You do not need to be a member of a stigmatized group to feel stereotyped. We have so many stereotypes of so many different kinds of people that just about everyone has felt the brunt of other people's presumptuousness.

Getting stereotyped is no fun. Social psychologists have been hard at work for quite some time now showing the many nasty consequences of being stigmatized. A study published just this year (reference is below) is striking for showing, on a moment-to-moment basis, what it feels like to be stereotyped over the course of everyday life. Even more intriguingly, it suggests that people who are most often stereotyped, rather than getting beaten down by that relentless aversive experience, instead seem to develop special coping skills. They end up more resilient, rather than less so.

Three groups of people participate in the study: (1) gays and lesbians, who were white; (2) African-Americans, who were heterosexual; and (3) white heterosexuals with no identifiable stigmas. Every day for a week, each participant was prompted to describe the social interaction they had just participated in. This happened 10 times a day. They were given a personal digital assistant (PDA) to use to record their responses.

The Blacks felt that they had been stereotyped most often - in 31% of their interactions. Gays and lesbians felt stereotyped in 22% of their interactions, and the comparison group, in 18%. It is worth noting that sexual orientation is different from race in that it is a more concealable stigma.

In the interactions in which participants felt more stereotyped, they also experienced more negative emotions, they felt less powerful, and they acted in more inhibited and inauthentic ways. This was true for the people in all three groups. Specifically, when stereotyped, the participants:

  • Reported feeling more self-conscious, cautious, inhibited, nervous, alienated, and insecure, and less relaxed, comfortable, and confident
  • Said that they were less genuine during the interaction; revealed less about themselves; and felt less free to disagree or to express their emotions
  • Said that they felt less powerful - for example, they thought that their wishes carried less weight and that they were not leading the conversation

Although members of all three groups reacted to being stereotyped in these negative ways, guess which group reacted most strongly?

It was the participants in the comparison group, who had no identifiable stigma, who felt the most negative emotions, and who felt most inhibited and inauthentic, when they believed they had been stereotyped. Those who reacted least strongly were the African Americans.

The same resilience was also evident when participants interacted repeatedly with the same person. If, during at least one of those interactions, the participant felt stereotyped, the African Americans reacted less strongly to that experience than the gays and lesbians did.

Here's what the authors make of their findings:

"...over time, greater frequency of experience with stereotypes leads to something akin to 'practice effects' that help buffer the negative consequences of feeling stereotyped...members of stigmatized groups learn to tolerate, minimize, accept, or ignore stereotypical beliefs directed at them."

"If there is a silver lining to having a stigmatized identity, perhaps it is greater resilience against the negative results of being stereotyped."

Reference:

Cook, J. E., Arrow, H., & Malle, B. F. (2011). The effect of feeling stereotyped on social power and inhibition. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 37, 165-180.

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