Culture & Society

Stereotyping Makes People More Likely to Act Badly

Even slight cues, like reading a negative stereotype about your race or gender, can have an impact.

June 05, 2015

| by Elizabeth MacBride
A visitor looks at a monumental sculpture by artist Robert Therrien in the Metropolitan Arts Centre in Belfast

Feeling belittled and boxed in by a stereotype can also make people more likely to act in a socially deviant way. | Reuters/Cathal McNaughton

Most people intuitively know that pervasive negative stereotypes are tough to deal with. Now, researchers at Stanford University have found another, particularly disturbing effect of subtle stereotypes. A series of five studies showed that people are more likely to lie, cheat, steal, or endorse doing so when they feel that they are being devalued simply because they belong to particular groups.

For example, imagining a sexist or a racist comment from a boss made women and ethnic minorities more likely to intentionally do inaccurate work, start rumors, or ignore co-workers who need help. In one correlational study, the researchers asked 311 college students whether they worried about being seen negatively because of their ethnicity. The more the college students worried or expected stereotyping, the more likely they were to report engaging in delinquent behavior, like skipping classes, verbally abusing someone, or vandalizing school property.

Can You Recall a Time When You Felt Stereotyped?

“While on active duty as a Naval Officer, I placed a sailor for disobeying a direct order. I am a female. The officer reduced the charge to disrespecting a female instructor instead of leaving it as written because he didn’t believe that women should serve in the military.”

“My friends got into a discussion about religion and Christianity in general. I tend to stay quiet in these situations but this time I spoke about my beliefs. I was belittled and made fun of when I spoke.”

“The male managers at my company always look down on me and assume I am a dumb girl. It is really frustrating to be judged by my appearance.”

“I become very uncomfortable when people insist upon telling me Jewish jokes … Sometimes, it seems like they have no idea if they are offending me or not and they don’t seem to care.”

“I was seven years old, on a school bus that had students that were from different racial backgrounds. Students didn’t want to share the bus seat and asked me to move.”

“The cashier always puts the change on the counter rather than touch my hand.”

The research also adds to the growing body of evidence that even slight cues — like reading an article containing a negative stereotype or just remembering a painful instance of being judged unfairly — can have a sizeable impact.

“Most people reject overt racism today, but prejudice can exert its negative effects in more subtle ways,” says Peter Belmi, a graduate student and one of the researchers. “Threats to social identity can really harm people’s prospects for success, particularly for individuals who are already socially disadvantaged.”

The researchers included Margaret Neale, Stanford GSB management professor; Geoffrey L. Cohen, Stanford psychology professor; and graduate students Belmi and Rodolfo Cortes Barragan. The paper was published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

Neale says she hopes the research can help people understand that the responsibility for criminal and deviant behavior lies not only with individuals, but with society.

“We tend to make criminal behavior a dispositional attribute — a quality of the individual. But maybe we are part of the problem that is expressed by those people behaving badly,” she says. “We have huge agency and capacity to change the situation.”

The research shows that even white Americans, a historically non-stigmatized group, engage in social deviance when they feel they are being negatively stereotyped.

“We can create this in other groups, perhaps in almost any other group,” Neale says.

The paper also identified the mechanism connecting social deviance and negative stereotyping: People feel disrespected and expect unfair treatment from others when they feel they are being viewed through the lens of a stereotype. This leads them to defy or undermine group norms, according to the paper.

“Social identity threats feel particularly disrespectful because they are tied to enduring group memberships. Stereotypes convey to people that they are being judged by their group membership and not by their individual merits,” Belmi says.

The team also found that feeling devalued can elicit deviance even among historically non-stigmatized groups. They asked a group of white Americans to write either about a time when they felt devalued by others, or about a time when they did not get what they wanted

Then the researchers gave participants a test: unsolvable anagrams, so anyone who reported solving one was considered to have cheated. Participants were nearly twice as likely to cheat if they remembered a time when they had been devalued based on their group identity.

Most people reject overt racism today, but prejudice can exert its negative effects in more subtle ways.
Peter Belmi, researcher

The same effect held true for women of various ethnicities. The researchers asked the women in the study to imagine overhearing that they might not get a promotion either because their boss didn’t like them or because their boss thought women weren’t suitable for a leadership position. Women who heard the latter were more likely to embrace counterproductive work attitudes.

The researchers say that people may differ in their response to being negatively stereotyped. So what differentiates those who deviate from those who don’t?

Neale says one factor could be how strongly you hold a particular identity. For example, your ethnicity might be a core part of how you see yourself, so you might be more concerned with a racial stereotype. Or, different personality types may be better equipped to defy a negative stereotype — like a woman or a black American who becomes a CEO in part to prove a stereotype wrong.

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