Stereotyping is a form of pre judgment that is as prevalent in today’s society as it was 2000 years ago. It is a social attitude that has stood the test of time and received much attention by social psychologists and philosophers alike. Many approaches too, or theories of stereotyping have thus been raised. My paper will attempt to evaluate the cognitive process that inevitably leads to stereotyping. Hamilton (1979) calls this a ‘depressing dilemma’.
Brown’s (1995) definition of stereotyping through prejudice is the ‘holding of derogatory social attitudes or cognitive beliefs, the expression of negative affect, or the display of hostile or discriminatory behavior towards members of a group on account of their membership to that group’. This definition implies that stereotyping is primarily a group process, through the individuals psyche’s within that group. A further idea of stereotyping, defined by Allport (1954) as ‘thinking ill of others without warrant’, is that people ‘make their mind up’ without any personal experience. This pre judgment about a whole group is then transferred to the stigmatization of any individuals in that group. It is these ideas that the essay aims to evaluate, through the cognitive process of categorization and the above definitions that bring about three distinct features of stereotyping, that our cognition can be demonstrated through.
The first characteristic of stereotyping is over-generalization. A number of studies conducted found that different combinations of traits were associated with groups of different ethnic and national origin (Katz and Braly, 1933). However, stereotyping does not imply that all members of a group are judged in these ways, just that a typical member of a group can be categorized in such judgments, that they possess the characteristics of the group. Still, when we talk of a group, we do so by imagining a member of that group.
The second feature and characteristic of stereotyping is the exaggeration of the difference between ones own groups (the in-group) and the ‘other’ groups (the out-group). This can be traced back to the work of Tajfel during the 1950’s – ‘the accentuation principle’ (Tajfel, 1981). Tajfel’s work was specifically on physical stimuli, and concluded that judgments on such stimuli are not made in isolation, but in the context of other factors. Applied socially – a judgment about an out-group relies upon other factors surrounding the judgment in question, as well as making a statement about the in-group and the relationship between the two groups. Through stereotyping and categorization we exaggerate the differences between the groups. From this comes the effect that in believing an out-group is homogenous, through exaggerated differences, their in-group is not – with very much less over-generalization taking place (Linville, et al., 1986).
Then finally and third characteristic of stereotyping is that of the expression of values. Most stereotypical judgments of group characteristics are in fact moral evaluations (Howitt, et al., 1989). For example, Katz and Braly (1933) studied a group of students’ attitudes to towards minority groups. They found that Jews were attributed to being ‘mean’ (in terms of money), rather than they themselves being ‘spendthrifts’. Also, they found that there was a strong view that French people were ‘excitable’. This actually implies that they are over-excitable – above the norm, as everybody is excitable, per se, and thus there would be no necessity to mention it. Concluding from this, it is valid to say that a value has been put on a characteristic – in this case, a stereotypical one.
The cognitive approach to stereotyping is that we all stereotype, at varying levels – because of the essential cognitive process of categorization (Brown, 1995). Howitt, et al. (1989) take this view also, and add that it is an ordinary process of thought to over-generalize, and then protect it.
According to Allport’s earlier definition of stereotyping, such a pre judgment must be resistant to change. Such resistance may be put down to the processes of thinking leading to biases (Howitt, et al., 1989). For us to believe that our pre judgements are correct, what we perceive to be is what we see. For example, Duncan (1976) showed that how we perceive the social world can be affected by our categorizations, such as, in this case, racial stereotypes. The study found that, because black people were stereotyped as aggressive people (by the subjects), the subjects perceived a situation as being more aggressive, close to a fight, when played by black actors whereas with white actors, it was seen as playful. Such biases may also be looked at as self-fulfilling, or even self-protecting, the ‘sense of self’. This self positively is ‘natural’, and as such can be projected onto one’s perception of the in-group – having similar effects at the other end of the spectrum. That is, a negative view of an individual projected onto ‘their’ group, or the out-group. This is the reason for most stereotypes being negative.
Our categorization and biases can also have an effect on others. Essed (1988) found that white stereotyping of black people had a damaging effect in job interviews, through discomfort and unrest due to the questions asked during the interview. This study was conducted out of the laboratory. A further example of the effects of racial stereotyping on others is a replication of a British government commissioned study in which a black and a white person apply to rent a flat. The landlords pre judgment of black people through stereotyping affected the black man’s chance and legal right to rent the flat (BBC television, Black and White, 1987). This is an example of the out-group homogeneity effect (Brown, 1995).
