Social Cognitive Studies Of Stereotyping Psychology Essay

This paper provides a social engineering model that uses social cognitive studies of stereotyping to reduce discriminatory behavior. Different strategies need to be implemented for a proper result. Contact with the outgroup, in its different types, can be helpful in reducing the perceived difference. Law implementation and policies are needed to prohibit discriminatory behavior. The media plays a role in educating people, through the use of different cognitive methods, to the dangers of behaving in a discriminatory manner. It also helps reduce stereotype, which in turn leads to a reduction in discriminatory behavior. Increasing one’s awareness and motivation against stereotyping is important, as people need to be willing to reduce stereotyping and discrimination. Eventually, these strategies would allow the person to internalize non-discriminatory values. The model offers a comprehensive method of using social cognitive studies of stereotype to reduce discriminatory behavior. This model does include shortcomings. These problems are discussed.

Social cognitive studies of stereotyping:

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Reducing discriminatory behaviour

As with many social behaviors, stereotyping is the result of the evolutionary development of brain mechanisms that help humans predict a target person’s characteristics and behaviors. Stereotypes are adaptive in that they reduce the quantity of information needed before making a judgment. Very few shared characteristics are needed before categorizing the individual into a specific group (Bodenhausen & Hugenberg, 2009). However, the downside to stereotyping is that it might lead to negative feelings (prejudice) and behaviors (discrimination) towards a person because of their group membership. Several studies have tackled stereotyping from a social cognitive perspective. Such studies should be taken together and used to reduce discriminatory behavior through contact policies, education in the media, law implementations, and increasing people’s awareness and motivation.

Social cognition posits a top-down model to stereotyping, whereby a group of characteristics are attributed to a person because of his/her belonging to a certain group. This attribution process can be explicit (i.e., controlled and requiring cognitive resources) or implicit (i.e., automatic, unintentional and requiring fewer cognitive resources) (Nosek & Riskind, 2012). Implicit social cognition is considered to be the driving force behind stereotypes, which tend to be activated upon encountering a group member, (Bodenhausen, Todd, & Richeson, 2009). These characteristics then shape one’s understanding of that person’s actions (Bodenhausen & Hugenberg, 2009). While policy and inhibitory laws can reduce explicit stereotyping, the reduction of implicit stereotyping can be used to decrease discriminatory behavior.

Stereotyping involves the categorization of people into groups and the perception that people in the outgroup are qualitatively different from those in the ingroup (Bodenhausen & Richeson, 2010; Bodenhausen & Todd, 2010). There is often a causal theory that portrays how group characteristics are causally related (e.g., Mexicans are of low socioeconomic status because they are lazy) (Bodenhausen & Todd, 2010). As such, perceivers use activated knowledge to guide the encoding of any information, and use the contents of the structure to form impressions of a target (Macrae & Bodenhausen, 2000). Several processes distort our perception of people in all types of settings. Stereotyping has a direct impact on everyday life. For example, the quality of doctor-patient interaction can be predicted by the doctor’s implicit biases (Penner et al., 2010). Encoding processes will be discussed and will be related to discrimination. In addition, ways to reduce stereotype-consistent processing of information will be explored.

Social cognitive research only recently moved from the description of stereotypes to attempting to uncover ways to reduce stereotypes, prejudice, and discriminatory behaviors. While stereotypes are more often than not automatic, prejudice and discrimination are not inevitable. The survival need for group stereotyping no longer exists, and while hierarchy might still have a purpose in society, there is no necessity for it to be set according to one’s membership to one group or another. Psychologists have suggested different methods to decrease discriminatory behavior. While some methods are highly concrete/behavioral (i.e., contact and implementation of social norms, laws, and policies), others are more abstract/cognitive (i.e., using cognitive techniques and increasing one’s awareness, motivations, etc.). These methods are highly inter-related and one is rarely implemented without the others.

A two-dimensional model has been proposed where a group’s relative social status is shaped according to its competence and warmth (Fiske, Cuddy, & Glick, 2006). Groups judged as high on both dimensions have been found to elicit admiration, while groups judged as neither warm nor competent elicit feelings of contempt. Ambivalence is seen towards groups that are competent but not warm (e.g., Asian Americans), or warm but not competent (e.g., old people) (Bodenhausen, Kang, & Peery, 2012). This ambivalence is then reduced by increasing prejudice and discrimination towards the group (Bodenhausen & Todd, 2010). When shown ambiguous/neutral faces of members of and outgroup, people tend to perceive them as hostile, e.g., African Americans by white Americans (Hugenberg & Bodenhausen, 2003) and Southern Italians by Northern Italians (Castano, Yzerbyt, Bourguignon, & Seron, 2002).

