Stereotypes and Social Categorization

This post explains some of the psychology behind stereotypes and bias.

Let me paint a picture of how bias recently affected my judgment. This week I received an edited book on gossip; for some reason this book didn’t have any biographical information on the contributors as such books usually have so I Googled the individual authors’ names. I was surprised when I found that the majority of this book’s contributors belonged to philosophy departments.  My initial reaction was a loss of enthusiasm because I expected a book written by social scientists. It’s not that I have anything against philosophy (my sisters can testify that I’ve been reading philosophy since junior high) but I expected to receive theoretical perspectives grounded by empirical observation or experimental deduction. After a little bit of time I reasoned that a rational argument with or without careful empirical grounding is worth hearing.

My initial reaction isn’t that uncommon and I probably do it more than I realize. I’m sure most of us are guilty of making snap judgments about individuals based on a single defining characteristic. It is all too easy to tell ourselves that we will or won’t like somebody because they are or are not conservative, liberal, intellectual, athletic, baseball fan, religious, atheist, artsy, smart, shallow, trendy, etc, etc, etc. This is exactly what I did when I decided that the book I purchased wasn’t what I was looking for because of the credentials of its authors.

Was it wrong of me to make such a judgment using such limited criteria?

Some social categorization theorists would say that what I did was natural. Social categorization theory evolved out of social identity theory, which evolved from minimum group experiments conducted by Henri Tajfel and his colleagues. The typical minimum group experiment divides individuals by a rather arbitrary means and then has participants make value judgments about members of their own group and members of the other group. These types of experiments consistently show an in-group preference and out-group bias even when groups are made by arbitrary division. The theory that emerged was that individuals derive their sense of identity according to the social categories they perceive themselves as belonging which leads to self-esteem by self-comparing to the social categories of others. In essence we may perceive ourselves as superior as a recognized (fill in the blank: e.g. intellectual, school affiliation, atheist, church attendee, corporate elite, cool kids, the rational enlightened etc.) against individuals who identify with categorizations we feel are inferior.

The emerging social categorization view of stereotypes is that we essentially think categorically by labeling objects, experiences, and people according to categories—stereotype is the natural mode of thought. For the most part this ability serves us well; after all, it would take a lot of time from us if we had to treat each experience as wholly unique, exploring and rationalizing its depths to decide whether or not it is something we’re interested in, or not. If we’re walking in the inner city and notice three teen boys or young adults stalking us and wearing what looks like gang attire, we are right to put ourselves on guard. Likewise, a liberal might not be interested in getting to know a conservative because they are going to clash on so many issues. They might see each other as tree hugger and mean-spirited capitalist but this repulsion does prevent them from losing valuable time on somebody they’re not going to be compatible with.

Even though stereotypes serve a valuable cognitive function, I take issue with scholars who view the naturalness of the categorizing mind as a justification for stereotyping. Social categorizations are fine for the pragmatics of living, supposing they don’t cause bigotry, but they do bias the truth. It might not have been wrong for me to discredit the book I discussed earlier because philosophers rather than social scientists wrote it when I expected a book by social scientists. However, what I am really interested in is the truth and it’s possible that a philosopher could be right and a scientist wrong. When the truth matters, we have to identify our repulsions and dislikes to understand our biases and then get past them.


For more information on social categorization theory and stereotypes I recommend the article The Root of all Evil in Intergroup Relations? Unearthing the Social Categorization Process by Penelope Oakes in the Blackwell Handbook of Social Psychology: Intergroup Processes.

Wikipedia has a decent introductory article on social identity theory, which includes discussion of social categorization theory.