Are Blonds Really Dumb?

The striking result of Devine’s research is that if participants had been primed with words related to Black Americans, they judged Donald’s behaviors to be more aggressive than if they had been primed with neutral words. This effect was equally strong for people with high and low prejudice levels. Thus, even though participants could not consciously read the priming words, the stereotype had been activated and influenced the subsequent judgment of another person, Donald, whose race was not mentioned. Devine hence found out that in situations where people cannot easily recognize that they are stereotyping, they tend to evaluate others based on stereotype-congruent attributions – especially if the observed behaviors are ambiguous and allow multiple explanations. Even though we can consciously control and counteract stereotypic thoughts, we are not always aware that there is something to counteract and hence don’t.

Researchers from New York University (Bargh, Chen, & Burrows, 1996) took this line of research even further. They demonstrated that the activation of a particular stereotype does not only lead to congruent judgments about others, but it also influences one’s own behavior. In their experiment, participants completed a supraliminal priming task, the so-called Scrambled Sentence Task, where participants have to form a grammatically correct four-word sentence from five given words. For a third of the participants, these sentences contained content related to the trait of rudeness (e.g., aggressively, rude, disturb), for another third politeness was included (e.g, respect, honor, considerate), and the remaining participants received sentences with neutral content. Participants were asked to complete the Scrambled Sentence Task and then find the experimenter in an adjacent room. However, when the participant had finished, the experimenter in the other room was in a conversation with someone. The object of the experiment was to find out if the participant would interrupt the experimenter. The researchers hypothesized that activated categories, such as rudeness and politeness, would affect it accordingly. This is exactly what they found: about 65% of the participants who had unscrambled sentences relating to rudeness, interrupted the conversation, whereas only about 40% of participants with neutral sentences did so and less than 20% of participants who had unscrambled politeness-related sentences. In a similar second experiment, the researchers showed that the activation of the elderly stereotype with words as ‘Florida’, ‘old’, or ‘lonely’, significantly decreased the speed at which participants walked after the experiment – even though the priming had not explicitly referred to the stereotypic content of ‘slow’. A third experiment had a more direct link to the work of Devine: for half of the participants the stereotype of African-Americans was subliminally primed. In comparison to a neutrally primed control group, these participants reacted with more overt hostility when the experimenter told them that because of a computer failure they had to do a tedious and annoying task again. In other words, the work by Bargh, Chen and Burrows demonstrates that the activation of a stereotype, e.g., simply constructing sentences which refer to a particular trait can influence a person’s subsequent behavior.

If we see the latter experiments in the context of Devine’s work, our problem with the innocent joke about the poor and aggressive black guy or the Dumb Blonde becomes apparent. Even if we don’t specifically believe in a stereotype, we still know about it and an encounter with a member of a stereotyped group, such as Blacks, will lead to the activation of that stereotype. As such activations go mostly unnoticed, we have no chance of counteracting the stereotypic content. We might see the person across the street as aggressive, simply because he is Black. Moreover, as the activation of such stereotypic thoughts also affects our own behavior, we might – unconsciously – act towards him in a more hostile manner than normal. It becomes obvious that such circumstances most likely lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy: the Black person, who we see as aggressive simply responds in the same manner as we treat him – aggressively.

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