Understanding Prejudice
Understanding Prejudice
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The Psychology of Prejudice: An Overview

II. Stereotyping

Consistent with research on prejudice, psychological studies have found that stereotyping is a natural and common process in cultures around the world. To see how this process works, consider a 1956 American Anthropologist report that described the Nacirema people in stereotypic terms:
They are a North American group living in the territory between the Canadian Cree, the Yaqui and Tarahumare of Mexico, and the Carib and Arawak of the Antilles....Nacirema culture is characterized by a highly developed market economy which has evolved in a rich natural habitat. While much of the people's time is devoted to economic pursuits, a large part of the fruits of these labors and a considerable portion of the day are spent in ritual activity. The focus of this activity is the human body, the appearance and health of which loom as a dominant concern in the ethos of the people. (Miner, 1956, p. 503)
When you form an image of the Nacirema people, what comes to mind? Do they seem like an advanced civilization or a primitive culture? What kind of clothing do you think the Nacirema people wear, what do their rituals look like, and what type of dwellings do they inhabit? Take a moment to reread the 1956 description and answer these questions before continuing.

Since the 1970s, social scientists have documented that people quickly form judgments of social groups, and that these judgments are often stereotypic when little is known about outgroup members. In the description above, for instance, the Nacirema people may seem undeveloped or backward. In truth, however, the Nacirema people are quite developed -- only the spelling of their name, "Nacirema," is backward!

Eight-digit number As this spoof from the American Anthropologist shows, it is easy to form stereotypic images of others even when the outgroup is not all that different from ourselves. Stereotypes, like other generalizations, frequently serve as mental shortcuts and are especially likely to be applied when people are busy or distracted (Gilbert & Hixon, 1991). One study found, for example, that when college students were distracted for 25 seconds with a request to remember an 8-digit number, they were later more likely to remember stereotypic attributes about another person (Pendry & Macrae, 1994). Stereotypes can even be activated outside conscious awareness by a fleeting image or word related to the stereotyped group, and once activated, can influence attitudes and behavior (Greenwald & Banaji, 1995).

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