Opportunity & Access

Stereotypes Do Reinforce the Status Quo

Research establishes cause and effect between exposure to certain stereotypes and subsequent agreement with statements that support current social norms.

June 15, 2003

| by Stanford GSB Staff

John Jost is investigating social stereotypes and asking a more complicated question than whether they are true or false. Jost, an associate professor of organizational behavior at the Business School, is asking how being exposed to stereotypes affects our responses to and feelings about the larger social order. He is particularly interested in the ways in which stereotypes stifle social change and help to maintain existing systems of inequality.

Social scientists have long argued that stereotypes simplify an overly complex environment and create prejudices that function mainly to release frustration and make people feel superior to others. Jost and his colleagues argue that stereotypes serve an even broader set of social and psychological functions and that seemingly benevolent stereotypes — such as the belief that someone is “poor but honest” — sustain the perception that inequality in society is fair and justified.

Research by Jost and co-author Aaron Kay is the first to demonstrate a cause and effect relationship between exposure to certain stereotypes and subsequent agreement with statements that support the status quo. Women who accept the stereotype that they are nurturing and kind (whereas men are powerful and agentic) are also more likely to justify gender inequality, often at an unconscious level. Others may respond to stereotypical representations of “poor but happy” or “rich but miserable” individuals by concluding that economic inequality in society is acceptable because, after all, “you can’t buy happiness.”

Benevolent stereotypes like “women are nurturant” and “poor people are the salt of the earth” ascribe complementary value to all groups in a system, including members of disadvantaged groups. According to Jost, “Masculine and feminine stereotypes are complementary in the sense that each gender group is seen as possessing a set of strengths that compensate for their weaknesses and that balance out the presumed strengths of the other group.” Gender stereotypes also entail that members of each group are well-suited to specific social roles (e.g., business executive, parent). Because these stereotypes contain “flattering” information for members of both groups, they are attractive to women as well as men, and the status quo is reinforced.

These stereotypes “are appealing in part because they satisfy the desire to perceive existing forms of social and economic arrangements as fair, legitimate, and justified,” Jost says, citing the human need to believe in a just and controllable world, as proposed by Melvin Lerner and GSB Professor Dale Miller. If the social order carries with it the myth that the poor are communal, happy, and virtuous, it reinforces the sense that we are all part of a system in which everyone has something, and no one group has a monopoly on all valued resources.

For the past 10 years Jost has been developing and testing “system justification theory,” which seeks to explain why people consciously and unconsciously perpetuate and rationalize the status quo. Stereotypes and biased social judgments are common ways in which inequalities in the system become self-perpetuating, according to the theory. This approach also provides a wide-lens perspective for examining barriers to social innovation and change.

In the research article Exposure to Benevolent Sexism and Complementary Gender Stereotypes, Jost and Kay, a doctoral student in the psychology department, exposed men and women to different types of gender-related beliefs. Complementary stereotypes juxtaposed the beliefs that women are kind, helpful, and gentle and that men are assertive, strong, and intelligent. In some cases they also involved elements of benevolent sexism, including the belief that women have “a more refined sense of culture and good taste as opposed to men.” By contrast, hostile forms of sexism included the assertion that women tease men sexually and are “too easily offended.” These sample items were taken from Peter Glick and Susan Fiske’s “Ambivalent Sexism Inventory.”

Participants were then asked follow-up questions designed to measure their level of support for the current state of gender relations and for the American political and economic system in general. Results from several experiments indicated that men perceived the status quo as relatively fair and legitimate in all conditions, regardless of the nature of the stereotypes presented. Women, however, reacted differently depending on the type of stereotypes to which they had been exposed. They were more likely to support the status quo following exposure to benevolent or complementary stereotypes that depicted women in favorable terms, although these stereotypes also perpetuate gender inequality.

In addition to work on gender-based stereotyping and judgment, Jost and Kay also have studied the system-justifying effects of complementary stereotypes pertaining to economic inequality, including “poor but happy,” “rich but miserable,” “poor but honest,” and “rich but dishonest” stereotypes. Participants in these experiments were also asked for their perceptions of the status quo. Those who had been exposed to complementary (vs. non-complementary) stereotypes were again more likely to see the existing social and political system as legitimate and just.

“These findings demonstrate the existence of a justification process that is new to the social justice literature,” wrote the authors. Stereotyping and prejudice research has traditionally focused on victim-blaming and scapegoating as ways for people to preserve the belief in a just world. Jost and Kay have demonstrated that exposure to benevolent and complementary stereotypes of members of disadvantaged groups increases support for the status quo without the need for victim-derogation. Consequently, they are appealing to a larger number of social actors. “All of this opens up a new way of thinking about the effects of stereotypes on beliefs about the legitimacy of existing institutions and organizations,” Jost says.

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