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Three traps set by stereotypes

Patrice Georget
Patrice Georget
Lecturer in Psychosociology at the University School of Management IAE Caen
Key takeaways
  • Stereotypes are impressions shared by all the members of a group about all the members of another group, or about themselves.
  • They help us to think quickly, to understand the world through simplified categories, to preserve our ego and to maintain a social consensus.
  • Research in social psychology has shown that stereotypes affect our judgements independently of our awareness, often where we do not expect them.
  • Stereotypes can be a source of self-censorship: they can be seen as self-fulfilling prophecies.
  • Stereotypes are part of our “social DNA”, but we can train ourselves to evaluate them to correct ourselves.

“A father and son have a seri­ous car acci­dent. The father falls into a deep coma. The son is injured and needs emer­gency surgery. He is tak­en to hos­pi­tal. As they enter the oper­at­ing room, the sur­gi­cal intern looks at the child and says: ‘this is too emo­tion­al for me, I can’t oper­ate on him: he’s, my son!’” How can this be? Take a minute to think about the above ques­tion, and before we dis­cov­er the answer, let’s start by explor­ing the com­mon world of stereotypes. 

Shared? Well yes, stereo­types are impres­sions that all mem­bers of a group share about all mem­bers of anoth­er group or about their own group1. They are build­ing blocks of our men­tal func­tion­ing, just like cog­ni­tive bias­es, heuris­tics, and oth­er short­cuts of thought. They help us to think quick­ly and effort­less­ly, to under­stand the world through sim­pli­fied cat­e­gories, to pre­serve our ego through often advan­ta­geous com­par­isons with oth­ers, and to fos­ter social con­sen­sus. How­ev­er, behind these self-evi­dent facts lie three traps that we should antic­i­pate to main­tain a min­i­mum of free will in our judge­ments and decisions.

#1 Unwittingly judgemental

Ety­mo­log­i­cal­ly, the term stereo­type comes from the print­ing indus­try and refers to the rigid matrix used to impreg­nate motifs in a repeat­ed and iden­ti­cal man­ner. Trans­posed to psy­chol­o­gy, stereo­types thus cor­re­spond to repet­i­tive and fixed men­tal images – not always con­scious, but always exag­ger­at­ed – which colour our per­cep­tion of oth­ers by sim­pli­fy­ing it. Moti­vat­ed by a mech­a­nism of sim­pli­fi­ca­tion of the world, they con­cern the cat­e­gories of first impres­sion: phys­i­cal appear­ance, ori­gin and geo­graph­i­cal affil­i­a­tion, pro­fes­sions, sex, age range, etc. The most attrac­tive peo­ple are, for exam­ple, attrib­uted skills and psy­cho­log­i­cal bal­ance that they do not nec­es­sar­i­ly pos­sess. As a result, they are lis­tened to more dur­ing a group dis­cus­sion, they are rat­ed bet­ter dur­ing an eval­u­a­tion, they are eas­i­ly per­ceived as hon­est and charis­mat­ic2

Of course, each per­son will attribute to his or her own group prej­u­dices that are rather favourable: “what is intel­li­gent, thrifty and spon­ta­neous for one’s own group becomes resource­ful­ness, greed and impul­sive­ness for the oth­er group3”. More­over, not all stereo­types are false, and some are even based on well-estab­lished facts. What can be prob­lem­at­ic is their over­gen­er­al­i­sa­tion and often sim­plis­tic nature, as well as their rigid­i­ty and per­sis­tence. Many stereo­types emerge in the absence of any real­i­ty, based on iso­lat­ed cas­es or rumours4, con­veyed by the media, opin­ion mul­ti­pli­ers or cer­tain pres­sure groups, and now more eas­i­ly with the Inter­net and social media. 

Research in social psy­chol­o­gy has shown how stereo­types affect our judge­ments inde­pen­dent­ly of our aware­ness, and what is more, often where we do not expect them. There­fore, exper­i­men­tal research meth­ods are an excel­lent way to reveal them to ourselves.

Let’s illus­trate this with an inge­nious study by Madeleine Heil­man and Julie Chen5 from 2005. They pro­duced two strict­ly iden­ti­cal pro­fes­sion­al reports, fea­tur­ing Dominique, some­times a man, some­times a woman, in charge of a ser­vice com­pa­ny, five years senior­i­ty, and man­ag­er of four peo­ple. The report presents Dominique’s activ­i­ties dur­ing a typ­i­cal day. Dominique ends the day by being asked by a col­league to do them a small ser­vice relat­ed to a delay in a file. In one ver­sion of the report, Dominique agrees to stay and help the col­league, while in anoth­er ver­sion, Dominique refus­es. Hence, there are four ver­sions of the sto­ry. Four dif­fer­ent groups of human resource pro­fes­sion­als are then exposed to one of the sto­ries and asked to eval­u­ate Dominique on sev­er­al dimen­sions, includ­ing job performance.

