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A Brit, an American and a Mexican Went into a Bar…

Joking aside – let’s get some perspective on stereotypes.

Perspective-taking means putting ourselves in someone else’s shoes. It helps us to understand other people’s views and behaviours – even when they are different to our own. It can also undermine the way we create and maintain stereotypes.

Stereotypes are maintained by a range of mental processes. For example, we recall memories that are consistent with a stereotype more easily than those that are not. We also tend to explain behaviour in a way which is consistent with the relevant stereotype and ‘explain away’ inconsistent behaviours. We also tend to look for information that supports a stereotype and ignore information that is inconsistent.

Andrew Todd et al wanted to see how the ability to take another person’s perspective affected the processes that maintain stereotypes. They tested 32-50 non-African-American undergraduates in three experiments. In each case, one group of students was asked to take the perspective of the subject – to imagine themselves in their place – while the others were not.

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Perspective makes memory less selective

In the first experiment, students were shown a picture of Robert, a young African-American, and then given 30 pieces of information about his behaviour: 10 kind (e.g. ‘gave up his seat on the crowded subway’), 10 hostile (e.g. ‘swore at the sales clerk’) and 10 neutral (e.g. ‘ate a sandwich for lunch’). Sad to say, several studies have shown that hostile behaviour is part of the cultural stereotype of young African-American males.

Later, the students were asked to recall examples of Robert’s behaviour. Students who had imagined themselves as Robert recalled significantly more kind behaviours – in fact, they recalled an equal number of kind and hostile behaviours.

Expanding a stereotype until it bursts

In the second study, students completed sentences to explain Robert’s behaviour. All students tended to explain Robert’s behaviour in a way which is consistent with cultural stereotypes. However, students who had tried to take Robert’s perspective were more likely to extend that stereotype to explain inconsistent behaviour. This is a process that will eventually destroy a stereotype as it collapses under the strain of accommodating an expanding range of diverse information.

Asking for information, not confirmation

The third study used personality rather than cultural stereotypes: extrovert and introvert. Students chose questions to interview another student (the subject). Students chose questions to assess how well the profile ‘introvert’ or ‘extrovert’ suited the subject. Among the possible questions, some tended to confirm the profile, some were inconsistent and some were neutral. For example, ‘What do you like about parties?’ is more likely to get a positive response from an extrovert than ‘What factors make it hard for you to open up to people?’.

Analysing the chosen questions found that students who had imagined themselves being interviewed chose significantly more questions that challenged the subject’s profile. These students were asking in a spirit of true enquiry – not just to confirm what they already thought they knew.

It is not surprising that perspective-taking might decrease dependency on stereotypes – but what is really interesting about these findings is the role of perspective-taking in developing those stereotypes in the first place. There are so many stereotypes in our minds: gender, cultural, personality, professional. Every one of us can be viewed though a fog of labels that obscure us as individuals. Perhaps we should keep that perspective in mind.


Study reference (link may give an error):

Todd, A. R., Galinsky, A. D. and Bodenhausen, G. V. 2012. Perspective Taking Undermines Stereotype Maintenance Processes: Evidence From Social Memory, Behavior Explanation, and Information Solicitation, Social Cognition 30 (1): 94-108.

Gillian Ragsdale, Ph.D. is an Associate Lecturer in biological psychology with the Open University, in the U.K.


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