The Circular Nature of Pathological Stereotypes

Stereotypes about African Americans can become self-fulfilling prophecies.

Posted Dec 27, 2011

Continued from Part I...

I hated the projects
Do you see a working class man or a professional?

Stereotypes Resist Change

Pathological stereotypes about others are stubbornly resistant to change. One reason for this is that people usually spend their time with their own group and may not know what people in other groups are actually like. In the face of limited information people rely on stereotypes to fill in the blanks. Learning more about a different group will provide evidence that the pathological stereotypes are not accurate; but instead of discarding the pathological stereotype, people will 'subtype' the stereotyped person. This means the person will be perceived as an exception, rather than taken as evidence of the failings of the pathological stereotype.

For example, I can't count how many times people have said to me, "But Monnica, I don't think of you as a Black person, really..." I'm never quite sure how to respond to this odd sort of "compliment" in a tactful way. I teach African American Psychology at my university. I want people to understand that African Americans are more than the sum of our stereotypes, and yet I've just been "execeptioned." I love my ethnic and racial heritage, but because I don't fit the stereotype my Blackness is negated.

To add to the difficulty, stereotyping is both automatic and unconscious. People pathologically stereotype without realizing they are doing it, and cannot suppress stereotyped thoughts even when they try.

Pathological Stereotypes as Self-Fulfilling Prophecies

Pathological stereotypes affect everyone, even those who consider themselves progressive and open-minded. Simply knowing about a pathological stereotype can result in responding in a pathological manner, causing the stereotype to become true.

Consider stereotypes about African Americans being hostile. In a classic study, Chen and Bargh (1997) demonstrated that when European American students were presented with even a subliminal picture of an African American, they responded toward another European American student in a more hostile manner, generating more hostility in the other student. Thus, in a real-life situation, when a White person interacts with a Black person, this could cause the activation of pathological stereotypes, leading to hostile behavior by the White person, leading to a hostile response from the Black person, validating the pathological stereotype of African Americans being hostile.

I discovered this same dynamic when I conducted a research study on the role of stereotypes in the assessment of anxiety. Using a diverse group of undergraduate evaluators, we individually assessed Black and White participants for anxiety and affect. I was expecting to find that Black participants would be more anxious when assessed by a White interviewer, due to concerns about being negatively stereotyped. I was completely unprepared for what I found. Black participants were fine with their White evaluator, but White participants showed significantly higher levels of negative affect when assessed by a Black evaluator. In other words, working with a Black person made the White person unhappy, grumpy, and annoyed. I imagine it didn't help that the Black person was in the counter-stereotypical position of evaluating the White person, upsetting the unspoken but expected power differential dictated by the pathological stereotype.

Hard But Not Impossible

It is worth noting that a reaction to a pathological stereotype is simply a reaction, not a fixed quality about the person or the person's group. Individuals and groups can learn to resist, reject, or counter pathological stereotypes. Practice changing your assumptions about the African Americans you encounter. Challenge yourself to fight ignorance with facts. Taking these steps won't stop stereotyping overnight, but it's a good start.

Go to PART I — What Are Pathological Stereotypes?

Learn More:

Chen, M. & Bargh, J. A. (1997). Nonconscious behavioral confirmation processes: The self-fulfilling consequences of automatic stereotype activation. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 33, 541-560.

Davis, D.M., Williams, M.T., & Chapman, L.K. (November 2011). Anxiety and Affect in Racially Unmatched Dyads: Implications for a Therapeutic Relationship, presented at the 45th Annual Convention of the Association of Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies, Toronto, ON.