If Dominique is a man and agrees to help a col­league, then his job per­for­mance is judged to be supe­ri­or to that of the woman who helps her col­league! Sim­i­lar­ly, if Dominique-male does not help his col­league, then he is not under­val­ued, where­as Dominique-female is. Why is this? Well, because the stereo­type “it is in the nature of women to help oth­ers” implies that if a woman helps a col­league, it is con­sid­ered nor­mal. Where­as if the woman does not show altru­ism, we look for a rea­son, for exam­ple, we con­sid­er that she is not that pro­fes­sion­al… On the oth­er hand, a man who does not help does not pose a prob­lem, since it is not part of social expec­ta­tions. Where­as a man who helps is noticed… to the point of con­sid­er­ing that it is linked to his pro­fes­sion­al skills! This pos­i­tive or neg­a­tive con­t­a­m­i­na­tion is the result of a halo effect, like a wave that irri­gates judge­ments based on a first impres­sion. These phe­nom­e­na are rarely con­scious, which makes them par­tic­u­lar­ly pernicious. 

As we can see, there are real social con­struc­tions behind our judge­ments and deci­sions, which to a cer­tain extent, impose them­selves on our way of think­ing. It is time to return to our orig­i­nal enig­ma: who is the sur­gi­cal intern? The step­fa­ther? The adop­tive father, the adul­ter­er, the father’s spouse? Yes, these are all pos­si­ble, but there’s a sim­pler solu­tion: it’s the child’s moth­er! Did the stereo­typ­i­cal asso­ci­a­tion sur­geon = man work for you?

#2 Pledging allegiance

Stereo­types and their neg­a­tive aspects, prej­u­dices, can be a real threat and psy­cho­log­i­cal bur­den to the peo­ple they tar­get6Bad rep­u­ta­tions7 are a stig­ma and a source of self-cen­sor­ship, the effect of which is unfor­tu­nate­ly to con­firm beliefs: we speak of self-ful­fill­ing prophecies.

To illus­trate these phe­nom­e­na, Lau­ra Kray and her col­leagues at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Berke­ley8 have car­ried out a very inter­est­ing study on gen­der stereo­types in the abil­i­ty to nego­ti­ate in the busi­ness world. 

We are in an MBA pro­gram, and the stu­dents are doing a case study in which they are giv­en a file on a biotech com­pa­ny whose sale they will have to nego­ti­ate as best they can. The com­pa­ny is val­ued at between $17–26m, they have a com­plete file on its bal­ance sheet and its mar­ket, and they will be faced with a client whose objec­tive is to buy the com­pa­ny as cheap­ly as pos­si­ble. It is up to them to find the argu­ments to sell it for the high­est pos­si­ble price. 

Two groups of stu­dents are formed. For the first group, called “exer­cise”, the case study is pre­sent­ed as fol­lows: “This exer­cise is designed as a way for you to famil­iarise your­self with the basic con­cepts of the nego­ti­a­tion activ­i­ty. This is a prac­tice exer­cise, use it as a learn­ing tool”. For the sec­ond group (referred to as “real life”), the study is pre­sent­ed as fol­lows: “You are tak­ing part in this nego­ti­a­tion exer­cise because it will be a very use­ful test of your nego­ti­a­tion skills, com­pe­tences, and short­com­ings. Accord­ing to our school’s back­ground, this test is a good indi­ca­tor of your nego­ti­a­tion per­for­mance in your pro­fes­sion­al future”. As you can see, in this ver­sion the pres­sure is on, and the chal­lenge is to show what you can do. 

The fol­low­ing graph shows the per­for­mance rate of stu­dents in both groups.

We see in the “exer­cise” assign­ment that men and women per­form equal­ly well. How­ev­er, as soon as the stakes in the sit­u­a­tion become high (“real-life”), men are stim­u­lat­ed, and women are held back. Why is this? The authors analysed this result using the con­cept of stig­ma­ti­sa­tion: nego­ti­a­tion in the busi­ness world requires assertive­ness, com­pe­ti­tion and even aggres­sive­ness, qual­i­ties that are con­sid­ered to be male attrib­ut­es, which have a moti­vat­ing effect on men in the “real life” con­di­tion. The oppo­site is true for women. This process is not con­scious, and this is pre­cise­ly the issue with self-cen­sor­ship due to stereotyping. 

