Are Blonds Really Dumb?

But what about other stereotypes? Women can’t do math, but are good at languages. If it’s simply a gender difference, why complain? Ryan Brown and Robert Josephs from the University of Texas at Austin (1999) shed new light on these apparent gender differences. In an experiment, they framed a math test either as being indicative of weak abilities or of exceptionally strong abilities. Women performed particularly badly only when the test was framed as indicative of weak abilities, whereas the reverse was true for men, who scored worse when they believed the test to be indicative of strong math abilities. According to Claude Steele’s and Joshua Aronson’s  Stereotype Threat Theory (1995), the thought of confirming a a negative stereotype about oneself – or of being treated in terms of it – poses a threat. The experience of such a threat in turn causes malfunctioning and underperformance. A vicious circle! The reasons for such underperformance caused by the stereotype threat are twofold. First, the constant thought of not doing something, such as scoring low on a math test, might prime exactly that behavior. Second, the thoughts spent on trying not to confirm the stereotype take away cognitive capacities from the actual task. Obviously, this once again creates a source for self-fulfilling prophecies. So next time when you want to make a blonde joke before your (blond) girlfriend takes her math exam, you might just reconsider.

Taken together, the research on stereotypes suggests that there are many processes by which stereotypes enter our everyday lives. Stereotyping, that is, the activation of stereotype-congruent information, seems inevitable in daily situations. Through the activation of such category-based knowledge, our cognition and behavior is influenced. This may lead to a continuous confirmation of the stereotypic content, because by expecting certain behaviors from another, we almost automatically elicit such behaviors. Furthermore, if members of a stereotyped group are afraid of confirming negative stereotypes about themselves, they might fall pray to the stereotype threat and thereby underperform. On a more positive note, stereotypes are of course not always bad. In many situations, category-based knowledge really simplifies the world for us. We do not have to process every tiny piece of input we receive individually. By applying categories and stereotypes, our information processing is greatly facilitated. Some – even negative – stereotypes can also be good for us and we might not want to get rid of them. For example, when we see a group of men with shaved heads ahead of us, it might be a good idea to change to the other side of the road and avoid a potential situation of danger with a group of skinheads. Nevertheless, the research teaches us to be particularly aware of the stereotypes we have and encounter. Just thinking, “I don’t believe in them anyway” doesn’t do the trick; we have to constantly remind ourselves to counteract them. You don’t believe me? You are convinced you only stereotype others when you want to? Have a look at Hidden Bias and take a test from Project Implicit to explore your hidden biases. You’ll be surprised to find out that you are more prejudiced than you thought!


References

Bargh, J. A., Chen, M., & Burrows, L. (1996). Automaticity of social behavior: Direct effects of trait construct and stereotype activation on action. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 71, 230-244.

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