Discuss the influence that activated stereotypes can exert specifically on behaviour

The notion and action of stereotypes refers to the categories people use to understand their world. It involves the organisation of certain internalised perceptions of people, places and things. These mental images act as templates or a guide to group a certain type of behaviour (Lipman 1922). These images are widely shared generalisations and have been observed to exert a powerful effect on the cognition and behaviour of human beings (Bargh, Chen and Burrows, 1996). Stereotypes are quickly formed but they are also very difficult to modify or change once they have been established. This may be due to the process of acquiring stereotypical labels to code information.

For example, a person will make judgements on some focal dimension of the act itself and then recruit any other peripheral information that might help them to categorise the behaviour. For example, a person will often believe that Line A is longer than Line B, if they have prior knowledge that Line A’s had been longer than Line B’s in a previous situation, they will likely assume this again. The same occurs when we interact with different people, we make assumptions on previous information given about a person e.g. the dizzy blonde stereotype, the fiery redhead etc.

Research has shown that activated stereotypes can have a positive or negative affect on a person's behaviour. For example, a behavioural change by the actor may occur if they are surrounded by bits of information in their environment that leads them to conclude that they should act in a certain way. For example, Steele and Aronson, (1995) demonstrate that racial stereotypes can have a profound affect on certain individuals completing an academic test. The inclusion of a racial related item on a standardised test that was administrated to a group of African Americans lead them to score less than half the results they achieved when this racial item was not included on the test paper. Steele and Aronson (1995) argue that the racial item activated negative stereotypes about race, which then activated internal mental representations of poor academic performance. This in turn had a direct consequence to their performance ability - as the participants acted out the stereotypical behaviour of that 'group'. These findings support Becker's theory of Self Fulfilling Prophecy - whereby if a person is told repeatedly that they are not very good at academic tests, they will eventually act out this behaviour, because it is what is expected of them. This can work both ways, activated stereotypes can also boost performance if the stereotype activated is positive. For example, this notion was tested on a group of elderly participants who were asked to complete a memory test (Levy, 1996). If the participants were reinforced with positive terms associated with being elderly (e.g. wise, experienced) opposed to negative stereotypes (e.g. senile, dementia) before the test, they performed more efficiently during the test. This shows how activating different stereotypical information has an impact on the behaviour produced by the individual.

The above examples show how stereotypical information can be received as threatening information. For example, negative stereotypes enforced before mental ability or memory tests lead to negative behaviour being produced, regardless of the person's actual ability on the tasks without these stereotypes being activated. In addition, it has been shown that certain types of stereotypes are more susceptible than others to influence behaviour. Shin et al (1999) found that Asian American women performed differently on a mathematics test if they were fed different stereotypical information beforehand. Women who were reinforced with the salience of their gender before the test, performed worse than women who were not cued by a gender item. In comparison, women who were cued by a racial indicator before the test, performed better on the task, compared to a control group. Therefore, this shows how these 'women' as a group were more susceptible to the stereotype of 'women not being very good at maths' rather than ''Asian African' women are not very good at maths tasks'. Does this imply that negative stereotypes are more powerful affect on one's behaviour than positive stereotypes? Or does the latter indicate that stereotypes are largely dependent on the importance society plays on the stereotype. For example, school exam reports often come out in the summer and the newspapers often quote the gender bias in the results - e.g. girls have achieved better in English than boys. Therefore more emphasis in society is put on the gender gap, whereas there may be a more conscious effort to not focus on race - due to political climate of the recent events in the 21st Century.

Alternatively, the findings from Shin et al (1999) demonstrate the significance of the stereotype being activated is applicable to the individual in question. For example, the Asian American women would pick up on the stereotypical information about their race and gender - but perhaps if stereotypical information was about how what time they ate breakfast (assuming the stereotype that those who had breakfast would perform better) was enforced, this may not have an effect at all - as the particular stereotype is not salient for the participant group to tune into. Furthermore, Levy's (1996) findings in relation to stereotypes about the elderly was tested with younger participants and resulted in no differential affects between the two stereotypes used. Therefore, this implies that for activated stereotypes to exert a specific affect on behaviour is reliant on the stereotype being relevant to the individual in question. However, this notion has been disputed and different results have been yielded. For example, Dijksterhuis and Knipperberg (1998) demonstrate how stereotype priming can affect two different groups of people. They asked a mixed group of students to think of personality traits related to either soccer hooligans or professors. They were then asked a number of questions from the game 'trivial pursuit'. Those who were asked to think about the personality traits of soccer hooligans performed worse on the task. Dijksterhuis and Knipperberg (1998) argue that these results indicate that the students acted in a stereotype-consistent fashion after being exposed to these self-irrelevant concepts. However, these results may be taken with caution-as although the activated stereotypes were apparently not related to the students- it is arguable that they infact were. For example, students will often come into contact with professors in their academic life and they may also interact with members of the college sport teams. The stereotype of a professor would be of intelligence, with the stereotype of the soccer hooligan being the direct opposite. Therefore it could be argued that is of little surprise that Dijksterhuis and Knipperberg (1998) found the above results.

