Stereotypes: Why We Act Without Thinking

Three classic experiments show how stereotypes can influence our behaviour without our knowledge.

Three classic experiments show how stereotypes can influence our behaviour without our knowledge.

Despite their bad name, stereotypes can be handy short cuts that give us useful information about the world and other people. For example the stereotype of psychologists is that they are going to analyse you, then start meddling. There’s certainly some truth to that, after all that is their job.

When stereotypes are dangerous is when we automatically draw conclusions about individuals that aren’t accurate and may even be insulting to them. So the question is: when a particular stereotype is activated — say we see an old person, a French person or a psychologist — can we avoid thinking, respectively, ‘slow’, ‘rude’ and ‘nosy’?

Until the classic social psychology study I’m about to tell you about, it was thought that we didn’t automatically act on stereotypes, that we were able to consciously discard them. But, asked Yale Professor John Bargh and colleagues, how can we consciously discard a stereotype if we’re not even conscious that it has been activated? And will this unconscious stereotype have any effect on our behaviour?

To find out Bargh et al. (1996) conducted three experiments, starting with an attempt to make some people ruder and others more polite, using a very simple cue.

Polite or rude?

In the first experiment 34 participants were divided into 3 groups with each group unconsciously cued into a different state: one ‘rude’, one ‘polite’ and one neither. This had to be done in a roundabout way so that the participants didn’t suspect they were being manipulated. What the experimenters did was give them a word puzzle to unscramble. To activate the idea of rudeness in one group it contained words like ‘bother’, ‘disturb’ and ‘bold’. To activate the idea of politeness the next group unscrambled words like ‘courteous’, ‘patiently’ and ‘behaved’. The third group unscrambled neutral words.

After finishing the unscrambling participants left the room to track down the experimenter but found them deep in conversation with someone, forcing them to wait. The question the researchers wanted to answer was what percentage of people would interrupt if the experimenter kept ignoring them by talking to the other person for 10 minutes.

In the group cued with polite words, just 18% of participants interrupted with the rest waiting for the full 10 minutes while the experimenter continued their conversation. On the other hand, in the group cued with impolite words, fully 64% interrupted the experimenter. The neutral condition fell between the two with 36% interrupting.

This is quite a dramatic effect because participants were unaware of the manipulation yet they faithfully followed the unconscious cues given to them by the experimenters. One group became bold and forthright simply be reading 15 words that activated the concept of impoliteness in their minds, while the other group became meek and patient by reading words about restraint and conformity.

Old and slow?

In the second experiment the researchers turned their attention to the stereotype of age. They used the same trick as before of splitting 30 participants into two groups and cueing stereotypes in their minds by getting them to unscramble words. One group unscrambled words associated with being old like ‘Florida’, ‘helpless’ and ‘wrinkled’ while another group unscrambled words unrelated to age.

This time the experimenters wanted to see how fast participants would walk down a 9.75m corridor after they had completed the task. Would cueing people with words about age actually make them walk slower? Yes, indeed it would; participants primed with old age took, on average, a full extra second to cover the short distance to the elevator. That was some pretty slow walking!

African American and aggressive?

In both the previous experiment the researchers checked with participants whether they had noticed any connection between the words they were unscrambling and what was going on. Although only one did, the experimenters then changed their method in a third experiment to make the cueing of participants completely subliminal (below the level of conscious awareness). In the previous experiments participants had been mostly unaware of the connection between cueing and what was being measured but in this experiment they wouldn’t even be aware of the cue.

This time 41 participants were given a very boring computer-based task to do. While doing it a picture of either a young Caucasian male or a young African American male was periodically flashed up on the screen so quickly that it was impossible to consciously apprehend (for about one-fiftieth of a second). They did this because previous research had shown that people generally stereotype African Americans as being more aggressive than Caucasians. After they had finished, the experimenter told the participants (none of whom were African American) that the computer had failed to save their data and they’d have to do the task again.

What the experimenters were interested in was the participant’s reaction (which they recorded) to the possibility of doing the whole boring study over again. Directly after their facial reaction, the experimenters told participants it was OK, the computer had saved their data and they didn’t actually need to do the study again; they had what they needed: that crucial first flicker of emotion to a frustrating event.

So, did the subliminal primes of either Caucasian or African American faces have the expected effect? Participants primed with the Caucasian face were rated by independent observers as showing hostility of just over 2 on a scale of 1 to 10. Participants shown the African American faces were rated as showing hostility of almost 3 out of 10. This suggested the African American faces had activated the stereotype and made people react more aggressively to the frustrating situation. As a side-note, the experimenters also measured the racist attitudes of the participants and found that even participants who were low in racism were still likely to behave in a more hostile manner if cued with the African American face.

Buy Pepsi Cola!

