Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


Findings

stereotypes

(Illustration: Aleutie/Shutterstock)

How Stereotypes Take Shape

• July 24, 2014 • 4:00 AM

(Illustration: Aleutie/Shutterstock)

New research from Scotland finds they’re an unfortunate product of the way we process and share information.

Unfair and offensive as they may be, stereotypes are ubiquitous. Logic tells us it’s ludicrous to label all, or most, members of a particular ethnic group as lazy, or untrustworthy, or unusually smart, but such shorthand thinking remains remarkably resilient.

Why do we do it? How do such stereotypes develop? In a fascinating new paper, a team of researchers led by University of Aberdeen psychologist Douglas Martin provides evidence that they are an unfortunate result of the way we process and communicate knowledge.

“The process of repeatedly passing social information from person to person can result in the unintentional and spontaneous formation of cultural stereotypes,” the researchers write in the journal Psychological Science.

In essence, they write, our minds are hard-wired to categorize information and create mental shortcuts (attribute A is associated with behavior B). This helps us retain knowledge using minimal mental effort, and provides a needed sense of structure to an otherwise chaotic universe.

We take complex webs of information and, in the process of sharing what we’ve learned, create “a progressively simplified, highly structured, and easily learnable system” of stereotypes.

In doing so, however, nuances and complications tend to be discarded.

Often, the researchers write, stereotypes begin with a “kernel of truth” that subsequently gets inflated into a widely held truism regarding a group of people. But other times, they can spring up seemingly from nowhere.

Martin and his colleagues provide evidence of the latter process in an experiment in which fictional creatures—specifically, space aliens—were provided with random sets of attributes. As it turned out, it didn’t take long for stereotypes about them to form.

Each alien was created by a simple line drawing combining features from three dimensions: shape (each was either a circle, square, or rectangle); color (blue, green, or red); and movement (bouncing, diagonal, or horizontal).

These combinations led to 27 unique aliens, each of which was randomly given a set of personality traits. For instance, square green aliens that walked with a bounce were labeled as private, curious, tidy, arrogant, serious, and excitable. (Isn’t that just like them?)

The experiment featured 168 University of Aberdeen undergraduates who formed a series of “chains” in which information on the aliens was passed down from one “generation” to the next.

“During an initial training phase, the first participant in a chain was shown 13 of the 27 aliens and attempted to learn their associated attributes,” the researchers write. “During the subsequent test phase, participants were shown all 27 aliens—both the 13 they had encountered during training and the 14 that had remained unseen—and were asked to identify the attributes associated with each alien.

“The attributes the participant selected were used as the training materials for the next participant in the chain,” who repeated the process. And so it went through seven generations.

The result was a sort of telephone game in which the initial information got muddled, but in very specific ways.

“Over multiple generations, a systematic relationship developed,” Martin and his colleagues report. Certain aliens became “strongly associated with the possession of specific attributes.” For example, “by the end of one chain, blue aliens were predominantly ‘sensible’ and ‘successful,’ whereas green aliens were ‘vulgar.’”

How did this happen? “From the beginning of the chains, participants overestimated the within-category similarity of aliens, and tended to think that aliens who shared features also shared (personality) attributes,” they write. “Cumulatively, these overestimations led to the development of a categorical structure, with some attributes becoming associated with some alien features.”

This process occurred, the researchers add, without “volition or intent.” It just reflects the way our minds work. We take complex webs of information and, in the process of sharing what we’ve learned, create “a progressively simplified, highly structured, and easily learnable system” of stereotypes.

Of course, this model was created by Scots, and we all know that they’re (fill in your favorite stereotype).

Tom Jacobs
Staff writer Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for The Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Ventura County Star.

More From Tom Jacobs

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

October 17 • 4:00 PM

What All Military Families Need to Know About High-Cost Lenders

Lessons from over a year on the beat.


October 17 • 2:00 PM

The Majority of Languages Do Not Have Gendered Pronouns

A world without “he.” Or “she.”


October 17 • 11:01 AM

How to Water a Farm in Sandy Ground

Physicists investigate how to grow food more efficiently in fine-grained soil.


October 17 • 10:00 AM

Can Science Fiction Spur Science Innovation?

Without proper funding, the answer might not even matter.


October 17 • 8:00 AM

Seattle, the Incredible Shrinking City

Seattle is leading the way in the micro-housing movement as an affordable alternative to high-cost city living.


