From Cognition to Culture: The Origins of Stereotypes That Really Matter
Mark Schaller Lucian Gideon Conway, III
University of British Columbia
Stereotypes matter because they have consequences.
Stereotypes matter because they have specific consequences. The specific consequences result from the particular contents of those stereotypes. If you believe that folks from the American South are fond of a good slab of barbecued meat, then you may be more likely to serve smoked pork shoulder when you have your new Alabama-born co-worker Billy over for a welcoming dinner, but this particular stereotype of Southerners is not likely to make you reconsider the rest of your guest list. Alternatively, if you believe that Southerners are racist bigots, then this stereotype probably will not influence the menu, but may make you decide not to invite the Nwazuruokeh's from next door to join you as well.
Stereotypes matter because they have general consequences. The general consequences result from the fact that stereotypes are, to some degree, shared. If you are the only person who believes Southerners to be barbecue lovers or racist bigots, then the consequences of this stereotype would be minimal indeed, affecting the lives of no one but you and the Southerners whom you encounter. You might insensitively invite a finicky vegetarian over for a rack of ribs, or your coworker Billy might miss the opportunity to meet your Nigerian neighbors, but these incidents hardly comprise a social problem. However, when these stereotypic beliefs are shared by many, then the consequences of the stereotype are broad, affecting the actions of all those who hold the stereotype and the lives of the much larger set of Southerners that these many individuals encounter.
None of this is news to anyone who has either a personal or professional interest in stereotypes. In commenting on several stereotypes that have historically mattered—such as stereotypes of Jews—Haslam (1997, p. 119) noted that “the stereotypes became potent because, within the groups who held them, they came to reflect and express a particular world view which dictated that group's collective behavior towards particular targets of oppression.” But, although social scientists may readily acknowledge why stereotypes matter, we do not know very much about how those stereotypes that matter come to be what they are. If we wanted to predict which exact traits and characteristics would be central to a shared stereotype of some group, we would find that the existing social-psychological literature offers only a rough set of rules on which to offer a prediction.
One challenge for the future, then, is this: We need to nourish a scientific literature that more completely offers explanations for the origins of stereotypes that really matter. How do emerging, shared stereotypes arise that have the specific contents that they do, rather than some other contents? Through what processes can we understand and predict how some individual cognitions rather than others become socially shared cultural structures?
Prior to the cognitive revolution in social psychology, content and consensus were the explicit foci of many studies of group stereotypes. Consider the well-known “Princeton trilogy” of studies examining ethnic stereotypes (Gilbert, 1951; Katz & Braly, 1933; Karlins, Coffman, & Waters, 1969). The questions these studies addressed were explicitly: “What are the contents of stereotypes about various ethnic groups?” and “How much consensus is there in the perception of these stereotypes?” However, just as these research questions revealed the focus on stereotypes that really mattered, the results also reveal the limitations of the accompanying sociometric methods: The studies were descriptive, not explanatory. However impressively they described the content and consensus of ethnic stereotypes, the results offer nothing by way of explanation. Why these particular contents and not others? Why are these contents consensually shared?
To answer questions such as these, it is necessary that stereotypes be defined at the individual level of analysis. Within contemporary psychological frame