Groups judged as warm elicit anti-discriminatory behavior. Those judged as lacking warmth elicit attack and institutionalized segregation. When it comes to competence, groups seen as competent (e.g., Asians) elicit feelings of convenient cooperation, while those seen as lacking competence (e.g., homeless people) cause feeling of indifference (Cuddy, Fiske, & Glick, 2007). Interestingly, there is a general tendency towards inaction under uncertainty. While stereotyping of ambiguous faces is more or less automatic, stereotyping that would lead to discriminatory behavior results in inaction when the stimulus is ambiguous (Hugenberg, Bodenhausen, & Mclain, 2006). This illustrates the pervasiveness of stereotyping. Different settings will either elicit positive or negative stereotypes. If given the appropriate circumstances, negative stereotypes may generate discriminatory behavior. The ubiquity and automaticity of stereotypes will surely remain present. However, it is no longer an adaptive trait and should be tackled to reduce discrimination. A strategy to reduce discrimination that involves contact, education through media, law and policy implementation, and increasing one’s awareness and motivation will be presented.


Contact provides a good strategy to break the stereotype-wall between groups. By itself, it cannot eliminate discrimination, but can aid in its reduction. Several types of contact, discussed in this section, can help people engage in a more positive attitude about outgroups, thus making it less likely that they engage in discriminatory behavior.

The effectiveness of contact theory is contested. Different conditions may be necessary in order for contact to work. A meta-analysis of 515 studies on contact has shown that there is a significant negative relationship with prejudice (Pettigrew & Tropp, 2006). The optimal conditions initially thought to guarantee the success of contact with an outgroup may only be facilitating conditions (Crisp & Turner, 2009).

However, contact is not always possible, especially in areas of high segregation. In such cases, learning that a friend engages in positive interactions with people of the outgroup (i.e., extended contact) can decrease one’s own prejudice. The more outgroup acquaintances one’s friend has, the weaker one’s prejudice would be. Studies have shown that positive attitudes in children towards refugees was mediated via extended contact (Cameron, Rutland, Brown, & Douch, 2006; Turner, Hewstone, Voci, & Vonofakou, 2008; Paolini, Hewstone, Cairns, & Voci, 2004).

Even extended contact might be difficult in some segregated areas. In such cases, imagined positive interactions can be useful. Social cognitive research has shown that imagining intergroup interactions can result in more positive perceptions of people from the outgroup (Crisp & Turner, 2009). Spending five minutes imagining a strong woman reduced implicit gender stereotyping (Blair, Ma, & Lenton, 2001). Participants who were asked to imagine a positive interaction were more likely to express positive attitudes towards the outgroup than participants who did not imagine such interactions. They also scored lower on intergroup anxiety (Crisp & Turner, 2009). These methods may be problematic when implemented. Imagining positive contact ensures safety. However, when contact eventually occurs with someone from an outgroup in a highly segregated area, there is a possibility for a negative interaction. The imagining contact method in this case would backfire.

Another problem pertaining to contact exists. When one is worried about appearing prejudiced, the easiest way to reduce this possibility is to avoid any contact with the outgroup. People motivated to appear non-prejudiced to adhere to the social norms are most likely to avoid contact or to engage in avoidant behavior during interaction when contact is unavoidable (Plant, 2004). This action does not reduce discrimination; it merely avoids it. Kawakami, Phills, Steele, & Dovidio (2007) and Phills, Kawakami, Tabi, Nadolny, & Inzlicht (2011) found that approach strategies reduce implicit prejudice significantly more than avoidance. In other cases, concerns about prejudice results in pro-social behavior. White Americans who were instructed to avoid prejudice towards African Americans behaved in a less anxious manner than those who were not instructed to do so. In the same manner, participants with high levels of anti-gay bias were pro-social towards people from the gay community, when they were keen on exhibiting egalitarian beliefs about gender (Dasgupta & Rivera, 2006; Shelton, 2003).

An explanation of this dualistic phenomenon is offered by Vorauer & Turpie (2004) who posited that low prejudice people are more likely to exhibit avoidant behavior when instructed to not be prejudice, while high prejudice people benefit from these instructions and act in a more pro-social manner. This suggests that different policies should target groups of people based on their levels of prejudice in different manners (Nosek & Rinskind, 2012). From these findings, policies regarding people with high levels of prejudice would ensure contact while clearly stating that prejudice should be avoided. On the other hand, people who are low on prejudice should not be reminded of the need to avoid prejudice. The result would be a decrease in discrimination through policy making via ensuring contact.

