Social, cultural and cognitive factors
in stereotype formation
Craig McGarty, Vincent Y. Yzerbyt and Russell Spears
Imagine for a moment a busy city intersection with a police officer controlling traffic. All of the users of that street are individuals, but they are also members of society and, like the police officer they are members of groups that help us to explain why those people act in the way they do at particular times. Indeed, individuals and groups can be said to be the central facts of society. Without individuals there could be no society, but unless individuals also perceive themselves to belong to groups, that is, to share characteristics, circumstances, values and beliefs with other people, then society would be without structure or order. These perceptions of groups are called stereotypes.
If we accept that perceptions of groups are so important for people to understand the social world, then understanding those stereotypes is also extremely important for social psychology. Social psychologists such as Asch (1952) have argued that understanding the relationship between individuals and groups is the master problem for social psychology. In addressing this problem we need to recognize though, that individuals and groups tend to have their effects on each other through their psychological representation within individual minds. That is, social objects affect us through the way they are perceived rather than through the application of physical force.
Think again of the police officer controlling traffic at a busy intersection. The police officer does not (normally) need to physically restrain the traffic from passing through the intersection. He or she can signal to drivers to wait and, because they accept that the police officer has that responsibility, or because they believe there will be a risk of an accident or fine if they proceed through the intersection (or for any one of a myriad of other reasons) they do in fact stop when signalled. Our perception of the authority of the police officer rests on our perception of the membership of that police officer in the police service. Interpretations of that police officer's actions are largely shaped by our understanding of the role of