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Living in a socially diverse world

Stereotypes are often described as a fixed idea about what or how something is like (McFarland, Lev-Arey & Ziegert, 2003). These ideas are developed when individuals are unable or unwilling to obtain all the necessary information to make a fair judgment about other individuals or situations. The stereotype threat is an apt term taken from present research concerning stereotypes. It focuses on a social psychological predicament that can arise from widely known negative stereotypes about one’s group or self (McFarland & Ziegert, 2003). The existence of such a stereotype means that anything one does or any features that one may conform to; make the stereotype more plausible in the eyes of others, and perhaps even in one’s own eyes (McFarland & Ziegert, 2003).

Generally theories of stereotype threat are broadly classified into two groups; those explaining stereotyping in terms of social cultural causes and those explaining stereotyping in terms of intrapersonal processes (Marx & Stapel, 2006). Among the social cultural theories of stereotyping is Tajfel’s social identity theory (Ashforth & Mael, 1989), which assumes individual motives in achieving or maintaining positive social identities. Such motives may lead to positive differentiation of the in-group from other groups, though this, by itself would not entail the existence of stereotypes. Intrapersonal theories of stereotyping follow cognitive stance in which stereotypes are conceived as categories used to cope with information overload (Greenwald, McGhee & Schwartz, 1998).

Whatever, the theoretical approach, stereotypes are in general defined as a set of consensual beliefs of one group about the attributes shared by members of another group (Wheeler & Petty, 2001). One notion for stereotypes is that they are distortions of reality. They are generally viewed as categories which wrongly represent the reality to which they refer (Greenwald, McGhee, & Schwartz, 1998). Hence, phenomena such as bias, prejudice, and discrimination are seen by social psychologists as arising out of the normal human process of categorization (Greenwald & Schwartz, 1998). It is implied that the real world is being distorted and simplified when stimuli are categorized. However, there seem to be three problematic assumptions about the categorization process: the assumption of the inevitability of bias categorization, the assumption that categories have fixed structure, and the assumption that categories are performed and enduring (Marx & Stapel 2006).

Stereotypes also contain knowledge about variability (Abrams, Eller & Bryant, 2005). This is important because when an individual see a group as more invariable, they are more willing to generalize from a small number of group members to other group members and to the group as a whole (Abrams & Bryant, 2205). They also seem to be more willing to apply the stereotype of the group to individual group member (Ashforth & Mael, 1983).

There may also be a concurrence between stereotypes and situations that initiate stereotype threat. Rather than being an omnipresent phenomenon, stereotype threats are more acutely felt when persons find themselves in situations about which stereotypes occur (Spencer, Steele & Quinn, 1999). Recently a new theory offering a third perspective, suggests that stereotype relevant situations can place targets of a stereotype in an uncomfortable predicament that may lead to poorer performance outcomes (Osborne, 2001; McFarland, & Ziegert, 2003). It was proposed that simply being in a situation where negative group stereotype could be applied to the self may have significant effects on the target. Thus, according to this theory it was no longer necessary for there to be a specific, bigoted other or for the stereotyped target to endorse or internalize the stereotypes. Rather, it was enough for the stereotype to be in the air (Osborne, 2001; McFarland & Ziegert, 2003).

For example normally high achieving females sometimes score less well on mathematical problems when they are asked to perform in an environment where they feel out numbered by men (Spencer & Quinn, 1999). In this situation, women presumably become more aware of the negative stereotype that many people hold about them (e.g. men are better at maths & the fear of being perceived as mathematically inept) (Spencer & Quinn, 1999). However, women do not experience stereotype threat decrements on math tests when in the presents of female experimenter who is competent in math or when they have been reminded of female competence in other areas (Spencer & Quinn, 1999). Stereotypes can thus become self fulfilling prophecy, in which women actually behave in a manner that reinforces the negative stereotype about them (Sue & Kitano, 1973).

What Factors Contribute to Stereotype Threat

Different theories as to the underlying factors or mechanisms that lead to stereotype threat keep emerging. The role of anxiety has been examined as well as the possible combined roles of anxiety and diminished working memory, but exactly how the two interact to affect performance has yet to be fully explicated (Osborne, 2001).Some studies have found that measured anxiety partially mediates the effects (Osborne, 2001; Sue & Kitano, 1973) while other studies have found that psychological indicators of stress can accompany perceived stereotype threat (Marx & Stapel, 2006; Spencer & Quinn, 1999). Anxiety as a trigger seems to have the most significant support for being at least a contributor to the observed effects, though its exact role in the process continues to be investigated (Osborne, 2001). Expectancy has been suggested as perhaps playing a role in these threat situations. It is plausible that when a test taker is given a seemingly creditable reason why they might not perform well, their self efficacy may decrease along with their expectancy for success (Wheeler & Petty, 2001).This reduce expectancy may result in lower performance. However, further research examining the role of expectancy in stereotype threat has been met with mixed results. There are a great many explanations involving motivation (McFarland & Ziegert 2003), anxiety (Osborne, 2001), and cognitive processes (Greenwald & Schwartz, 1998), but to date there is little evidence favouring any one of them as contributing factor to stereotype treat (Whaley, 1998). Of cause it is possible that many or all of these factors needs to be present, acting in concert, or some factors may be more important in given situations than others.

