Effects of Stereotypes

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Effects of Stereotypes

Previous research has examined the causes and consequences of stereotypes. Some of these variables are situational; some are based in individual differences. Research suggests two primary theories for causes of stereotypes, stereotypes as a form of heuristic or mental shortcut (Baumeister, 2008) and realistic group conflict theory (Sherif, 1966), which explains stereotypes as a result of group conflict. Some consequences of stereotypes are self-fulfilling prophecy and stereotype threat, both of which can result from self-knowledge by social comparison. By examining individuals in low socioeconomic status, one can understand the effects of stereotypes.

Stereotypes are mental shortcuts (Baumeister, 2008) that enable individuals to reduce the amount of cognitive effort they spend on categorizing others into groups and, instead, focus attention on important events or people. One study that demonstrates the heuristic functions of stereotypes examined “morning people”, or those more inclined to get up early, and “night people”, or those inclined to stay up late, and when they are most likely to use stereotypes. The results of this study show that the “morning people” use stereotypes more often at night and “night people” use stereotypes more often in the morning (Bodenhausen, 1990). This effect illustrates how people use stereotypes when they are less alert or less willing to think, thereby allowing individuals to conserve mental resources. Lott (2002) explains the impact of mental shortcuts in regards to individuals of low socioeconomic status saying, “poor people tend to be seen as other and lesser in values, character, motivation, and potential” (Lott 2002). According to the mental shortcut theory, one would assume any person of low economic status would fit the previous descriptors and, therefore, not take the time to interact with the person.

Other research suggests that stereotypes might arise due to competition over scarce resources. Sherif (1961), for example, argued that competition over scarce resources leads to hostility between groups. The 1961 study divided a group of 5th graders into two teams at a camp, the Eagles and Rattlers, first allowing the kids to become acquainted with their team members, then competing against the other team in various events. He found that these two randomly assigned teams became hostile during and after competition, and the hostility escalated to stealing and throwing rocks. Realistic conflict theory (Sherif, 1966) can be used to understand why unpleasant stereotypes regarding low socioeconomic individuals have formed. This theory would assert that individuals in higher classes might feel the need to protect the resources they have and, therefore, may develop hostility towards others trying to advance, such as those in a lower economic class.

Festinger (1954) developed an idea of self-knowledge from social comparison (Baumeister, 2008). Festinger shows that by comparing one’s self to others an individual can learn about himself (Festinger, 1954). Using social comparison to determine knowledge of the self leads to the concept of self-fulfilling prophecy (Merton, 1948), which impacts the stereotype. Baumeister and Bushman (2008) write, “People often live up or down to what is expected of them, especially if others treat them in certain ways based on those expectations. Applied to stereotypes, a self-fulfilling prophecy would mean that people would come to act like the stereotypes others hold” (p. 431). Baumeister and Bushman (2008) explain how if one is treated poorly because of a stereotype, he or she will likely believe that stereotype to be true and act accordingly.

Another consequence of stereotypes is the concept of stereotype threat (Steele & Aronson, 1995), which states that a person will attempt to act opposite a stereotype if they feel that another person will judge them accordingly. One experiment examined how women performed on a math test when the stereotype of women having poor math skills was made salient as opposed to when it was not in mind. The women that were afraid of perpetuating the stereotype did worse than women who did not think about the stereotype during the test (Spencer, Steele, Quinn, 1999). Applying this result to socioeconomic stereotypes, when one is aware of his or her socioeconomic status, he or she will tend to perpetuate the stereotype.

The last component important to perpetuating a negative socioeconomic stereotype is an external locus of control of reinforcement. Rotter (1966) developed the idea of control of reinforcement which says that a reward or punishment will reinforce a behavior if a person perceives the reward or punishment as dependent on his or her behavior. In other words, one holds a view of internal control of reinforcement if the person believes that what happens to him or her is a result of his or her behavior, whereas an external locus of control is when one believes his or her behavior does not affect the reward or punishment. Low socioeconomic status can lead to higher external control of reinforcement (Battle & Rotter, 1963). Therefore, an individual in low economic class with an external locus of control would believe that getting out of poverty is not dependent on how he or she behaves, but rather is a matter of luck.

Stereotypes about individuals of low socioeconomic status are particularly difficult to overcome. The stereotype, whether it stems from a mental shortcut or from competition over scarce resources, causes a self-fulfilling prophecy where an individual acts according to the stereotype. Stereotype threat causes the individual to be very aware of the stereotype and by attempting to act opposite the stereotype, actually validates the stereotype. Finally, external control of reinforcement produces an attitude which views luck, rather than hard work, as more important for overcoming poverty.


Battle, E.S. & Rotter, J.B. (1963). Children’s feelings of personal control as related to social class and ethnic group. Journal of Personality, 31, 482-90.

Baumeister, Roy F., & Bushman, Brad J. Social Psychology and Human Nature. Thomson Wadsworth, 2008.

Bodenhausen, G.V. (1990). Stereotypes as judgmental heuristics: Evidence of circadian variations in discrimination. Psychological Science, 1, 319-322.

Festinger, L. (1954). A Theory of Social Comparison Processes. Human Relations, 7, 117-140.

Lott, Bernice (2002). Cognitive and Behavioral Distancing From the Poor. American Psychologist, 57, 2, 100-110.

Merton, R.K. (1948). The Self-fulfilling Prophecy. Antioch Review, pp 193-210.

Rotter, J.B. (1966). Generalized expectancies for internal versus external control of reinforcement. Psychological Monographs, 80, 1, 1-28.

Sherif, M., O. J. Harvey, B. J. White, W. R. Hood, and C. W. Sherif (1961). Intergroup conflict and cooperation: The robbers' cave experiment. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.

Sherif, M. (1966). In Common Predicament: Social Psychology of Intergroup conflict and Cooperation. Boston: Houghton-Mifflin.

Spencer, S.J., Steele, C.M., & Quinn, D.M. (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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