Stereotypes are rigid clusters of overly simplified social and cultural characteristics conjoined into a single, imagined identity or schematic theory used to label a social group and assess members’ character, attitudes, and behaviors. They offer comfortable, convenient filters to make sense of complexity and are inherent in the act of social categorization and perception. Based on beliefs, knowledge, and expectations, they often have moral and judgmental overtones, which are generally viewed as derogatory and offensive. Group stereotypes are never grounded in holistic descriptions of heterogeneous cultures or social groups but are centered on some initially observed cultural behavior or visual cue. This cue is then interpreted using the stereotyper’s frame of reference and meaning structure, homogenized, and overgeneralized in an attempt at differentiation. Intergroup differences are minimized and intragroup differences exaggerated using confirmatory bias and routine simplification. Sometimes these judgmental snapshots stem from distortions or misunderstandings about a behavior or attribute seen in an initial cross-cultural or cross-group encounter. Rapid superficial assessments then combine with established assumptions—often based on gender, race, age, ethnicity, culture, or “strangeness.” Once established, a stereotype’s condensing symbolism becomes tenacious and is used to justify subsequent actions toward the stereotyped group, a fact that has been apparent in colonizing situations, group conflicts, business dealings, or justifications of the status quo. People use stereotypes to rationalize asymmetrical power situations, validate prejudice, or in extreme cases to justify hostility, oppression, violence, war, genocide, or religious fanaticism.
While there has never been a comprehensive cross-cultural examination of stereotyping, it appears that stereotypic thinking is widespread and serves multiple purposes. The most important seems to be efficient information processing, memory formation, and categorization during enculturation, times of change, or when encountering a perceived threat. Stereotypes are used to simplify perceivers’ thinking in new situations that require processing large amounts of information. They allow individuals and groups to rely on previously stored knowledge, conclusions, and assumptions, eliminating the need to assess ambiguous or disquieting information that brings their assumptions into question. As such, stereotypes can be part of coping strategies because they keep groups distinct.
Stereotypes can emerge from a realistic visual image that is overgeneralized using a classic logical fallacy; for example, honored Lakota warriors did wear long feathered headdresses, therefore all Indians wear them. As a result, stereotypes are held to be “true” even when they have been recognized to be only partially correct. This process occurs because stereotypes reflect societal desires, fears, projections, and imaginative speculations, which are more important to people than “facts.” People want their assessments to be true because they uphold self-worth and cultural esteem; stereotypes recursively gain this pseudo-authenticity through repetitive, unquestioned use learned through standard processes of enculturation. Stereotypes also prescriptively define cultural expectations of acceptable behavior or proffer immutable “how not to behave” rules. This usage stems from the term’s original (1725) denotation: a stereotype was the metal plate used in cylindrical printing presses. Just as there is the expectation that the metal “a” in the cylinder will print the letter “a” on the paper, so stereotyped social categories are fixed and conventionalized duplications. The category “mother” includes expectations of how mothers should act. If the stereotype is that all mothers are kind and gentle, when a person sees different behavior—such as yelling at a crying child—he or she jumps to the conclusion that that person is a “bad” mother. This assessment is done without obtaining any information about the circumstances. As ascriptions, stereotypes thus produce prototype effects.
Stereotypes work best if there is little contact with, and first-hand knowledge about, the people categorized. In this way, the categorizers do not have to deal with intracultural and intercultural diversity, which is messy. Americans today have little knowledge about American Indians, yet everyone theoretically can recognize an Indian. What they recognize, however, is the stereotype, based on phenotypes. This situation allows stereotypes to flourish and gain permanency because stereotypes are about the unknown but presumed known. And what is known is arbitrary and varies by culture.
Psychology has studied stereotypes to a greater extent than anthropology. While anthropology theorizes the cultural content of stereotypes in intragroup relations, psychology is interested in the mental mechanisms by which stereotypes operate and influence interpersonal and intergroup perception and interaction as processes. A wealth of psychological theories have been developed to address the individual mechanisms that give rise to stereotypic thinking and the cognitive and motivational factors that contribute to their formation, maintenance, application, change and tenacity. Social identity theory sees stereotypes as a form of compensatory narcissism, while information theory views them as a way to encapsulate information compactly to ensure survival. Much research needs to be done to develop a unified theory of stereotypes and stereotyping that can explain why individuals and social groups stereotype and can assess its evolutionary implications and consequences, yet account for stereotyping as a cultural phenomena that varies by culture, time, and context.
- Hilton, J. L., & von Hippel, W. (1996). Stereotypes. Annual Review of Psychology, 47, 237-271.
- Macrae, C. N. et al. (1994). Stereotypes as energy-saving devices: A peek inside the cognitive toolbox. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 66(1), 37-47.
- Snyder, M. (1981). On the self-perpetuating nature of social stereotypes. In D. L. Hamilton (Ed.), Cognitive processes in stereotyping and intergroup behavior. New Jersey: Lawrence Ehrlbaum Associates.