October 17 • 6:00 AM

‘Voodoo Death’ and How the Mind Harms the Body

Can an intense belief that you’re about to die actually kill you? Researchers are learning more about “voodoo death” and how it isn’t limited to superstitious, foreign cultures.


October 17 • 4:00 AM

That Arts Degree Is Paying Off

A survey of people who have earned degrees in the arts find they are doing relatively well, although their education didn’t provide much guidance on managing a career.


October 16 • 4:00 PM

How (Some) Economists Are Like Doomsday Cult Members

Cognitive dissonance and clinging to paradigms even in the face of accumulated anomalous facts.


October 16 • 2:00 PM

The Latest—and Most Mysterious—Player in the Nasty Battle Over Net Neutrality

As the FCC considers how to regulate Internet providers, the telecom industry’s stealth campaign for hearts and minds encompasses everything from art installations to LOLcats.


October 16 • 12:00 PM

How Many Ads Is Too Many Ads?

The conundrum of online video advertising.


October 16 • 11:00 AM

Unlocking Consciousness

A study of vegetative patients closes in on the nature of consciousness.


October 16 • 10:00 AM

The False Promises of Higher Education

Danielle Henderson spent six years and $60,000 on college and beyond. The effects of that education? Not as advertised.


October 16 • 8:00 AM

Faster Justice, Closer to Home: The Power of Community Courts

Community courts across the country are fighting judicial backlog and lowering re-arrest rates.


October 16 • 6:00 AM

Killing Your Husband to Save Yourself

Without proper legal instruments, women with abusive partners are often forced to make a difficult choice: kill or be killed.


October 16 • 4:00 AM

Personality Traits Linked to Specific Diseases

New research finds neurotic people are more likely to suffer a serious health problem.


October 16 • 2:00 AM

Comparing Apples to the Big Apple: Yes, Washington, D.C., Is More Expensive Than New York City

Why shouldn’t distant locales tied to jobs in the urban core count in a housing expenditure study?


October 15 • 4:00 PM

Why Asian American Parents Are the Least Likely to Spank Their Kids

Highly educated, middle-class parents are less likely to use corporal punishment to discipline their children than less-educated, working-class, and poor parents.


October 15 • 2:00 PM

The Federal Government’s New Doctor Payments Website Is Worthy of a Recall

Charles Ornstein takes a test drive using the federal government’s new website for drug and device payments and finds it virtually unusable.


October 15 • 12:00 PM

How Cosmetic Companies Get Away With Pseudoscience

Anti-aging creams make absurd claims that they repair DNA damage or use stem-cell treatments. When cosmetics companies and dermatologists partner to maximize profits, who is responsible for protecting the consumer?


October 15 • 10:00 AM

What Big Data Can Tell Us About the Things We Eat

Pizza might be the only thing that can bring men and women together.


October 15 • 9:04 AM

‘Looking’ at Art in the Smartphone Age

Technology is a great way to activate gallery space, but it shouldn’t take it over.


October 15 • 8:00 AM

A Brief History of High Heels

How what was once standard footwear for 16th-century Persian horsemen became “fashion’s most provocative accessory.”


October 15 • 7:22 AM

Advice for Emergency Alert Systems: Don’t Cry Wolf

A survey finds college students don’t always take alerts seriously.


October 15 • 6:00 AM

The Battle Over High School Animal Dissection

Is the biology class tradition a useful rite of passage or a schoolroom relic?


October 15 • 4:00 AM

Green Surroundings Linked to Higher Student Test Scores

New research on Massachusetts schoolchildren finds a tangible benefit to regular exposure to nature.


Follow us


How to Water a Farm in Sandy Ground

Physicists investigate how to grow food more efficiently in fine-grained soil.

Unlocking Consciousness

A study of vegetative patients closes in on the nature of consciousness.

Advice for Emergency Alert Systems: Don’t Cry Wolf

A survey finds college students don't always take alerts seriously.

Brain’s Reward Center Does More Than Manage Rewards

Nucleus accumbens tracks many different connections in the world, a new rat study suggests.

A City’s Fingerprints Lie in Its Streets and Alleyways

Researchers propose another way to analyze the character and evolution of cities.

The Big One

One company, Amazon, controls 67 percent of the e-book market in the United States—down from 90 percent five years ago. September/October 2014 new-big-one-5

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.