.The cognitive approach of categorization does have its flaws however. Categorization theorists give a rather mechanistic impression of cognition, and thus, their approach to stereotyping (Billig, 1985).
We do have a choice in our assumptions and there is flexibility about human thinking (Howitt, et al., 1989). Therefore, cognition is not as rigid as categorization implies. It is an oversimplification in itself to suggest that language oversimplify the world, because it is due to language that our views of the social world can be expressed. However, language does not have to be present for stereotyping to be present. For example, the Minimal Group Paradigm. Even so, language aids our categorization and thus, our stereotyping. It is the same language that we may use to stereotype that enables us to be the reverse. For example, in the interviews mentioned above, the interviewers could be taught to ask non-categorical questions. As concepts in our minds, tolerance is as easy as prejudice.
Our supposed necessity to simplify the world, as we are ‘incapable’ of taking in ‘every new stimulus as unique’ (Park and Rothbart, 1982), may also be balanced by a statement of the opposite: ‘we would find difficulty in adapting to a world which required action, if no new stimulus could be treated as unique, but every unique stimulus had to be considered as similar to others’ (Billig, 1985). This is the basis of Billig’s argument of particularization against categorization – which gives rise to the processes of individualization – treating and perceiving group members as individuals. Categorization argues that, through our ‘natural’ pattern of thought, or cognition, its similarities rather than its individuality categorize our perception of stimuli. Billig suggests that this can change, through a motivational process in categorization itself, giving flexibility to such cognitive processes.
We are aware of the possibility and ability to change. However, we do not express this flexibility because it is a disruption of the norm, or, of the social group-thought. Goffman (1959) views everyday life as dramaturgical (the entire world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players…’ Shakespeare). To disrupt this would be to change the script, and break out of the conformity of the social group, self-to-self and to others. Even so, this illustrates that through our ability to categorize, we have the ability to particularize and ‘do more with the stimuli than accumulate more instances of predetermined categories’ (Billig, 1985).
In Billig’s alternative approach to stereotyping, he also raises the point of category selection – a problem that cognitive psychologists have often overlooked. Tversky and Gati (1978) found that different stimuli are judged on their similarities and differences before categorization and this judgment can be different depending on what way the stimuli is perceived. Billig’s point is that we must particularize before categorizing and thus a link has been formed.
Categorization implies rigidity in our cognition. Stereotypes, by nature, are over generalizations. Such inflexibility is not a possible process of our cognition – ‘categorization do not exist in isolation’ (Billig, 1985). As categorization leads to many categories, through its definition, surely only one such category could possibly be so rigid and inflexible, as other categories must be used by it, and thus be flexible. Therefore, categorization is not a rigid process, but involves change – which is reflective of our cognition and change is possible (conflicting with Allport’s definition).
The difference between two groups affects other attributes of the out-group, including those that are similar to the in-group. By subdividing further such similarities, we are initiating a defense change in our attitudes and categories. This inventiveness is another example of the flexibility of categorization. In the most extreme cases, this can lead to inventiveness demonstrated by racial theorists, which in fact, contradicts their prejudice and rigidity of categories. This flexibility can be illustrated further by studies that have shown that in stereotyping, people imply that most of group posses a stereotypic trait but not all members. Thus, is the need for ‘special cases’, realization of individualization and tolerance (Billig, 1985).
According to the cognitive approach, stereotyping is a group process. It may occur in-groups, but it is the individual psyches that make up the group, that project their stereotypes through a group. We do have the ability to see people as individuals and particularize their unique characteristics. We can change, as even categorization is flexible, which undermines the cognitive approach with categorization, although it may take time on a social level.
To conclude, the cognitive approach alone does not give us an understanding of stereotyping. However, it does anchor the fact that through our ‘natural’ thought processes we do categorize, which leads to stereotyping. It also highlights the importance of the individual and the group. There are, however, problems that have been overlooked by cognitive psychologists which we need to understand, in order to fully understand the ‘changing dynamics and nature of stereotyping in our society’ (Howitt, et al., 1989). There is also the need to look further than the causes of stereotyping and into its effects in order to understand the processes of our thought, of stereotyping.