The authors of the paper draw the parallels between their own work and the supposed power of subliminal advertising. As you may know subliminal advertising generally doesn’t work in the way advertisers would hope by causing a stampede for their products. But in these experiments the researchers do seem to be subliminally influencing people to act in pre-defined ways, so how can these opposing findings be resolved?

In fact there’s a subtle difference because in each of the situations in these experiments the response that was primed was absolutely appropriate in each of the situations. Getting angry when your time has been wasted is perfectly normal. It was just the scale of the reaction that was affected by the experimental manipulation. Advertising, however, can prime certain ideas in our minds and associate them with products but the leap to parting us with our cash is much bigger than that in the current experiment, and so more difficult to achieve.

What this study demonstrates very neatly is just how sensitive we are to the minutiae of social interactions. Subtle cues from the way other people behave and more generally from the environment can cue automatic unconscious changes in our behaviour. And by the same token signals we send out to others can automatically activate stereotypes in their minds which are then acted out. As much as we might prefer otherwise, sometimes stereotypes can easily influence our behaviour and our conscious mind seems to have no say.

How Other People’s Unspoken Expectations Control Us

We quickly sense how others view us and play up to these expectations.

We quickly sense how others view us and play up to these expectations.

A good exercise for learning about yourself is to think about how other people might view you in different ways. Consider how your family, your work colleagues or your partner think of you.

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The Acceptance Prophecy: How You Control Who Likes You

Is interpersonal attraction a self-fulfilling prophecy?

Is interpersonal attraction a self-fulfilling prophecy?

The mystical-sounding ‘acceptance prophecy’ is simply this: when we think other people are going to like us, we behave more warmly towards them and consequently they like us more. When we think other people aren’t going to like us, we behave more coldly and they don’t like us as much.

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Why Groups Fail to Share Information Effectively

When asked to make a group decision, instead of sharing vital information known only to themselves, people tend to repeat information that everyone already knows.

“No, leaks aren’t on the agenda…”

In 1985 Stasser and Titus published the best sort of psychology study. Not only does it shine a new light on how groups communicate and make decisions, it also surprises, confuses and intrigues. Oddly, the results first look as if they can’t be right, then later it seems obvious they are right, then attention turns to what can be done about it.

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Women’s Makeup Draws 33% More Men

Does the application of cosmetics encourage others to make the first move?

Painting of the face and body has a history dating back at least 10,000 years. According to Pliny the Elder even 2,000 years ago the Romans were using natural products in ways we would instantly recognise: they had rouge, deodorants, hair dye, wrinkle removers, breath fresheners and much more.

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Romantic Thoughts Increase Male Chivalry

What is it about romance that makes men more helpful, chivalrous even?

What is it about romance that makes men more helpful, chivalrous even?

While dreaming of his beloved a man easily slips into a daydream of himself clad in shining armour, riding his trusty white charger, sweeping to the rescue of a beautiful woman. In reality he may only be holding a door open or picking up the tab, but the feeling is the same.

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Do You Challenge Queue-Jumpers and Line-Cutters?

Queuing (or ‘standing in line’ for Americans) is time wasted, part of our lives flushed down the toilet.

Queuing (or ‘standing in line’ for Americans) is time wasted, part of our lives flushed down the toilet. Just like other everyday activities – grocery shopping, teeth brushing and washing-up – queuing is necessary but tedious, hard to take pleasure in.

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Ask For Help: Why People Are Twice as Likely to Assist as You Think

In everyday life asking others for help can be embarrassing, perhaps even a painful experience. Requesting help potentially shows our own weakness and also opens us up to rejection.

Psychological researchers are always asking people for help. Doing research means asking people to fill in questionnaires, press buttons in computer programs and sit in fMRI scanners – all in the name of science and usually for little or no apparent reward.

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Social Loafing and Social Facilitation

If you’re not already aware of Wikipedia then check it out, it’s an encylopedia written by the people for the people. It’s articles are concise, interlinked and, in the most part, very illuminating.

On my ‘Wiki-hunt’ of the psychology section of Wikipedia I came across many interesting articles. One tells the gruesome story of the murder of Kitty Genovese (left – illustration by Bill Rose). I’ll let you read the story there, but it does highlight what psychologists call ‘social loafing’. This is the idea that people in groups tend to assume that someone else will take any required action. The media suggestion at the time of this case, while controversial, was that some people who heard her screams failed to intervene.

We are now very familiar with this from many TV programmes that use it for comic effect. Hidden camera shows will stage a fight or an outburst of some kind in a public place. Unaware they are being watched, people will usually gawp at the manufactured scene, but very rarely intervene.

A related idea, succinctly described on, is that of social facilitation. When people are watched carrying out a task that they find easy, their performance improves. In contrast, when watched carrying out a task they find difficult, their performance declines.

Social loafing and social facilitation are two examples of how the mere presence or absence of other people can have unusual effects on our behaviour.
Wikipedia Psychology