Home » psychology » Stereotypes and discrimination wrap up

Stereotypes and discrimination wrap up

My four previous posts have been discussing discrimination and stereotypes that impact our everyday lives. So, instead of reviewing an entirely new article today, I wanted to bring all four of those studies together.

In the social sciences, we want to describe how a process can occur from many different angles. When we look at just these four studies, we are able to determine how discrimination can occur (as a subliminal response), why it can occur (as a reaction to avoiding bias), and what happens when it occurs (altering career trajectories and viewing others as sub-par). Let’s break this down into what each study showed us. For those of you who read the past four posts, this will be a mini-review. However, thinking about all of these studies in concert is the goal to allow us to better understand these processes.

Also, you may want to refresh the idea of cognitive dissonance which I described a while back in this post.

Across the Thin Blue Line (Correl, Park, Judd, Wittenbrink, Sadler & Keessee 2007)- This article was able to show us that when an image is presented (a person with a gun) our preferred response to that target is dependent on the skin color of the target. The authors showed that officers from any race had an easier time deciding to “shoot” a Black man with a gun object, compared to choosing “don’t shoot” when the man held a non-gun object. What is the mechanism behind this effect? Cognitive dissonance, of course. We see a faster response rate for images that cause less dissonance (aka mental stress). Therefore, we can assume that a Black male holding a gun is more acceptable to the officers’ construct of a Black man, and a Black male holding a small non-gun object is more dissonant to that construct. Thus it takes the officers a lot longer to choose the “don’t shoot” option.

Does racial sensitivity have a price? (Effron, Cameron, & Monin 2009) This article was looking at the “rebounding” effect that occurs when we show support for a person who is of a minority. Lets be clear here, though. Minority does not always mean “fewer people.” It actually refers to the power of that group as a whole. So one can say that females are a minority in many countries (including the U.S.) because as a group they do not have the same power as males. Some people may debate this idea, but this is how it was taught to me in sociology!

As I stated in my review, if a person indicated they would vote for Obama, they would later select a White candidate for a fictional police chief position more often than a Black candidate for this position. The participants would not only select the White male for the job, but they felt a White male was a better fit for the fictional position. The authors suggest this is because the people making these judgement feel as if they gained credit, and in order to keep a supposed balance, they will then choose to hire the white individual. What mechanism is behind this? Some of you may have guessed it – dissonance. How does dissonance fit into this equation? Let’s take a look at a random man’s contingencies of self-worth. This man believe he is a just individual who seeks to judge people solely on their abilities and nothing else. However, when he chooses a Black man for one position, he feels that if he selects another Black man for a different position, he will just be acting in a racist manner (thus causing himself dissonance). So, in order to reduce dissonance, the man hires the white individual. This allows the man in question to protect his self-worth, but at what cost? In the end, you can see how avoiding dissonance begins to explain so much of our social behavior.

Can an angry woman get ahead? (-  This study is a personal favorite, as it shows what happens to us when we fail to follow our gender’s stereotype. In summation, when a woman acts angry, or a man acts sad for that matter, they are seen as less competent, less employable, and deserving of a smaller salary than an angry male. The question once again is, what is causing this? Dissonance!!!! (see the pattern yet?)

Cognitive dissonance in this case is related to the hiring manager’s construct of what a woman should be. The more dissonant the target is with that concept of “what a woman should be” the more negatively the candidate is viewed. This is an extremely discouraging effect that occurs, and I wish it did not occur at all. However, the study was still quite amazing for what it was able to show.

The glass slipper effect (Rudman & Heppen 2003) – This is the final study of my recent posts on stereotypes and discrimination. Here we looked at how a female gender stereotype develops, and how romantic fantasy (aka how I view my partner, how they view me) can negatively impact ones career. Essentially, the more “traditional” a person is with their partner, the lower they will aim. That is, a female with excessively traditional views will aim for a career that pays less, has less prestige, and requires less education than a female with non-traditional views of their partner.

Wrapping it up – So we can see that cognitive dissonance is a major player in enforcing our stereotypes. The glass slipper effect helps us learn that these effects are taught to us at a very young age (through story-telling and media). Once a construct of the “female stereotype” becomes solid, our brains work to keep it in tact. Why do we work so hard to keep this information intact? A lot of people say it’s easier to call someone else wrong than to change your own mind. It’s actually very true. We are all cognitive misers, according to social psychologist Elliot Aronson. What Dr. Aronson is referring to is that changing our constructs is a very effortful task. It is actually easier for our brains to dismiss information than allow conflicting ideas to be resolved. Having to create new constructs and alter old ones can be pretty hard for some people. Older populations, or those of us who are not very open to new experiences, have a very hard time changing our minds about things once we’ve made an initial decision.

So what can we do with this information? I think the first and foremost thing to keep in mind is our children, of course. As you can see, the first constructs they learn will be held on to for a very long time. Do your absolute best to ensure your child is exposed to a solid foundation that does not force them to believing things based solely tradition.

