Some theorists say that stereotypes and prejudices are inevitable, others say they are malleable,while, cognitive theorists say stereotypes are unavoidable. They say stereotypes serve as a generalization about a group that focuses on some attribute. With that being said, it is human nature to categorize someone based on certain trait(s) making the complex world easier to understand (Nelson, p. 27). Stereotypes serve a purpose of processing information for human brains which automatically classifies stimuli in the environment thus reinforcing the idea that stereotypes are permanent.
Research that supports this idea of automatic processing was done by Devine and her colleagues. They propose the idea that automatic processing of information cannot be controlled (p. 75). They tested the automatic processing of stereotypical words (e.g. black, hostile, and lazy) and neutral words (e.g. what, said, and however). Then participants were asked to read a story about “Donald” and rate their impressions. The participants who viewed the negative stereotypical words viewed “Donald” more negatively because he was an African-American.
If stereotypes are permanent, how does one explain social learning? Freud first recognized the idea that most of a child’s morals, values, and attitudes are learned from a parent. Research has shown that racial attitudes develop in the first few years of life (class notes). If a child has parents who views everyone as created equal or has many stereotyped beliefs and if he or she never learns these beliefs from his or her parents, would it not make sense that if a child never observes these actions he or she would not display them? On the other side, a child, who views her or his parent’s lynching an African-American; one would later display these beliefs later on in life. This hypothesis makes stereotypes and prejudices a malleable characteristic.
The other perspective that shows that prejudice is malleable is Optimal Distinctiveness Theory. It proposes that one’s social motivations are driven by an alternating tension between one’s view of self and the group in which one identifies with (p. 48). The theory defines one’s view of self as a constant conflict between sense of worth (individuality) and security (belongingness) which motivates oneself to find groups that can meet these needs. For example, a person wants to be overly unique and wear a fedora to a formal dinner, the group that he or she identifies with frowns upon and does not associate with them. What if a person has a secure sense of self and feels no need for belongingness? If so, how does one measure stereotyping?
Using the old saying, “if you want to know how someone feels about something ask them” (p. 120). A way that one could measure stereotyping is through self-report. An example of self-report is providing a questionnaire to people about their feelings of having an African-American as president. There are many advantages to using this type of measure because it allows for the researcher to administer a large amount of tests to a wide variety of people. Another advantage might be that it is an easy way to find out the public’s opinion very quickly.
However, there are some drawbacks to using this type of measure. The responses to the questions are already formulated thus restricting the answers to the questionnaire. The second occurs when two tests come to the same results (p. 127). The third disadvantage of this type of measure is whether or not the question is answered truthfully. This may provoke socially favorable or hostile attitudes about a particular group. A questionnaire may want to analyze how people feel about Hispanic immigration to the United States. The participants may hate or love the idea but that may not be a choice.
Another way of measuring stereotyping and prejudice is through an indirect measure. One could analyze this by using an event related brain potential machine which measures neural activity of a participant. For example, an fMRI measures the changes in blood flow in the brain while participants viewed subliminal black and white faces (Cunningham et al, 2004). The results of Cunningham et al, 2004 showed that there was amygdala activation when participants were shown Black faces than when White faces were shown.
The advantages of using an indirect measure can be difficulty falsifying results through physiological responses or measuring subtle changes in facial expressions (nonverbal behaviors). There are, however, many disadvantages relating to arbitrary scoring and does the test really measure stereotyping behavior? For example, the Implicit Association Test drawback is not allowing participants to cognitively process the information to decide whether or not one would classify the stimulus as a stereotype. That is why I feel it is unreasonable to label the results as stereotyping or prejudice because it cannot apply to the entire population using Implicit Association, and priming tasks. One of the criticisms against these types of tests is that of Blanton and Jaccard which showed results that taking the same test over and over again could produce different scores each time (2006).
The term aversive racism is showing equal rights but still feeling discomfort when encountering a minority (p. 118). One may feel that all people are created equal but still have negative feeling towards other groups based on race, gender, and ethnicity. As described by Dovidio and Gaertner (1989), Caucasians who are unclear about one’s negative attitudes towards African-Americans but hold to one’s equalitarian beliefs may display discomfort when an African-American has vague traits. For example, if an African-American candidate applied for a job and his or her résumé had ambiguous information, the personal representative might implicitly hire the person based on one’s skin color. The term attributional ambiguity occurs when a perceiver thinks a person maybe judging one on some stigma (p. 163). The terms are similar in that a cognitive process is being performed and are different in that aversive racism is the person doing the stereotyping and attributional ambiguity is thought process of the receipt of a stereotype.
Selective attention to stereotype relevant information shows how it can be maintained. Information in one’s environment is either consistent or inconsistent. Sherman et al., found that under a cognitive load (e.g., overload of classes) stereotype consistent information is often not attended to by the perceiver while inconsistent information is in need of more cognitive resources, thus, little attention is given to stereotype consistent information (p. 40-41). For example, one may walk into class with Caucasian students every day and the next day he or she sees that an African-American is in one’s class. As a result it causes an uneasy feeling of the student. The other theory that explains how stereotypes are maintained is illusory correlations. A person may develop a sense of what to expect when encountering a minority group and perceive that one’s stereotypes are going to happen even though it may not.
When comparing the two theories, both show that there is a need for some cognitive process to decide if one should pay attention to a stimulus or thinking something may cause it to happen but different in that illusory correlation may not occur. The best origin theory to explain why stereotypes and prejudices are maintained would be the cognitive perspective. Stereotypes and prejudices are the brain’s way of categorizing information in one’s environment. This idea makes stereotypes and prejudices a permanent process.