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A Stereotypical Blog Post

During my sophomore year of high school, my once favorite teacher, Mrs. Kahler, looked at me and exclaimed, “You’re lucky! God taught you Jews how to handle money well! It’s in your blood.” At the time, I actually didn’t mind. I had heard my fair share of jokes about Jews and, perhaps naturally, something about me—be it my nose, financial status, or diet—always seemed to be the punchline. Nonetheless, I couldn’t help but inform her that those “Jews are great with money” jokes aren’t funny—nor are they particularly accurate. Unfortunately, this kind of experience is common. In fact, even Vice President-elect Kamala Harris has to deal with harmful, pejorative stereotypes. Most recently, Harris experienced these stereotypes from President Donald Trump himself, as he appeared to weaponize the classic trope of the ‘angry Black woman,’ labeling her “nasty,” “mad,” and “angry” after an impressive cross-examination of then-Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh. More recently, Harris faced public criticismoften from conservative men, and supporters of President Trump—following her debate against Vice President Mike Pence, after she faced repeated interruptions and simply attempted to keep the discussion fair by saying, “I’m speaking.”

Kamala Harris immediately inspired a meme based on her assertive debate interactions.

Not all feedback ended up negative, as Kamala Harris immediately inspired a meme based on her assertive debate interactions. Even so, the response to her begs a question. What might cause people—including one of the most powerful men in the world—to describe an influential, intelligent Black woman in such a way? Well, let’s start here: what exactly are ‘stereotypes’? Psychologists generally agree that stereotypes are thinking tools, which allow people to categorize individuals and social groups based on expectations and philosophies, thereby providing information (Quadflieg & Macrae, 2011). Up until this point, you may have assumed that stereotypes are simply menacing beliefs that reinforce division and ignorance—but this is incorrect. In fact, stereotypes can be extremely handy, as they allow people to more easily understand the world around them without expending a huge amount of cognitive and attentional effort to know each and every person on an intimate, individual level. A mere glance at a stranger, for instance, is often enough for us to recall an immense amount of previously learned knowledge and personal beliefs about that person’s group membership (Freeman et al., 2010, as cited in Quadflieg, & Macrae, 2011). However, not all retrieved information ends up accurate. For instance, if being treated in a hospital, a man might see a woman in scrubs and assume she’s a nurse. However, upon further inspection, he’d realize that she is, in fact, the chief surgeon.

The stereotyping process is certainly complex, but it can be divided into four smaller parts: (1) person perception, (2) person categorization, (3) stereotype activation, and (4) stereotype application (Quadflieg & Macrae, 2011).

Face recognition is an essential component of person perception and thus stereotyping.

Person perception begins the stereotyping process and involves identifying human beings by recognizing facial and body features. We encode, or process, these important features holistically. Hence, we do not individually examine someone’s nose, mouth, or anything else. Instead, we interpret faces as a whole by relating particular features, and this important social skill is developed during early childhood. Of course, specific facial features do play a role in processing and recognizing faces, but, for the most part, faces are processed holistically, or as whole units. In other words, faces are special! Or, at least, the way in which faces are holistically processed is special. In fact, faces are so special that when they are inverted, people have a harder time recognizing them—a phenomenon called the ‘inversion effect.’ Humorously, effects like this one demonstrate the unique way in which faces, specifically, are processed (Yin, 1969, as cited in Quadflieg & Macrae, 2011).

Inverting faces results in processing difficulty.

Other evidence suggests that faces are processed through the activation of unique brain areas during person perception. For instance, the ‘fusiform face area’—or the part of our visual system that processes faces—generally only activates for things that, well, look like faces (Quadflieg & Macrae, 2011). Sure enough, the fusiform face area responds best to faces in the upright position—further showing that faces are, indeed, special. However, a study conducted by Gauthier et al. (2000) found that while the fusiform face area responds especially well to faces and stimuli resembling faces, both bird and car experts’ fusiform face areas activate when perceiving such items. What in the world does this mean? Do these people perceive birds and cars as humans? Well, no, but it suggests that the fusiform face area is actually a brain region for our special focuses or interests. Since, from a very young age, people need to learn how to perceive and recognize people holistically, most people—unless they have prosopagnosia, or face-blindness—are face recognition experts (Quadflieg & Macrae, 2011). Yes, even you—when you were a little kid, no less!