Next, we need to be mindful of when we are resistant to change. This is extremely hard for us as adults, as taking a step back during our own thinking process is a difficult task. Simply ask yourself, “am I making this choice because I believe it is the best one I could make, or am I making this choice because it is the easiest one for me to accept.” Something that is easy to accept causes less dissonance, but dissonance occurs because you have something conflicting with your constructs. When you get that feeling of dissoance, try to find out why, and please… do not be afraid to admit your faults.

Remember, as we’ve been told by Tony award winning musical, Avenue Q, “Everyone’s a little bit racist, sometimes. It doesn’t mean we go around committing hate crimes!”

We all make mistakes so please allow yourself to be mortal and flawed like me! Once you allow yourself to acknowledge your errors, you can begin fixing those cranky old constructs.



  1. Yannick says:

    As you discussed, the goal is to minimize how much cognitive dissonance is created with children as they grow up – but is that absolutely possible? Are there genetic predispositions to be racist, for example? We often see ads saying that no child is born racist, and I typically would tend to agree, again, anecdotally. But is that actually true?

    And considering the world we (we being the majority of the readership – Westerners, mainly people in the US) live in, is it even realistically possible to grow up without some forms of discrimination inherent in your beliefs?

    I do greatly appreciate your statement on being mindful of why we resist change. Thinking through dissonance greatly seems to increase the ability to compromise with others and appreciate unique ways of thinking. But how would a psychologist accomplish trying to show or prove that to people unwilling to give it that much effort? That’s the main problem we seem to have in the current political climate, and the results are stifling and ultimately disappointing.

    • I’m not sure it is possible to reduce cognitive dissonance, as it is a common occurrence that means a person should “accept the new information I am being told and change my constructs accordingly,” or “reject the new information because the source is unreliable, wrong, etc.” What we can do is foster our own, and our next generations “openness to experience.” This is actually a personality construct, and if we support it throughout development, a newer generation would be more tolerant to changes in general. Additionally, children and younger adult’s brains are quite resilient and plastic. Changing your world view is something one is easily capable of when they are younger.

      As for racism, it’s more a matter of in-group out-group. When we are young we can only focus on the most obvious thing about a person, place, or thing. In cognitive development, this is observed when you ask a four year old “which container has more water in it, the tall skinny glass, or the short fat glass.” As we know, children focus on the most salient aspect of these two objects, height, and will choose the tall glass. This just a matter of how the brain works at this age. It is not telling of a lack of experience or education. Their brains simply do not allow them to juggle multiple dimensions of an object at the same time such as “height x width.”

      With that in mind, you can see how a child would be quite prone to focusing on things like identified gender and skin color.

      Negative views of races, on the other hand, comes from ones culture. I had to cite without the material on hand, but I will describe the experiment. White and Black participants were brought into a room and told to hit one of two buttons when they saw different faces. One button said, “good,” while another button said, “bad.” For part one of the experiment, the participants were told to hit “good” when the face of a White person was displayed on the screen, and “bad” when the face of a Black person was on the screen. For part two, they would hit “good,” for the Black person, and “bad” for the White person. What the experimenters observed was that both White and Black participants had an easier time pressing “good” for White targets than “good” for Black targets. Further, all participants had an easier time selecting “bad” for Black targets than for White targets.

      In this study, responses were timed. So participants would select “good” for White, faster than they would for Black. Just like in this review, you know this means cognitive dissonance is at work, slowing down their response time. This effect was present for White and Black participants. What conclusions do we draw? It must be something present in the culture they share (all participants were from the United States).

      So you raise a good question – “how does one raise a child to hold no racist view, in a world that is overflowing with racism?” This is exceptionally difficult and not possible for all of us. Selecting a positive environment is key, and not allowing exposure to racist material and ideals. Is this even possible? I have no idea. At the end of it all, you would merely create a protective bubble for the child until they became older. At which point you hope those constructs you helped them create are strong enough to withstand the harshness of the real world.

      As for your last comment on cognitive misers – all people engage in this behavior according to Aronson. It’s not that some people are lazy, it is that we naturally try to use the least amount of effort needed to complete a task. Sometimes this works against us, but we have to look at this like an evolutionary psychologist.

      I’m walking through the jungle and I thought I heard a growling sound, but it was actually a low, rolling thunder. I run away and never go back. My tribe suggests I go back there and try to get more food, but I refuse due to the classical conditioning episode I had in that location (that location elicits fear, even though nothing actually happened to me), due to my over generalization of the thunder. In evolutionary terms, it’s safer to be wrong than dead. That is to say, “if the way I have been doing things hasn’t killed me yet, I have no reason to change.” In fact, I’d say I know a lot of people who have that political belief (especially towards the environment). Unfortunately I don’t have a good answer about how to change someone’s mind outright, but you have given me a few ideas for the next topic.

      Persuasion – the art of changing someone’s mind. How can you change someone’s mind when they are so unwilling to put forth any effort? You have to make one part of their personality come in conflict with another. That is, point out that someone’s contingencies of self worth are at conflict with the current negative behavior in which they are engaged! Easier said than done!

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