But what hap­pens if we make this explic­it? Will women become aware and rebel? This is what the authors did in the sec­ond stage of the research, with a new class of stu­dents. We still have two groups: the “real-life” group, which has the same instruc­tions as before. And a new group, called “aware­ness”, with the fol­low­ing instruc­tions: “This exer­cise allows you to eval­u­ate your nego­ti­a­tion skills in the busi­ness world. It will allow you to check whether you have the nec­es­sary qual­i­ties: high stan­dards, log­ic, abil­i­ty to express your ideas with­out let­ting your emo­tions show and with­out being too accom­mo­dat­ing. These are qual­i­ties for which large vari­a­tions in per­for­mance have been mea­sured, for exam­ple in the dif­fer­ences between men and women.” The results speak for them­selves: this instruc­tion acts as pos­i­tive stim­u­la­tion for the women!

The result obtained in this sec­ond phase seems promis­ing: it shows that it is pos­si­ble to over­come stereo­types, if we talk about them and expose them. It is a ques­tion of trans­form­ing a risk into an oppor­tu­ni­ty, and to do this, stereo­types must not be allowed to oper­ate in the back­ground: they are process­es that oper­ate in the shad­ows, and their impact is all the greater if they are not brought to light. Mak­ing them vis­i­ble, mak­ing them explic­it and denounc­ing them is an excel­lent oppor­tu­ni­ty to shake them up! But is it enough?

#3 Understanding is not awareness

Is the fact of hav­ing under­stood the above and agree­ing with what is being said a guar­an­tee of con­trol over one’s own stereo­types? Cer­tain­ly not! Para­dox­i­cal­ly, research shows that there is a rebound effect9: by ask­ing peo­ple to dis­re­gard their stereo­types too much, they end up devel­op­ing an illu­sion of con­trol which weak­ens the reg­u­la­tion of their own stereo­types. Mod­esty must there­fore remain the guid­ing prin­ci­ple of an assumed reg­u­la­tion of stereo­types: even if we con­sid­er our­selves to be non-racist, non-misog­y­nist, non-homo­pho­bic, etc., we must keep in mind that we all have stereo­types and that we must not lapse into an inef­fec­tive moral­is­ing vision. To think that hav­ing stereo­types would make us an out­cast is absurd: stereo­types are embed­ded in our “social DNA10”, cul­ture shapes our minds, even in its most car­i­ca­tured form. 

For this rea­son, a good way of main­tain­ing our vig­i­lance regard­ing our own behav­iour is to mea­sure our own implic­it stereo­types using pro­ce­dures that are now well val­i­dat­ed, such as the “Implic­it Asso­ci­a­tion Tests » (IATs)11, for which there are online tools that will serve as a use­ful fol­low-up to this arti­cle. This type of exer­cise allows us, with­out moral­is­ing, to be con­front­ed with our own non-con­scious judge­men­tal bias­es, and to be moti­vat­ed to cor­rect them: as a last resort, it is the process of psy­cho­log­i­cal inhi­bi­tion that is ben­e­fi­cial in learn­ing to resist a part of our­selves12.

You can take Implic­it Asso­ci­a­tion Tests here : 


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5Heil­man, M.E. & Chen, J.J.  (2005). Same behav­ior, dif­fer­ent con­se­quences: Reac­tions to men’s and women’s altru­is­tic cit­i­zen­ship behav­ior. Jour­nal of Applied Psy­chol­o­gy, 90, 431–441.
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8Kray, L. J., Thomp­son, L., & Galin­sky, A. (2001). Bat­tle of the sex­es: Gen­der stereo­type con­fir­ma­tion and reac­tance in nego­ti­a­tions. Jour­nal of Per­son­al­i­ty and Social Psy­chol­o­gy, 80(6), 942–958
9Car­rein-Ler­ouge, C., Gras, A., Le Pot­ti­er, A. & Mon­ta­lan, B. (2019). Stéréo­types de sexe et effet rebond : quelles réper­cus­sions sur les acteurs et actri­ces du sys­tème édu­catif confronté·e·s à des choix d’orientation atyp­iques ?”, L’ori­en­ta­tion sco­laire et pro­fes­sion­nelle [Online], 48/4. Online since 30 Decem­ber 2021, con­nec­tion on 02 Octo­ber 2022. URL: http://​jour​nals​.openedi​tion​.org/​o​s​p​/​11404; DOI: https://​doi​.org/​1​0​.​4​0​0​0​/​o​s​p​.​11404
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12Houdé, O. (2022). Appren­dre à résis­ter. Pour com­bat­tre les biais cog­ni­tifs. Flam­mar­i­on, Champs.


Patrice Georget

Patrice Georget

Lecturer in Psychosociology at the University School of Management IAE Caen

Patrice Georget is a lecturer and researcher in psycho-sociology at the IAE Caen University school of management, which he directed from 2015 to 2020. He has been an industry consultant in diversity management and risk prevention. He has been an expert for the APM (Association Progrès du Management) since 2009 and a GERME speaker.

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