Academic journal article Memory & Cognition

Immediate Activation of Stereotypical Gender Information

Academic journal article Memory & Cognition

Immediate Activation of Stereotypical Gender Information

Article excerpt

This article reports six experiments in which we explored whether gender stereotype information is typically invoked when certain role and profession terms are read and the extent to which the use of such information is under the reader's strategic control. All of the experiments used a design in which subjects had to decide whether two terms (one an occupation and one a kinship term) could refer to the same person (e.g., surgeon-brother or surgeon-sister). The presentation conditions and the instructions were varied from experiment to experiment, to try to encourage the subjects to respond strategically and to suppress their use of gender stereotypes when responding. The results support not only the hypothesis that information about the stereotypical gender associated with occupations and roles is typically incorporated into the reader's representation immediately, but also the hypothesis that such information is difficult or impossible to suppress. The implications of these findings for current theories of text processing and text representation are discussed.

The construction of a representation of the information in a text is influenced by background knowledge. Indeed, texts that do not have readily perceivable links with background knowledge are notoriously difficult to understand or appreciate-for example, the abstract description of washing clothes, used in an experiment by Bransford and Johnson (1972). However, the issue of how prior knowledge is used in the setting up of a text representation is contentious and difficult to investigate. It seems likely, however, that certain sorts of information derived from lexical items will be included in a representation if they are likely to make the subsequent text cohere. So, for instance, if the word father is encountered in a text, the information that the person is male is likely to be incorporated into the representation. More generally, if a reader encounters characters who have typically male or female names, they will build a representation in which those characters are male or female (in the absence of any information to the contrary, such as Phil turning out to be a short form of Phyllis; Carreiras, Garnham, & Oakhill, 1993; Chang, 1980; Garnham & Oakhill, 1985). Such filling in of default values probably results in cognitive economies, providing that the defaults assigned are not disconfirmed later in the text.

In this article, we address one aspect of background knowledge and how readily it is accessed-that of stereotypical gender information. That such information is used (even against the reader or listener's better judgment) is well illustrated by the following conundrum:

A father and son are driving home one day, when they are involved in a serious accident. The father is killed outright, but the son is driven to hospital, where he is about to undergo an emergency operation. However, the surgeon refuses to operate, saying: "I can't operate on him: he's my son." The question is, how can this be?

(Sanford, 1985, p. 311)

To investigate whether or not such passages cause problems, Reynolds, Garnham, and Oakhill (in press) conducted two experiments. In the first, the subjects read passages such as the above. In such passages, an incongruity arises in the final clause if readers have previously assigned a gender to a character introduced with a social role name. The subjects' confusion supported the contention that gender information had been incorporated into their mental representation at encoding of, say, surgeon. In a second experiment, online measures confirmed that readers were slower to read the final clause of such passages when there was a gender stereotype conflict. Even when questioned about their interpretations of such passages, many of the subjects did not immediately solve the inconsistency by inferring the appropriate gender for the role term. These findings provide strong evidence that gender activation has its locus at the time a role name is encoded-that is, that in the example above, the subjects encoded the sex of the surgeon as male. …

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