A stereotype, put simply, is a belief about a group. But for psychology professor Andrei Cimpian of New York University, that definition doesn’t have sufficient nuance. To understand what a stereotype truly is, he says, we need to understand its cognitive structure, or “how stereotypes are represented in our minds.” Now, Cimpian and colleagues present evidence about which sorts of beliefs contribute to those representations—results that may inform how and whether stereotypes can be altered or mitigated. They report their findings in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General.
Cimpian recognized that stereotypes might be formed by “generic” beliefs, meaning a characteristic is applied to a group. “When we say something like, ‘Sharks attack people,’ we’re not saying anything about a specific number of sharks. We’re saying something about the group as a whole,” he explains. Or, stereotypes might be formed by “statistical” beliefs, meaning a characteristic is applied to some percentage of a group. “Some sharks attack people—that’s a statistical belief,” says Cimpian.
Working with social psychologist Matthew Hammond of Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand, Cimpian revealed that stereotypes are more related to a person’s generic than statistical beliefs.
The team recruited 97 adult participants through Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, a marketplace that connects businesses and researchers with people available to complete online tasks. They gave each participant a questionnaire with three sections in randomized order.
One section assessed participants’ generic beliefs by asking them to rate their agreement on a scale of -3 (strongly disagree) to 3 (strongly agree) with 27 stereotypical statements such as “Doctors are hardworking,” “Men are assertive,” and “Asians are intelligent.” Another section assessed statistical beliefs by asking participants to estimate the percentage of people within groups that fulfill the 27 stereotypes. A final section assessed participants’ social judgements by asking them to respond on a scale of -3 (very unlikely) to 3 (very likely) to questions like, “Suppose that Person Y is a doctor. Is Person Y intelligent?”
The team then used multilevel statistical models to estimate the relative contribution of statistical beliefs and generic beliefs to the participants’ ultimate social judgments about people. They found that participants relied on both types of beliefs when making social judgements. However, participants’ generic beliefs were about 60 percent more predictive of social judgments than their statistical beliefs.
In one follow up study, the team found that analytic thinkers—those who scored high on a cognitive reflection test—relied more on statistical beliefs than intuitive thinkers who scored lower on the test. They also found that participants who expressed more authoritarian world views (questionnaire responses on authority figures and group-based hierarchies) relied more on generic beliefs than others.
The results may inform an ongoing debate within the cognitive science community about whether stereotypes are, in fact, accurate. Cimpian feels that this study puts the accuracy of stereotypes in question. Generic beliefs are less dependent on evidence, he says. “If stereotypes are based on generic beliefs, then we should be skeptical right off the bat of whether stereotypes are accurate.” But Lee Jussim, a professor of social psychology at Rutgers University, who was not involved in the study, emphasizes that this research did not directly test whether stereotypes are true.
Cognitive psychologist Sandeep Prasada of Hunter College, who was also not involved in the study, says the team’s findings are important because they can inform how to address issues of stereotypes in society. If stereotypes are based on statistical beliefs, then showing people actual statistics about groups might change their views. If stereotypes are instead based more on generic beliefs, as this research suggests, “then this strategy is unlikely to be helpful in ameliorating stereotypes, and one has to look to other strategies.”