgroup, stereotyping is categorical thinking that can engender racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, and other types of intolerance.
Journalist Walter Lippmann coined the term, which he took from the “hot type” printing process prevalent at newspapers of his day. A stereotype is a plate constructed by making a mold of a printing surface and from that a cast in metal type. The stereotype enabled a newspaper to reproduce quickly and inexpensively many copies of a message. Lippmann regarded it as an apt name for his concept of a cognition that conforms to a fixed or general pattern and whose reproduction is easy. Lippmann said that to form an accurate picture of reality is a hopeless task because the real environment is altogether too big, too complex, and too fleeting for direct acquaintance. Instead, mass media present us with a simplified reconstruction of the world with which we can live (Lippmann 1922).
Stereotypes occur in a variety of environmental contexts, including social roles (e.g., gender), group conflicts (e.g., ideology), and power. Since the powerful pay less attention to the powerless than vice versa, the imbalance in attention allows the powerful to employ stereotypes as a controlling device, particularly when played out through the media. Stereotyping thus allows those with power to maintain and justify the status quo. The “spiral of silence” theory of public opinion formation holds that a stereotype is a vehicle for spreading public opinion. By crystallizing conceptions and opinions, stereotypes let everyone know when to speak up and when to shut up. In that way, stereotypes are engines of conformity.
Stereotypes arise from the need for a positive social identity with an ingroup that, in a form of compensatory narcissism, enlists an outgroup as a relative devalued contrast. Mass media are implicated in how social groups are labeled, defined, and framed (e.g., who serves as spokespersons and which group attributes are made salient).
Before children personally are able to evaluate stereotypes, they learn them from authority figures and peers, whose explicit or tacit approval for expressing stereotypes reinforces their use. Information processing in favorable conditions and through extensive practice becomes automatic, i.e., without intention or conscious awareness. Repeated encounters in different contexts thus allow a stereotype to become activated automatically.
Whether a person’s personal beliefs complement or contradict cultural stereotypes, personal beliefs develop later in life and are less practiced, so they are not as automatic. The dissociation between cultural stereotypes and personal beliefs produces different dynamics for high- and low-prejudiced persons. Following automatic activation of a stereotypic idea, the low-prejudiced can control their response, forcing it to correspond to their unprejudiced standards. However, there is a cost. Suppression of stereotypical cognitions is an effortful process that taxes the perceiver’s conscious resources. In categorizing a person merely through group membership, a perceiver uses stored information instead of making an effort to process new incoming information. This saves cognitive resources. Thus, while stereotypes complicate the life of the stereotyped, they simplify the information processing demands of the stereotyper.
Early conceptualizations of stereotyping viewed it as abnormal, as a motivated irrational response to frustration or the disorder of an authoritarian personality. Considerable evidence has amassed that stereotyping is a normal cognitive process and that people stereotype unless otherwise motivated or imposed upon by the demands of specific task environments. Nonstereotypical modes of thought can be engaged only if critical cognitive and motivational criteria are met, such as spare intentional resources, self-involvement, outcome dependency, and accountability. Absent such criteria, perceivers economize cognition through the application of stereotypes. Furthermore, this occurs without a perceiver’s deliberate intention.
Generally, humans operate as “cognitive misers,” overwhelmed by the complexity of the social environment and forced to conserve scarce mental resources. Humans are stingy in the allocation of online capacity, so they routinely resort to heuristic and peripheral information processing. Occasionally, however, humans are motivated to invest scarce cognitive resources in order to process information systematically and elaborately. Dual process models of information processing generally treat stereotypes as cognitive shortcuts. For example, rather than take the trouble to gather information about a candidate for public office, a person may use party affiliation as a heuristic. If, in the US, the candidate is a Democrat then one’s stereotypical view of the qualities of Democrats is bestowed upon the candidate. A Republican candidate gets the same peripheral treatment.
Stereotypes are learned early, reinforced often, and encountered repeatedly, which allows them to occur automatically. As superficial as are most social encounters, stereotyping generally suffices. However, when motivated and able to process more elaborately and systematically, humans can think beyond stereotypes.
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- Noelle-Neumann, E. (1984). The spiral of silence. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.