Malleability of Automatic Stereotypes and Prejudice

Implicit stereotype
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The model of the person emerging from the implicit stereotyping research appears to characterise the fair-minded individual as wrestling with an implicitly biased cognitive monster within them. However, it is argued here that this is a false image.

Irene V. Blair, Ph.D.

We learn the cultural mores of our society through socialisation and daily communication with other members of the culture. We may not approve of all aspects of our culture and indeed might strongly object to some but cultural knowledge—just like other knowledge—is crucial to our pragmatic functioning in society. The wide range of semantic associations we learn in our culture can successfully guide our judgements from what to wear at a job interview, which side of the road to drive on, and how to talk to the boss.

Perception operates by employing prior probabilities that are efficiently deployed to reduce the processing requirements of treating each new experience as completely new. While explored mostly with basic object perception, Clark argued that it is applicable to social perception, and Otten et al. For Clark perceiving is predicting. For example, we are able to quickly and efficiently recognize a friend we have arranged to meet outside a restaurant, even from quite a distance.

Through repeated experience of the friend we have developed a sophisticated prediction based on a range of cues from their gait to their favourite coat. Usually, this prediction is correct and it is the person we expected. The dynamic of the predictive brain is to minimise the error of the prediction, that is, the difference between the prediction and the experienced event. However, an occasional error—as only one instance—will normally only have a small effect on the prior probabilities that have been developed over multiple successful perceptions. Prediction is not about being correct every time—but is about minimising error and maximising predictive accuracy.

Clearly in ancient Japan without bread and butter or Western-style tables and chairs these specific implicit associations did not develop. In social perception we can ask: what is the probability of this man being a basketball player given that he is a tall, Black professional sportsman? This likelihood is based on prior probabilities—which come from experience or knowledge of the culture—so the likelihood could be judged differently by a person from the USA compared with a person from Kenya. The idea that stereotypes involve a belief that all members of the category share an attribute has persisted in the cognitive research Hinton, This is not the same.

In a well-known study Kahneman and Tversky : gave participants a description of Jack that matched the stereotype of an engineer:. Jack is a year-old man. He is married and has four children. He is generally conservative, careful, and ambitious. He shows no interest in political and social issues and spends most of his free time on his many hobbies which include home carpentry, sailing and mathematical puzzles.

They were then asked to predict the probability of Jack actually being an engineer in a room of 30 engineers and 70 lawyers. Participants tended to ignore the base-rate probabilities 0. They argued that this strategy was not as good as using the base-rate probabilities as the description may not be valid and furthermore it could match more of the lawyer group as there are simply more of them. However, they admitted that a Bayesian prediction could produce the likelihood of Jack being an engineer if the description was accurate and diagnostic.

Outside the psychological laboratory people almost never know the base-rate probabilities Todd et al. In many cases like this, accurate demographic data is unavailable, either because it is not there or because we do not have the time and motivation to find it—we can only rely on our general knowledge of engineers. The Bayesian brain develops its statistical probabilities from experience of engineers—such as the engineers encountered in life and learnt about through the media.

The likelihood that an engineer is a man who is uninterested in politics and likes mathematical puzzles does not mean that all engineers must have these attributes, simply that these are frequently encountered in engineers in the social world, such as the engineer Howard Wolowitz in the popular US sitcom The Big Bang Theory , Consider the following example where I could find some demographic information Footnote 1. There are 70 professional golfers and 30 professional basketball players in a room all men and from the USA.

What is the probability that he is a basketball player? Using only the base-rate probabilities Tom should be predicted to be a golfer.

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However, a Bayesian analysis of the demographic data agrees with the representativeness heuristic that it is very likely that Tom is a basketball player. Rather than assuming that human cognition is statistically naive, an alternative explanation is that people are unconsciously Bayesian and they normally assume that a description identifying learnt implicit associations is accurate and diagnostic unless they consciously decide otherwise. Outside of the psychological laboratory it may be that a limited description is all the information people have to go on.

However, in an encounter with the specific person, they will learn new information to adjust this view if the prediction is not supported.

Ben could be prejudiced against the social group believing the stereotype but, alternatively, he might be a fair-minded person who believes that the university is prejudiced against the group in its procedures. Also the university might have rejected Ben either as it is prejudiced in its selection or, alternatively, has a fair-assessment system and Ben is rejected for reasons unrelated to his group membership. A key point to note here is that the predictive brain operates on the state of the world as it is experienced and not on the state of the world as we believe it should be.

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Working towards gender equality and encouraging more women into engineering is a key aim in many Western societies, but that admirable social and political goal should not lead us to misunderstand the unconscious working of the predictive brain. A second important point is that the Bayesian brain seeks predictive validity through the picking up of regularities to form associations on the basis of experience.

The predictive brain, as a perceptual mechanism, is directed solely by the minimization of surprisal.

It does not make a moral judgement or provide an explanation for the state of the world. It simply seeks to make accurate predictions.