Building on person perception, person categorization is the second subcomponent of stereotyping, through which people assign others to broader groups (e.g., age, race, and sex). While people can often classify others into these broad categories with extreme ease, this process is complicated and adaptable—just like we are. Of course, no one person belongs to a single category, and seemingly contradictory group memberships exist practically everywhere. That means people belong to multiple social categories. For instance, Kamala Harris is a Black, Asian-American woman. Because categories can be ambiguous, person categorization is a truly incredible process, as people can assign multiple social categories simultaneously. Put differently, complex social dynamics impact person categorization (Quadflieg & Macrae, 2011). Because people rarely fit into a single, neat and tidy category, we have to consider that social categories might contrast during person categorization. Intersectional identities—or overlapping social categories that contribute to experiencing different forms of systemic oppression—can impact the way people process others. For instance, a study conducted by Smith et al. (2017) examined emotions’ impact on how people perceive and process Black women. Participants were slower to identify anger on white female faces compared to neutral expressions, yet were equally good at identifying angry and neutral facial expressions on Black female faces. In other words, angry facial expressions didn’t necessarily make categorizing Black women easier, but it did clearly make categorizing white women harder. This means that anger is often viewed as incompatible—or unexpected—for white women, but not Black women. These results could very well help explain the stereotype of the ‘angry Black woman’—suggesting that people do, in fact, expect Black women to be angrier (and thus more antagonistic) than white women (Smith et al., 2017). Of course, these expectations likely result from erroneous stereotypes.

Nevertheless, because both person perception and person categorization are intricately connected, that fusiform face area remains important. In fact, the fusiform face area experiences more activation around ingroup faces than outgroup faces (Quadflieg & Macrae, 2011). Thus, a white person’s fusiform face area would activate less to viewing a Black person than a white person. Psychologists like to call this the ‘other-race effect,’ because people are better at recognizing faces of their own race than others. Maybe unsurprisingly, then, decreased activation can be helpful, as the fusiform face area plays a large role in holistic processing, and holistic processing is critical for rapidly recognizing and categorizing people—and their faces. Interestingly, decreased activation for outgroup faces only applies to unfamiliar faces. That is to say, activation in the fusiform face area remains high when viewing well-known members of other races (Kim et al., 2006, as cited in Quadflieg & Macrae, 2011). So yes, making friends who are different from you is still a good idea!

The third subcomponent of stereotyping is something called stereotype activation. Importantly, that process of person categorization described above doesn’t automatically result in stereotyping. While categorization involves the application of general, noticeable categories, stereotyping largely involves personal beliefs and expectations. Okay—so then what determines whether or not stereotypes receive activation? Well, like most of this stereotyping stuff, it’s complicated. To start, something called perceived typicality (or, recognizing something as ‘typical’ of a certain group) critically influences stereotypes popping up in the brain. For instance, if someone perceives someone else as possessing physical traits that are ‘typical’ of such-and-such group, stereotypes will most likely be involved in processing the information. For this reason, a white woman viewing a Black man with strong Afrocentric features—such as a wider nose and fuller lips—is more likely to think of stereotypes about him than if that same man had more Eurocentric features—such as a thinner nose and smaller lips.

This image demonstrates features typically seen as Eurocentric (left) and Afrocentric (right).

In addition, how we meet people also plays a role in the activation of stereotypes. Thus, Kamala Harris’ professional and political influence might, in theory, result in less stereotyping, but only if she were to act unusual for a Black, Indian-American woman. Let’s think about her phrase, “I’m speaking,” again. Because Harris holds an important government position, her job necessarily requires a reasonable level of assertion—which is really all she was doing at the time. However, Harris’ justifiable demand for respect while debating Pence seemed to feed the stereotype of the ‘angry Black woman.’ People’s stereotypical expectations of Black women to be confrontational may have contributed to using the ‘angry Black woman’ trope about her. For better or worse, some people subconsciously expected the behavior to happen at some point, so the stereotyping resulted.

Similar to how stereotype activation and categorization interact, stereotype activation does not necessarily result in stereotype application. Again, stereotypes are cognitive shortcuts: they allow us to understand various people and situations without excessive effort. Try studying while watching your favorite reality show, and you’ll quickly discover that you can’t do that and enjoy the show at the same time; cognitive resources are limited, so divided attention often results in inaccuracy and inefficiency. Thus, the risk of stereotyping is more likely in situations where a person is expending a large amount of cognitive resources—such as when they are distracted or fatigued.

