Are We Born Racist?

Inside the science of prejudice, stigma, and intergroup relations.

Addicted to stereotypes

Why do we keep using stereotypes despite our best intentions to the contrary?

In a number of previous posts (e.g. this one, and this one) I have talked about the conditions under which people are most likely to apply stereotypes. A question that I'm often asked, however, is why stereotypes persist, even when so many people explicitly disavow them. It's almost as if we were addicted to stereotypes: we use them despite our best intentions to the contrary.

One important reason may be that when we use stereotypes, we don't ourselves experience their negative consequences. The indignity of having people make assumptions about you on the basis of surface characteristics, the discrimination that often follows from stereotypes, the threat of confirming a stereotype-- these consequences tend to fall on the targets of stereotypes, rather than on perceivers. 

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But did you know that, on top of this, stereotypes actually confer cognitive benefits to perceivers? 

Imagine yourself in the following study. You are given time to study a set of ten traits about three different people. Take some time to form an impression of each person. 

Nigel: Caring, Honest, Reliable, Upstanding, Responsible, Unlucky, Forgetful, Passive, Clumsy, Enthusiastic

Julian: Creative, Temperamental, Unconventional, Individualistic, Sensitive, Fearless, Active, Cordial, Progressive, Generous

John: Rebellious, Aggressive, Dishonest, Dangerous, Untrustworthy, Lucky, Observant, Modest, Optimistic, Curious.

After studying these lists for a little while, look away, and see how many traits you can remember about Nigel, Julian, and John, respectively. Go ahead, close your eyes, test yourself.

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Now, let me take you through the same exercise, but with a twist. I'll ask you to study the same people, but I'm going to give you some labels about them:

Nigel the Doctor: Caring, Honest, Reliable, Upstanding, Responsible, Unlucky, Forgetful, Passive, Clumsy, Enthusiastic

Julian the Artist: Creative, Temperamental, Unconventional, Individualistic, Sensitive, Fearless, Active, Cordial, Progressive, Generous

John the Skinhead: Rebellious, Aggressive, Dishonest, Dangerous, Untrustworthy, Lucky, Observant, Modest, Optimistic, Curious.

Once again now, look away: what traits do you remember about each of these people?

Neil Macrae, Alan Milne, and Galen Bodenhausen conducted just this study in 1994, except that they had different people in the "no-label-given" and the "label-given" conditions to avoid practice effects. Nevertheless, based on the study's findings, my guess is that the second time around, you remembered the first five words within each list better. Why?

Because they were stereotype consistent.

photo: Wikimedia Commons
More to the point, traits like "honest" and "responsible" are consistent with stereotypes of doctors, "creative" and "temperamental" are consistent with stereotypes of artists, and "rebellious" and "dangerous" are consistent with stereotypes of skinheads. The mere label—the stereotype—helped people in Macrae and colleagues' study, and presumably you as well, remember them better, by essentially allowing you to organize these traits into a ready-made, coherent impression of the person. Words 6-10 in each list are not strongly associated with the stereotypes, and the researchers showed that recall on these words was not different depending on whether the study participants got a label or not.

One conclusion from this study is that we remember stereotype-consistent information better—in other words, stereotypes can help us remember more information with less effort, provided that the information is consistent with the stereotype and fits into the organized "whole." But that's not where the story ends. You see, what I didn't mention was that while participants were learning about Nigel, Julian,and John, they were also doing another simultaneous task—they were listening to an audio documentary about Indonesia! We already know that participants who got the stereotype labels had better recall of stereotype-relevant information, but the more surprising finding is that the participants who received the stereotype labels also did better on a test about the audio documentary. Thus, the stereotypes benefitted participants in multiple ways—they were able to not only remember more (albeit selective) information about Nigel, Julian, and John, but they were simultaneously better able to attend to the audio documentary. In other words, the stereotypes gave them an information-processing advantage while they were multi-tasking. They did better on both tasks. 

By putting people into little boxes, we don't have to think as much or as carefully about people. This frees up mental resources that can be devoted to other tasks, and yet we ourselves don't suffer the negative consequences of having been put into that little box. This imbalance—cognitive benefits without negative consequences—make stereotypes easy tools for many of us to reach towards when, as we might say, the cognitive going gets tough. That's a tough tool to give up from your cognitive "toolbox."

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Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton, Ph.D., is a social/personality psychologist at the University of California, Berkeley.

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