Strong and consistent contact would eventually lead to individuation. This occurs when one collects enough information about a person that this person forms their own cognitive category (Bodenhausen & Todd, 2010). Through individuation, a person would no longer be discriminated against as they would be seen for who they truly are. However, this requires a high level of contact and may not be possible in areas of hot contact.

Contact, in its various forms, provides a clear basis for reducing discriminator behavior. By itself, it cannot obliterate discriminatory behavior, but will aid in reducing discriminatory behavior, as outgroups would be seen as less different than originally thought. Although there are different problems associated with the implementation of contact, it still provides a concrete basis for reducing discrimination.

Law Implementations & Policy Making

Policies may be unable to completely abolish discrimination, but careful attention to the institution and implementation of policies can reduce it. This section demonstrates means by which new policies can be introduced to make discriminatory behavior unacceptable and how authority figures can be made more accountable for the implementation of existent policies.

Laws and policies ensure the implementation and sustainability of anti-discriminatory behaviors. Awareness of potential bias in decision making could help judges, physicians, etc. in adopting an internal approach that enables them to continually question the objectivity of their decision making (Nosek & Riskind, 2012). For example, a study of Jewish and Arab judges in Israel found that they are less likely to detain suspects from their ingroup during bail hearings (Gazal-Ayal & Sulitzeanu-Kenan, 2010). Assuming that such decisions are unintended, subjectivity can be reduced by motivating the judges to constantly question their decision when faced with a potential bias.

Raising awareness through policy making is only possible when one is adamant against discrimination. In many instances, people have no intent on decreasing discrimination. For instance, resumes with Swedish-sounding names receive more callbacks in Sweden than do ones with Arab names. In such cases, anti-discriminatory behavior could be forced through blinding the perceiver to the stereotype cue. This method is foolproof in avoiding both unintended and planned discriminatory behavior, even if it is not always possible (Greenwald & Banaji, 1995). An increase in hiring women in orchestras was witnessed after the introduction of blind auditions (Nosik & Riskind, 2012). Another possible use for this method would be through written reports of the decision in different institutions that omit one’s social group characteristics, and have the reports reviewed by an independent person in the system. The result would be the decrease of discriminatory behavior in the workplace, legal system, etc., as the person making decisions would be held accountable for any bias that occurs.

Of equal importance is the role social norms and laws play in one’s actions and feelings towards a certain outgroup. Behavioral signals are subject to strategic manipulation (Bodenhausen & Todd, 2010). By making prejudice and discriminatory behavior intolerable, discrimination would decrease as people would not want to be stigmatized or reprimanded for their actions. Prohibiting any form of discrimination towards African Americans in the States was a reason behind the decrease in such actions: people thought twice before breaking laws.

Raising consciousness against discrimination has been also found to decrease the latter (Greenwald & Banaji, 1995). By implementing laws that make discrimination unacceptable, people will be aware of the possibility of discrimination and would be less motivated to move from stereotype to discriminatory behavior. Eventually, the person will internalize the social need to decrease discriminatory behavior. One’s personal values would then include anti-discriminatory behavior (Bodenhausen et al., 2009). The main problem resides in assuming that the problem of discrimination towards a certain group is solved simply by implementing policies (Adams, Tormala, & O’Brien, 2006). When such an assumption is made, discrimination is denied, and more subtle forms of discrimination are used, such as not giving a homosexual interviewee the same time for an interview (Hebl, Foster, Mannix, & Dovidio, 2002) or being less social with obese women in customer service (King, Hebl, Shapiro, Singletary, & Turner, 2006).

Despite the best intentions of policy makers, some policies result in an adverse effect. While affirmative action is thought of as a method of reducing discrimination, it is still a form of discrimination in favor of a certain group (Greenwald & Banaji, 1995). By and large, policy makers should never assume that policies abolish discrimination. Policies should ensure the decrease of even the most subtle discriminatory behavior. Policies should also make sure that they are not detrimental. One way of ensuring people engage in policies is with the help of the media.

Education in the Media

Other than explicitly broadcasting policies and laws, the media plays an important role in implicitly educating people. Many cognitive methods can be used to enhance people’s engagement in reducing discrimination. The role of the media and the way cognitive methods can be used to help decrease people’s discriminatory behavior will be explored in this section. Given enough time, people would eventually internalize these methods.

