Jeffrey W. Sherman
The Dynamic Relationship Between Stereotype Efficiency and Mental Representation
Stereotypes are “cognitive structures that contain the perceiver's knowledge, beliefs, and expectations about a human group” (Hamilton & Trolier, 1986, p. 133). In the past 20 years, a great deal of attention has been devoted to understanding how stereotypes influence the perception of individual members of stereotyped groups. This research has shown stereotypes to have a profound impact on many basic cognitive processes that underlie social perception. They determine the kinds of information to which people attend, the ways in which that information is interpreted and encoded, and the manner in which the information is stored in memory and subsequently retrieved. Of course, stereotypes also influence the content of resulting judgments about target individuals as well as perceivers' behavior toward those individuals (for a review, see Hamilton & Sherman, 1994).
More recently, attention has also turned to defining more precisely the nature of these stereotypic cognitive structures or mental representations (for reviews, see Hamilton & Sherman, 1994; Sherman, 1996). Broadly speaking, a mental representation is “an encoding of some information, which an individual can construct, retain in memory, access, and use in various ways” (Smith, 1998, p. 391). Research on the mental representation of stereotypes has been concerned with identifying the manner in which knowledge about social groups is constructed and retained in memory. When we say that a stereotype has been activated, what, specifically, do we mean? What exactly is being represented and activated in memory?
To this point, research on the influence of stereotypes on social perception processes and on the mental representation of stereotypes has proceeded in a largely independent fashion, with little overlap having been noted or pursued between the two topics. However, these topics are much more closely related than has been previously acknowledged. We cannot directly observe people's mental representations. We can only infer these representations through the processes that act on them. As such, any model of representation is also a model of cognitive processing and is constrained by what we know about cognitive processes. In turn, what we learn about mental representation constrains the viability of different process models. Thus, one cannot be fully understood without a corresponding understanding of the other (Anderson, 1978; Barsalou, 1990; Smith, 1998). The primary goal of this chapter is to detail how research on stereotype representation and stereotypic effects on information processing (particularly as they relate to stereotype efficiency) inform one another.
First, I describe recent research on stereotype representation and detail how concerns for efficient information processing play a vital role in the nature and development of stereotypic representations. Next, I explain how these representations in turn influence the processing of stereotype-relevant information. This discussion focuses on a recently developed model of how stereotypes confer efficiency in social perception. I argue that the efficient processing of stereotype-relevant information is largely dependent on the representational nature of stereotypes. Finally, I describe how these efficient processing mechanisms feed back into and reinforce the representational nature of stereotypes. Thus, the relationship between mental representation and processing efficiency is a dynamic one. Concerns about efficiency influence representation, which in turn influences processing efficiency, which in turn influences representation.
At one level, the mental representation of a stereotype can be defined in terms of the particular content that is included in the representation (e.g., the particular traits thought to characterize the target group). However, such a definition is merely descriptive and uninformative as to