Are Blonds Really Dumb?
Blonds are dumb, foreigners lazy, women can't do math. We continuously encounter such statements in our every-day lives – even if most people obviously wouldn’t take them seriously. Nevertheless, we often act towards others as if they were members of a particular group and nothing more. The bases for such behaviors are stereotypes and prejudices. Stereotypes are subjective views about the characteristics, attitudes, and behaviors of the members of a particular group. They are overgeneralizations, whereby the members of a group are assigned certain characteristics – merely based on their group membership.
Of course, we don’t like to think of ourselves as prejudiced. We believe in equality between genders and races. We might joke about the dumb blond, but do we really believe it? Do we really think women can’t do math? Do we think Black Americans are more aggressive than White Americans? Most of us would probably answer no. While we hold egalitarian beliefs of equality and equity, and while we think we’re not judgmental and that we act in a fair manner, research has indicated that the “evil” stereotypes lie hidden deep inside of us all. People activate such stereotypes in many situations and based on minimal cues – even the presence of a member of the particular group is enough. In other words, when encountering a member of a particular group, we automatically recall information about this person’s group, such as typical attitudes and behaviors.
Patricia Devine from the University of Wisconsin-Madison (1989) investigated which elements of stereotyping are automatic and which can be consciously controlled. In a series of experiments about the (North American) cultural stereotype of Blacks, she first demonstrated that both people who show high levels of prejudice towards Blacks and those who show comparatively low levels are equally knowledgeable of the stereotype contents. Accordingly, Blacks are, for example, believed to be aggressive and criminal-like, but also athletic and rhythmic. In order to investigate whether the mere knowledge of such a stereotype can influence our thoughts and behavior – irrespective of whether we consciously believe in it – Devine designed a study in which people did not realize that their stereotypes had been activated. She then assessed how aggressive people judged an ambiguous behavior. Participants in the study saw brief flashes and had to indicate whether these were in their left or right visual field. In reality, these flashes were words, which were so briefly presented (80 milliseconds), that the human brain could not consciously recognize them. Nevertheless, under these conditions our brains are still able to process their semantic content. Such a procedure is called subliminal priming. For half the participants, these priming words referred mostly to the stereotype of Black Americans (e.g., ‘Blacks’, ‘Negros’, ‘niggers’, ‘poor’, ‘lazy’, ‘athletic’) – however, none of the words referred to aggressiveness and hostility. For the other half of the participants, the presented words were mostly neutral in content (e.g., ‘water’, ‘television’, ‘number’, ‘however’). After participants had seen 100 such words, they were asked to proceed to an allegedly unrelated second experiment about impression formation. Participants read a paragraph about a person, Donald, who engages in several ambiguously aggressive behaviors. For example, Donald refuses to pay his rent until his apartment is repainted. Participants then judged how hostile they considered Donald’s behavior.
The striking result of Devine’s research is that if participants had been primed with words related to Black Americans, they judged Donald’s behaviors to be more aggressive than if they had been primed with neutral words. This effect was equally strong for people with high and low prejudice levels. Thus, even though participants could not consciously read the priming words, the stereotype had been activated and influenced the subsequent judgment of another person, Donald, whose race was not mentioned. Devine hence found out that in situations where people cannot easily recognize that they are stereotyping, they tend to evaluate others based on stereotype-congruent attributions – especially if the observed behaviors are ambiguous and allow multiple explanations. Even though we can consciously control and counteract stereotypic thoughts, we are not always aware that there is something to counteract and hence don’t.