Different cognitive methods have been researched, though their implementation in the media remains lacking. One method is stereotype negation, in which individuals are given excessive training in negating stereotypes. It results in a reduction in stereotype activation (Kawakami, Dovidio, Moll, Hermsen, & Russin, 2000). Such a method can be used in children’s shows to help them avoid stereotyping.

Reducing activated prejudice can also be achieved using implicit evaluative conditioning: viewing stimuli that pair an outgroup with a positive adjective (Olson & Fazio, 2006). This technique decreased prejudice against Muslims and Middle Easterners in the U.S. (French, Franz, Phelan, & Blaine, 2013). Evaluative conditioning and stereotype negation can be implemented in shows like Sesame Street, where children would be told of the negative consequences of stereotyping. Their integration in the media and culture provides a method for long-lasting bias reduction.

Exposure to beliefs and values can reduce implicit biases (Sinclair, Huntsinger, Skorinko, & Hardin, 2005). This method can be implemented through television shows that portray society’s different values and cultures. The problems regarding this strategy are the uncertainty of the duration of the shift and of whether the intervention can in fact change the unwanted biases (Nosek & Rinskind, 2012). However, when these shows are continuously played in the media, the uncertainties pertaining to the strategy become easy to neglect.

One can avoid unwanted biases by taking the perspective of the other group (Dovidio et al., 2004). By adopting another person’s perspective, one projects his/her cognitive representations on the other. This in turn changes the dispositional attributes to situational factors, and ultimately reduces stereotyping (Bodenhausen et al., 2009). Several studies showed the reduction of negative attitudes towards an outgroup, all of which were mediated by an increase in situational attributions regarding the target (Todd, Bodenhausen, Richeson, & Galinsky, 2011). The portrayal of the situational attributes of Muslims in the show “All-American Muslim” may aid in reducing bias. After watching the show, white Americans would be less likely to view Muslims as terrorists and would recognize the similarities of their reactions.

Similarly to people’s reactions, implicit bias is malleable, and can change and even be reversed depending on the situation. Viewing images of admired African Americans and of infamous white Americans significantly reduced implicit racial bias (Barden, Maddox, Petty, & Brewer, 2004; Dasgupta & Greenwald, 2001). This suggests an important role of the media in portraying people of different groups in an equally positive way. The portrayal of Arabs in a positive fashion in European media would help reduce the European bias and eventually lead to decreased discrimination in the workplace, in airport checks, etc.

Different movies and shows have made fun of the suppression of stereotypic thoughts (e.g., Austin Powers, Madagascar, etc.). Actively attempting to suppress stereotypic thoughts is only a good strategy for a short time. This attempt does not last and eventually results in a hyper-accessibility of the stereotype (Macrae & Bodenhausen, 2000; Payne, Lambert, & Jacoby, 2002). A way for stereotype suppression to work is through self-focus. When the self becomes the center of attention, people are more likely, using feedback control, to behave according to internalized standards and norms (Macrae & Bodenhausen, 2000). The stereotype would then be suppressed by its corresponding social norm (Whyer, Sherman, & Stroessner, 1998). Given enough time, effortful control of unwanted biases becomes automatized (Moskowitz, Li, & Kirk, 2004). However, the initiation of stereotype suppression remains problematic because of possible hyper-accessibility.

Rather than attempting to suppress stereotypic thoughts, endorsement of multicultural diversity has been more effective at reducing prejudice (Wolsko, Park, Judd, & Wittenbrink, 2000). People for whom multiculturalism is salient are less biased towards people from different cultures than those for whom active suppression is salient (Bodenhausen et al., 2009). Television shows that celebrate multicultural diversity, rather than showing, for example, a token black person, would then help in reducing discrimination against the outgroup. Multiculturalism would be seen as something positive and differences between groups less likely to be feared.

By constantly broadcasting shows that include messages pertaining to stereotype negation, celebrating diversity, and taking the perspective of others into consideration, the media would eventually succeed at helping to reduce stereotypes and discriminatory behavior. People would ultimately internalize these values and will endorse them implicitly. Internalization can be enhanced through motivation and awareness.

Increasing Awareness and Motivation

While awareness and motivation are not directly related to decreasing discrimination, their increase in the long run results in the internalization of non-discriminatory values. This section offers several methods that help in increasing awareness and motivation, and explains how this increase leads to non-discriminatory beliefs.