However, a study conducted by Gilbert and Hixon (1991) found that cognitive busyness doesn’t always result in stereotyping. While stereotypes can save people the trouble of constant relearning, mental activity decreases the likelihood of stereotype activation, but increases the likelihood of stereotype application. In this study, participants saw either a white woman or Asian woman posing as an assistant, and—without knowing the study’s true purpose, of course—subjects had to complete two tasks: a word fragment task, emphasizing stereotype activation, and an impression forming task, highlighting stereotype application. Importantly, some of the participants were told to do something else during the activation and/or application phase, too. Interestingly enough, people ended up actively stereotyping only if they had no other task to perform. So, when people can’t pay attention to everything equally, they will more likely stereotype others, but only if the stereotypes previously existed in their minds (Gilbert & Hixon, 1991).

Well, there’s no doubt now that stereotyping is complex. But how are stereotypes mentally represented? While several models have been proposed to describe stereotypes, mixed-models often have the most support. Mixed-models suggest that stereotypes receive representation via both abstractions, or general concepts, and exemplars, or specific memories. Put differently, stereotypes are sometimes abstract mental summaries of common features and traits of a group. At other times, though, stereotyping involves individual exemplars—or memories—that end up activated because of particular situations or circumstances. When we experience stereotypes involving various exemplars of the same category, these exemplars are then put together and used to generate ideas and expectations (Sherman, 1996). So, when are exemplars involved and when are abstractions involved? According to Sherman (1996), people use both these approaches under different circumstances: when people possess limited knowledge about a certain group, they tend to use individual memories to generate impressions; as people learn more about a particular group, stereotypes can come from abstract concepts (Sherman, 1996).

Stereotypes can be convenient. Obviously, though, stereotypes are not without their downfalls. Convenience comes at a cost, and the damaging effects inflicted by stereotypes can be irreversible. Stereotypes aren’t just beliefs; they have everlasting effects, and history has demonstrated that stereotypes can even be a matter of life and death—for example, in the horrific murder and ill treatment of Black people across America. For better or for worse, stereotyping is a natural cognitive process, but each of us can recognize that we, ourselves, stereotype others, and we can also stay aware of the pernicious effects of stereotypes. That being said, let’s continuously question our stereotypes, ourselves, and the world around us. And hey! In 2021, we will have a perfectly capable Vice President to give us plenty of practice in overcoming our bad habits.

References

Gilbert, D. T., & Hixon, J. G. (1991). The trouble of thinking: Activation and application of stereotypic beliefs. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 60(4), 509–517. https://doi-org.colby.idm.oclc.org/10.1037/0022-3514.60.4.509

Meme Guy. n.d. Facial recognition required. Meme Guy. https://memeguy.com/photos/images/facial-recognition-required-62384.png

O’hehir, Andrew. (2014, August 30). Why acknowledging white privilege is not surrendering to ‘white guilt.’ Salon. https://www.salon.com/2014/08/30/why_acknowledging_white_privilege_is_not_surrendering_to_white_guilt/

Sebastian023. (2012). TempCapts.png [PNG]. Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:TempCaptsLateral.png

Sherman, J. W. (1996). Development and mental representation of stereotypes. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 70(6), 1126–1141. https://doi-org.colby.idm.oclc.org/10.1037/0022-3514.70.6.1126

Smith, J. S., LaFrance, M., & Dovidio, J. F. (2017). Categorising intersectional targets: An “either/and” approach to race- and gender-emotion congruity. Cognition and Emotion, 31(1), 83–97. https://doi-org.colby.idm.oclc.org/10.1080/02699931.2015.1081875

Sommer, L. (2020 Oct. 8). Kamala Harris “I’m Speaking” memes from the VP debate. StayHipp. https://stayhipp.com/internet/memes/kamala-harris-im-speaking-memes-from-the-vp-debate/

Quadflieg, S., & Macrae, C.N. (2011). Stereotypes and stereotyping: What’s the brain got to do with it? European Review of Social Psychology, 22(1), 215–273. https://doi-org.colby.idm.oclc.org/10.1080/10463283.2011.627998

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