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In a study on language learning, Perfors and Navarro argued that the Bayesian brain learns through a process of iterative learning from other members of the community. Whereas previous researchers have argued that it is solely the structure of language that structures the meanings acquired, Perfors and Navarro argued that the structure of the external world and the meanings within it will also influence the process. Thus, semantic knowledge acquired will be shaped by the meaning structure communicated.

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Category and stereotype activation: Is prejudice inevitable? Advertisement Hide. The Implicit Association Test as a tool for studying dysfunctional associations in psychopathology: Strengths and limitations. Experimental Psychology , 50 , 77— PubMed Google Scholar.

As long as the things people talk about reflect the relationships of those things in the external world then the semantic relationships learnt will reflect the meanings present in the external world. Thus, knowledge of the relationship between concepts will be acquired from the meanings communicated by others. Furthermore, the proposal of a Bayesian brain does not require that it operates in an optimal or rational manner—simply that a Bayesian model best represents its behaviour Tauber et al. For the predictive brain, the degree to which implicit stereotypes are learnt and employed depends on the probabilities with which the implicit associations between the social category and an attribute are expected and experienced in communication.

It is this world of the social perceiver that is considered now. Implicit stereotypes, like other implicit associations can be viewed as cultural knowledge or folk wisdom that the person acquires through their experience in a culture Bruner, The idea that stereotypical associations are cultural in origin was proposed in the early work on stereotypes, but has tended to be ignored in the focus on the fallacy or bias of individual cognition. Journalist and political commentator Walter Lippmann is usually seen as stimulating the academic study of stereotyping with his book Public Opinion Hinton, To illustrate this, we can examine the origin of the associations identified in the Princeton studies, discussed at the beginning of this article, by considering the example of the English.

As Hinton has argued, the selected attributes reflect the notion of the English gentleman, a common representation of the Englishman in the American media of the first half of the twentieth century, and hence familiar to the exclusively male, upper-class Princeton student participants who, if they had encountered English people it is likely that they would be from the same class demographic as themselves.

It is also likely that these participants did not consider nor were they asked to do so a range of categories of English people, such as women or the working classes, so, not surprisingly, tended to focus on the specific and familiar representation of the English defined for them by their culture to paraphrase Lippmann. By , the image of the English gentleman had become rather archaic and even a figure of fun in both the British and American media Hinton, and the selected English attributes had changed.

Even so, some students refused to do the task in and Brown et al. To perform the task with no information except the category name, the students may have simply drawn on attributes they knew to be commonly circulating about the English in their culture. Yet this does not mean that the students viewed all English people as sportsmanlike.

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However, the sportsmanlike English gentleman was a familiar trope in American popular culture at the time, typified by actor Ronald Colman in Hollywood movies such as The Dark Angel , , and Bulldog Drummond , A person with no personal antipathy to lawyers, and well-aware that they are a highly regulated profession of mostly honest people, might make the prediction that when a lawyer character appears in a popular crime drama that they will probably be crooked from the experience of lawyers in famous movies such as The Godfather series, —, and television programs such as Breaking Bad , —, along with the spin-off series about a crooked lawyer, Better Call Saul , As Devine has argued, well-learnt associations picked up during socialization form implicit stereotypes even for the individual seeking non-prejudiced views.

It is argued here that the predictive brain model provides the mechanism for this. Yet culture is neither monolithic nor fixed and unchanging. People are active in the construction both of their social world and their media environment Livingstone, ; Burr, People have links of acquaintanceship, friendship, etc. Within any society, there will be different social networks of this kind communicating different social representations about social groups. According to Moscovici , it is these shared representations that define a culture or subcultural group.

Different cultural groups will differ ideologically through their position in society and the representations that circulate in the communication within their social network.

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In the communication within any social network there will be regular and consistent associations between social groups and attributes, which will be picked up by it members, through the working of the predictive brain. The extent to which individuals share implicit associations will depend on the hegemonic social representations within the society across cultural groups Gillespie, , such as a positive belief in democracy and a negative view of communism, which are prevalent in the wider social institutions within a nation, and examined in the sociological study of stereotypes for example, Pickering, The role of stereotypes in communication within a social network was demonstrated by Kashima and colleagues Kashima and Yeung, ; Kashima et al.

The results showed that stereotype-consistent information was emphasized.

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Even though stereotype-inconsistent information attracted attention it was not necessarily passed on. Thus, the story became more stereotypical and consistent in the serial retelling.

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The present article reviews evidence for the malleability of automatic stereotypes and prejudice. In contrast to assumptions that such responses are fixed and. The malleability of automatic stereotypes and prejudice Journal Article uri icon. Overview; Other Profiles; Additional Document Info. scroll to property group.

Within a social network common understandings are developed via the use of stereotypes. Members of the culture assume a knowledge of the stereotype in other group members, which facilitates social interaction, but potentially also helps to maintain the stereotype, even in the face of inconsistent information. The complex dynamics of the individual within a social network for example, Christakis and Fowler, needs to be considered in investigating the formation, transmission and maintenance of implicit stereotypes.