Therefore it may be relevant to ask 'how' are stereotypes internally processed so that a particular type of behaviour is reproduced from them? To explain this, Dijksterhuis and Bargh (2001) put forward the Perception-Behaviour Expressway model of social perception to shed some light. This model purposes that perception and behavioural representations is a product of the same action. This action results from overlapping connections in the brain, which influences the automatic process of the perceptional information creating action tendencies to produce the same behaviour. For example, priming an individual with the concept of rude whilst listening to a conversation, lead those to interpret a conversation in that manner, similar affects were found if the participants were primed with a polite concept - they interpreted the conversation in a polite manner (Bargh et al, 1996). Leading on from this model of interpretation and social perception, it may be questioned whether the stereotype can be activated with different levels of subtlety.

The effects of subtlety refer to the person's conscious awareness of the stereotype being activated. For example, at the subtlest level, stereotypes can be activated subliminally, below the perceiver's threshold of conscious awareness. This type of activated stereotype is often used in visual stimulus - such as adverts on the television. The message is exposed to the individual rapidly, so that the mechanisms of exposure are hardly noticed. Therefore, the stimulus does not require being self-relevant for the individual to respond to the stereotype. This is because the activated process goes largely un-noticed. Therefore, although there is no motivational gain or loss for the individual to respond to the stereotype, this type of exposure to stereotyping often results in activation. For example, the assumption that the 'Head and Shoulder' shampoo is used by people with dandruff is captured by those who have experienced dandruff and by those who have not. As for blatantly activated stereotypes it is assumed that the individual is made aware of the stereotype prime (head and shoulders) and the subsequent dependent measure (gets rid of dandruff). If the message of the stereotype is activated more obviously, it will produce different affects than the stereotype being portrayed subtly. Spencer et al (1999) demonstrate this by administrating a maths tests to a mixed group of genders, in one condition they told the participants that the test was gender neutral, in another condition, they did not specify either way. Consequently the two conditions produced considerable differences in the results in regards to gender. Females were found to performed worse than the males in the gendered condition, yet the effects were not so significant in the non-gendered condition. It may be useful to question, whether the salience of the stereotype has negative connotations or positive preconceptions. For more blatantly activated stereotypes, the more negative the association, the stronger the behaviour assimilates the stereotype (Bargh et al, 1996). For example, young college students who were blatantly primed with stereotypes of the elderly subsequently walked more slowly down a hallway, consistent with the stereotype portrayed of the elderly. Therefore, for the positive activation of stereotypes to be subsequently performed in individuals, does the stereotype need to be relevant to the individual? Research by Ambady, Gray, Fijuti, Shih, Richeson (2002) found that when positive stereotypes (Asian Americans are good at maths) were primed with the target group of Asian Americans, they subsequently performed worse than those who were not primed with this stereotype. Ambady et al (2002) suggest that the activated stereotype produced expectations on the individuals in question which were too high for them to obtain. Thus, the over-expectation caused the individuals to buckle under the pressure. Therefore, this still implies that activated stereotypes can have an exerted power over behaviour.

To conclude, it would seem that the evidence discussed above illustrates how the influence of activated stereotypes can exert specifically on behaviour. Research indicates that stereotypes can be activated in a number of ways, each process having slightly different affects on the individual. It would seem that the more sensitive the individual is to the stereotype being activated, the more likely it is for them to assimilate the behavioural traits of that stereotype. However, it must be noted, that none target groups can also exhibit behavioural traits of a stereotype being implied to them (Bargh et al, 1996). This may be a consequence of how subtle the information is portrayed to them. For example, if the stereotype is subtly activated to an audience or individual, they are likely to pick it up, regardless of whether it relates directly to them. However, this is not to say that the more blunt the stereotype, the more likely it will be ignored by those who do not relate to it (Bargh et al 1996). It may have relevance of whether the stereotype is of negative or positive images. For example, the more negative the stereotype that is activated, the more likely it will be performed in the individual being exposed to it (Bargh et al 1996). Therefore, it can be concluded that activated stereotypes can have a powerful influence on behaviour. As the research implies this behaviour is largely a consequence of how the individual internally processes cognitive thoughts in the brain. This may be a conscious or unconscious process, but either way, the process then leads to certain behavioural traits being performed in the external world-is a consequence of the stereotypical information that has been processed.

References

  • Ambady N, Gray, H.M, Fijuti, K., Shih, M., Richeson, J.A. (2002). Stereotype Performance Boosts. The Impact of Self Relevance and the Manner of Stereotype Activation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 83, No. 3, 638-647
  • Bargh, J. A., Chen, M., & Burrows, L. (1996). Automaticity of social behaviour: Direct effects of trait construct and stereotype activation on action. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 71, 230-244.
  • Dijksterhuis, A., & Bargh, J. A. (2001). The perception-behaviour expressway: Automatic effects of social perception on social behaviour. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 33, 1-40.
  • Dijksterhuis, A., & van Knipperberg, A. (1998). The relation between perception and behaviour, or how to win a game of Trivial Pursuit. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 74, 865-877.
  • Levy, B. (1996). Improving memory in old age through implicit self- stereotyping. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 71, 1092-1107.
  • Shih, M., Pittinsky, T. L., & Ambady, N. (1999). Stereotype susceptibility: Identity salience and shifts in quantitative performance. Psychological Science, 10, 81-84.
  • Spencer, S., Steele, C. M., & Quinn, D. (1999). Stereotype threat and women's math performance. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 35, 4-28.
  • Steele, C. M., & Aronson, J. (1995). Stereotype threat and the intellectual test performance of African Americans. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 69, 797-811.

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