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Social Psychology

Stereotyping happens everyday, even by people who fully believe that they are not prejudiced. Why does it happen? What is a stereotype? How do the stereotyped and the stereotypers both contribute? This paper aims to introduce stereotyping and some of the causes and consequences.


            The effects of stereotyping have affected humans and the term "stereotype" has been around nearly since the beginning of the field of social science. Stereotypes are one of those things that are easy to create and hard to get rid of - and they are almost always considered bad and evil things. This stereotype of stereotypes is certainly justifiable, since they are usually "unfair statements" an individual makes about another simply because the other belongs to a particular group. So what is a stereotype? Simply put, stereotypes are a group of traits or qualities believed to be attached to a certain group of people. When an individual displays one or more traits associated to a stereotype, say being a police officer, others may assume all other characteristics of that stereotype, like eating donuts. Police officers and donuts may be a light stereotype, perhaps "innocent" and harmless, but most stereotypes are not quite as neutral.

Who Stereotypes?

            Everyone. Consider the following example: Tall, muscular male. Early 20s. T-shirt, long gold necklace, and sagging shorts. Baseball cap on sideways, and a tribal tattoo slightly visible against his skin. He looks at you and says "Yo, wassup homie?"

What ethnicity did you envision? Most likely, African-American or perhaps Latino. This image probably comes from interaction with individuals who share all, or most, of these traits. However, it is important to understand that not all individuals of the same group share the same traits.

Why We Stereotype

            Humans tend to group things in order to process more easily. In Gestalt Psychology, many of the concepts explain how this grouping is done, and why it is so important. In his 1954 book, The Nature of Prejudice, Gordon Allport explains why humans try to group things into specific categories. There are three main "benefits" of categorizing individuals (Allport):

  1. Categorization defines the qualities or characteristics that are shared by all the members of said category.
  2. People can quickly describe those in a category, since they "all" share distinct characteristics or qualities.
  3. People can use these categories to figure out what characteristics an individual "should" have, and then try to process how to respond to that individual.

Stereotypes help society group individuals by similar or shared traits in order to "process" better. They are a form of categorization that helps individuals simplify and organize information systematically so the information can be processed, recalled, and acted upon more readily (Tajfel). Within a stereotype, individuals are as similar to each other as possible, preferably sharing all the "important" or observed traits. This is why many untrue statements are made about the individuals who may fall into a stereotype - society attempts to lessen the differences between the grouped individuals, resulting in swapped characteristics (McGarty).

           Another "use" of stereotyping is justification. Tajfel demonstrates this: Europeans in the 1900s stereotyped people from Turkey, India, and China as incapable of advancing financially without European assistance. This stereotype was used to justify European colonization of these three countries. In the same way, many Jews were stereotyped during the Black Plague as being filthy, unhygenic, and responsible for the disease. During this time, many of the Jews were rich and able to sustain themselves, as they had saved money, supported eachother, and would lend money to the Europeans. The "filthy" stereotype was used to justify the Europeans killing the Jews whom they owed money to (Cantor). In both of these examples, a consistent factor seems to be power and money. Today, unfortunately, these are both large factors of stereotyping.

How the Stereotyped Support the Stereotypes

It would be unfair to blame the process of stereotyping only on those who stereotype. The "stereotyped" contribute their fair share to their own stereotypes. For example: A town has the stereotype that "Caucasian, teenage males are bad-mannered and theives." Most of the younge White boys fit the description, but some don't. One boy who does not fit the stereotype goes to the mall with the "bad-boys" and, so they don't reject him from the group, he acts rowdy and loud. While he didn't shoplift or steal anything, the percieved image of him is that of the others - simply, by acting the way he did, he put himself into the stereotype.



Sources & Additional Reading*:


Allport, Gordon W. (1954). The Nature of Prejudice. Cambridge, MA: Addison-Wesley. p. 189

Cantor, Norman. In the Wake of the Plague. New York: The Free Press, 2001

McGarty, Craig; Yzerbyt, Vincent Y.; Spears, Russel (2002). "Social, cultural and cognitive factors in stereotype formation". Stereotypes as explanations: The formation of meaningful beliefs about social groups. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. pp. 1–15.

Tajfel, Henri (1981). "Social stereotypes and social groups". In Turner, John C.; Giles, Howard. Intergroup behaviour. Oxford: Blackwell. pp. 144–167. 


*None of the content in "Additional Reading" resources is related to, nor do we confirm the authenticity or views expressed therein.