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How Do Stereotypes Form and Can They Be Altered?

IPR psychologist Alice Eagly finds change is possible

fast food
People form stereotypes based on inferences about groups' social roles—like high school dropouts in the fast-food industry.

Picture a high-school dropout. Now, think about what occupation that person is likely to hold. If “fast-food worker” came to mind, you would be correct: High-school dropouts are overrepresented in the fast-food industry.

In the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, IPR social psychologist Alice Eagly and the University of San Diego’s Anne Koenig, a former IPR graduate research assistant, investigate how people come to form stereotypes based on these types of inferences about social roles.

They are the first to explore how “social role theory,” which has been mainly used to understand gender stereotypes, might explain why people believe, for example, that typically MBAs are competitive and senior citizens are kind. The theory proposes that as people observe a group overrepresented in certain roles—for example, women as caregivers—they extrapolate from the traits they believe are enacted in these roles, such as being more nurturing, and ascribe them to the entire group—that is, to women in general.

Alice Eagly

To assess the importance of occupation roles in forming stereotypes, Eagly and Koenig conducted a series of experiments. In an initial experiment, participants named the typical occupational roles associated with groups ranging from black men and Hispanics to the poor, Republicans, and high school dropouts. These judgments about typical roles were on the whole quite accurate, as shown by occupational data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.  In other experiments, they rated the traits required for success in these roles as well as the traits required to enact typical role behaviors—for example, for a fast food worker, “serve customers in eating places that specialize in fast service." In all of the experiments, the stereotypes of each of the social groups matched the qualities that the participants ascribed to the typical occupations of the social group in question. The general idea of this research is that stereotypes of groups come from the everyday observations of the kinds of social roles that group members occupy. 

“Stereotypes are not mysterious or arbitrary,” Eagly said, but “grounded in the observations of everyday life.”

Additionally, stereotypes are neither fixed, nor rigid, Eagly and Koenig find. In another experiment, they informed study participants that, for example, more white males would become nurses in the next 25–30 years, and then asked how they would be perceived. The participants changed their stereotypes of the group of white males to reflect these new roles. In other words, if enough members of a stereotyped group manage to break into new fields—whether men into nursing or women into math and science—prevailing stereotypes about them would likely change.

Of course, to break into new fields, members of stereotyped groups have to get hired in them. That is where policy interventions should begin, Eagly argues.

“We can’t just change the stereotype directly, or the psychology that underlies it, because it is based on everyday observations,” Eagly said, noting that people should seek to increase disadvantaged groups’ access to better jobs. “We have to change the reality that people observe.”

Alice Eagly is the James Padilla Chair in Arts and Sciences, professor of psychology, and an IPR fellow. 

Photo credit: Steve Snodgrass, Flickr