Other underlying factor in Stereotypes threat is that they can be learned through the process of socialisation (Hess & Hinson, 2006). Children learn many of their attitudes and prejudices from their environment and from the people around them. Some researchers suggest that children under the age of seven are cognitively immature (do not have the necessary knowledge to understand) and therefore cannot avoid making judgements based on learned prejudice (Hess & Hinson, 2006). However, many children and adolescents experience social exclusion based on their race/ ethnicity while interacting with peers. Research suggests that children and adolescents are six times more likely to have a same race friend than to have a cross race friend. Same race peer preferences may be related to the tendency to categorize people by race and than be reinforced by racial/ ethnic group stereotypes (Hess & Hinson, 2006).

Research in this area also proposes that parents play a role in their children’s learned prejudice attitudes. It is likely that the developments of racial and ethnic attitudes are picked up from their parent’s modelled behaviour and attitudes (Hess & Hinson, 2006). Although parents seem to be a potent influence in their children’s stereotype development, children are also influenced by other adults, peers, and the media. Studies suggest that children who watch more television tend to hold stronger gender stereotypes (Hess & Hinson, 2006). Perhaps, stereotyping is an inevitable reflection of young children’s natural tendency to classify. Nevertheless it is worth pointing out that knowledge about stereotype is different from actually endorsing them. Moreover, it is not inevitable that stereotypes degenerate into prejudice and that children can learn to define differences as deficiencies (Hess & Hinson, 2006). Negative evaluations of others arise when individuals lack contact with those that are different from them (Dovidio, Gaertner, Validzic, Matoka, Johnson & Frazier, 1997).

How can Stereotype Threat be Reduce

One of the most common approaches to changing stereotypes is to provide people with information about the characteristics of a stereotyped group by having them interact with each other (Abrams & Bryant, 2005). This is known as the contact hypothesis, and the idea is that stereotypes will be dispelled once people get a chance to learn about individuals from groups which are not familiar to them (Abrams & Bryant, 2005). However, it is worth noting that the contact hypothesis is not always supported. For example, the situations in which the contact occurs are not always set up in a manner that allow the individuals to really get to know each other, and some cases the situation may even promote intergroup hostility. Furthermore, contact with prejudiced individuals may intensify the stereotypes rather than dispel them (Dovidio & Frazier, 1997).

Another theory by (Dovidio & Frazier, 1997) proposed a recategorization theory of prejudice reduction that suggests that cooperation creates conditions under which we begin to see members of the in- group and the out- group as one broader group. In recategorization, social categorization changes from a perception of two groups (us and them) to a perception of one group (we). This research supports the theory that working with another group is useful in making attitudes towards that group more positive, and demonstrates that this change could occur as a result of recategorization (Dovidio &Frazier, 1997).

Because contact is not always successful in producing stereotype change, other approaches to changing stereotypes and prejudice have been proposed. One idea is to attempt to get people to avoid thinking about each other in terms of their group membership at all, and focus only on their individual features instead. Their approach is known as colour- blind (colorblind) perspective (Van Laar & Sidanius, 2001). However, it turns out that an individual’s group membership is important to them (Wheeler & Petty, 2001), and as a result, group membership is not easily ignored. Moreover, most researchers have suggested that ignoring group membership entirely is not particularly effective (Whaley, 1998; Wheeler & Petty, 2001).

Research also demonstrates that increased contact between minority and majority group members reduces majority group members stereotyping, prejudice, and indifference towards minorities, especially when that contact is properly structured (Abrams & Bryant, 2005). Although this is an understudied area by stereotype threat researchers, some evidence consistent with the hypothesis that cross group contact and friendship may reduce stereotype threat can be found. For example, Hess & Hinson, (2006) indicated that one of the strongest predictors for over all grades in African American students is the number of white friends they have, even when factors such as socioeconomic status has been controlled for (Chavous & Helarie, 2002). Further, recent work by Abrams & Bryant, (2006) suggests that positive prior contact between members of stereotyped groups and non- stereotyped groups may decrease the perceptions of threat related to stereotypes.

A tremendous amount of theoretical and empirical attention has been directed towards determining the nature of stereotype threat and discovering factors that contribute to its formation and change. Although some critics have challenged some of the underpinnings of stereotype threat theory, the effect has been demonstrated in a robust fashion in several studies for almost a decade. Yet many of the issues mentioned by critics warrant further investigation. Just how large a part stereotype threat plays in our overall performance within society is yet to be clarified. Whether it operates alone, or in contrast with a myriad of other factors is also yet to be determined. The most important potential outcome of stereotype threat research would undoubtedly be to find some kind of prevention. In order to do this, it is necessary to clarify the mechanism or mechanisms responsible for the reduction of stereotype threat. Research in the areas of anxiety and unconscious (implicit) stereotyping seems to have the most promising results, and could be more thoroughly researched.

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