Different processes are involved in increasing awareness and motivation to decrease stereotyping. Focusing one’s attention on the source of an implicit bias is enough to reduce or eliminate the bias (Greenwald & Banaji, 1995). Motivation facilitates the reduction of stereotypes. One must possess available cognitive resources to act against the automaticity of the stereotype to be able to reduce it (Bodenhausen et al., 2009). The desire to control prejudice can be triggered by a need to decrease cognitive dissonance, especially when one’s automatic reactions are in clash with one’s explicit beliefs about the outgroup (Gawronski, Peters, Brochu, & Strack, 2008).

When there is no reason to suppress a stereotype after awareness, one is likely to keep the stereotype. Furthermore, a stereotype will increase if there is reason to increase it (e.g., for self-esteem purposes) (Greenwald & Banaji, 1995). In a study on gender roles, Dasgupta & Rivera (2006) showed that conscious egalitarian beliefs and behavioral control are both essential for a decrease in prejudice and discriminatory behavior. One motivating factor without the other was not enough to suppress prejudice. This study illustrates the importance of availability of different cognitive resources to reduce bias. Policies should take into account constraints of intention, control, and awareness on human behavior, along with the roles awareness, opportunity, motivation, and ability in the desire to execute a policy (Nosek & Riskind, 2012).

The reversal or deactivation of implicit processes requires motivation, awareness, and a sufficient amount of information about the individual (Bodenhausen & Hugenberg, 2009). Because a person can be linked to different categories, it is the context that triggers/primes one category over another. A person chooses one over the other through a process called spreading inhibition (Macrae & Bodenhausen, 2000; Quinn & Macrae, 2005). Associates of one category then become less accessible in the person’s mind and others are activated (Bodenhausen et al., 2012; Neumann & DeSchepper, 1992; Sinclair & Kunda, 1999). Being aware of this process, one could choose to only focus on positive stereotypes, as it is the negative ones that are linked to discrimination.

Another model that accounts for the variation in attention is the flexibility model (Sherman, 2001). When stereotype-confirming information is encountered, the stimulus is expected. An assimilation effect emerges where attention is low (Bodenhausen & Hugenberg, 2009). On the other hand, when stereotype-inconsistent information is seen, attention is drawn and one becomes more perceptive of the stereotype violation (Sherman, 2001). This results in a contrast effect where the meaning of the stimulus differs from the expected idea (Bodenhausen & Hugenberg, 2009). The increase in attention can be beneficial in reducing discriminatory behavior. During contact with the outgroup, people from this group will eventually behave in a non-stereotypic manner. The perceiver will then be more attentive to the actions, which might reduce the perceived outgroup-ingroup difference. The decrease in difference would blur the lines between ingroup-outgroup, making one less discriminant.

While increasing awareness and motivation is not involved in directly reducing anti-discriminatory behavior, the end result is an internalization of values. This internalization is the main component of a long-term decrease of discriminatory behavior (Nosek & Riskind, 2012). The littering campaign that took place during the 1970’s in the United States first began with the Woodsy Owl Act, which was then supported by the media with, “Give a hoot, Don’t Pollute” as their slogan. Within a period of ten years, people had internalized values against littering. Anti-discriminatory behavior could follow the same path.

Contact, law implementation and policy making, education in the media, and increasing awareness and motivation are separate concepts that become intertwined when put to work. These four strategies are needed to ensure a proper and sustainable decrease in discriminatory behavior. Contact cannot work by itself if people refuse to be aware of the source of the stereotype or if they are not motivated to reduce the stereotype. Policy is needed to increase people’s motivation to act in a non-discriminatory manner. Media aids in increasing one’s awareness of the invalidity of the stereotype. These four strategies provide a sound basis for a successful social engineering model to reduce discriminatory behavior.

Within this model, contact would provide a chance to become acquainted with people from different groups and perceive that the difference between groups is smaller than originally thought. Law implementation and policy-making force people to abide by anti-discriminatory rules. Education in the media would help in broadcasting the message, and would use different cognitive methods to help people internalize non-discriminatory values. Increasing motivation and awareness would facilitate the internalization of values. Given sufficient time, this model would result in an internalization of non-discriminatory values.

This model falls short in a few areas. Contact is not always possible. The use of extended contact or imagined contact could be problematic when the eventual contact is not as positive as one had imagined. Policies, on the other hand, if not thought out properly, could provide a net under which subtle forms of discrimination can occur. They might also backfire in becoming discriminatory in their own right, whether it be through affirmative action or otherwise. Education through the media requires that media companies be interested in providing the message. Similarly, an increase in awareness and motivation requires people to be interested in such changes. Nevertheless, the suggested model offers a process by which discrimination can be reduced using social cognitive research on stereotype.

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