Critically Evaluate The Cognitive Theory Of Stereotyping
Critically evaluate the cognitive theory of stereotyping. B231: Social Interaction, Exam
Paper 1998, Question 4. Graeme Gordon Stereotyping is a form of pre judgement that is as prevalent in today's society as it was 2000 years ago. It is a social attitude that has stood the test of time and received much attention by social psychologists and philosophers alike. Many approaches to, or theories of stereotyping have thus been raised. This essay evaluates the cognitive approach that categorisation is an essential cognitive process that inevitably leads to stereotyping. Hamilton (1979) calls this a 'depressing dilemma'. Brown's (1995) definition of stereotyping through prejudice is the 'holding of derogatory social attitudes or cognitive beliefs, the expression of negative affect, or the display of hostile or discriminatory behaviour towards members of a group on account of their membership to that group'. This definition implies that stereotyping is primarily a group process, through the individuals psyche's within that group.
A further idea of stereotyping, defined by Allport (1954) as 'thinking ill of others without warrant', is that people 'make their mind up' without any personal experience. This pre judgement about a whole group is then transferred to the stigmatisation of any individuals in that group. It is these ideas that the essay aims to evaluate, through the cognitive process of categorisation and the above definitions that bring about three distinct features of stereotyping, that our
cognition can be demonstrated through. The first characteristic of stereotyping is over-generalisation. A number of studies conducted found that different combinations of traits were associated with groups of different ethnic and national origin (Katz and Braly, 1933). However, stereotyping does not imply that all members of a group are judged in these ways, just that a typical member of a group can be categorised in such judgements, that they possess the characteristics of the group. Still, when we talk of a group, we do so by imagining a member of that group. The second feature and characteristic of stereotyping is the exaggeration of the difference between ones own group (the in-group) and the 'other' group (the out-group). This can be traced back to the work of Tajfel during the 1950's - 'the accentuation principle' (Tajfel, 1981). Tajfel's work was specifically on physical stimuli, and concluded that judgements on such stimuli are not made in isolation, but in the context of other factors. Applied socially - a judgement about an out-group relies upon other factors surrounding the judgement in question, as well as making a statement about the in-group and the relationship between the two groups. Through stereotyping and categorisation we exaggerate the differences between the groups.
From this comes the effect that in believing an out-group is homogenous, through exaggerated differences, their in-group is not - with very much less over-generalisation taking place (Linville, et al., 1986). The third characteristic of stereotyping is that of the expression of values. Most stereotypical judgements of group characteristics are in fact moral evaluations (Howitt, et al., 1989). For example, Katz and Braly (1933) studied a group of students' attitudes to towards minority groups. They found that Jews were attributed to being 'mean' (in terms of money), rather than they themselves being 'spendthrifts'. Also, they found that there was a strong view that French people were 'excitable'. This actually implies that they are over-excitable - above the norm, as everybody is excitable, per se, and thus there would be no necessity to mention it. Concluding from this, it is valid to say that a value has been put on a characteristic - in this case, a stereotypical one. A
criticism with much of this research is that participants are asked to make judgements out of social context - in abstract situations. Howitt, et al. (1989) say that this leads to a derogatory implication: that attributing a group with a characteristic is also withholding others. However, stereotyping leads to more than merely placing an adjective onto a group or category. The cognitive processes that give reason to stereotyping are much deeper than this, giving rise to the above characteristics. The cognitive approach to stereotyping is that we all stereotype, at varying levels - because of the essential cognitive process of categorisation (Brown, 1995). Howitt, et al. (1989) take this view also, and add that it is an ordinary process of thought to over-generalise, and then protect it. We live in a complex social environment, which we need to simplify into groups, or categories. This simplification is present at all levels of life - it is part of our language, distinguishing between dog and cat, male and female, and even in the basic motives of distinguishing between food and non-food. Such categorisation may seem linguistically simple, but is essential - for example, the classification of elements and organisms by biologists and chemists: 'one of the most basic functions of all organisms is the cutting up of the environment into classifications' (Rosch, et al., 1976).
However, the point must be made that, even though language suggests so, categorisation leads to different functions and features in non-humans and humans. For stereotyping is not present in non-humans, thus, we may come to the conclusion that stereotyping is possible through linguistics - this topic is discussed further later. This categorisation also has varying depths of moral meaning, or value, which can lead to varying levels of stereotyping. For example, the categorisation of Catholic - Protestant in Northern Ireland. Categorisation is seen as a way of ordering what we perceive (Billig, 1985), stimuli of the external world that needs to be simplified, using 'iconic images, to pass into our short-term memory' (Neisser, 1976). This simplification process transforms James' 'blooming, buzzing confusion' into a more manageable world in which it is easier to adapt - categorisation is a cognitive adaptation. For we do not have the capability to respond differently to each stimulus, whether it be a person, an object, or an event. Categorisation is important in every day life, as well as in the most extreme of circumstances - for example, the discrimination between friend and foe. For categorisation to be useful, we enhance the difference between groups. This was found to be the case at both social and physical levels, and later became known as the 'accentuation principle' (see above). However, the distinction between physical stimuli and 'social objects' must be made clear. We ourselves our 'social objects', thus, we are implicated by such categorisations. As Hogg and Abrams (1988) state: 'it would be perilous to disregard this consideration'. This can be seen in the accentuation of out-group homogeneity (Park and Rothbart, 1982). Tajfel (1981) made two hypothesis on the cognitive consequences of categorisation. First, that if stimuli are put into categories, then this in itself enhances the difference between groups. Secondly, on a social level, individuals of different groups appear more different from each other, and those of the same group, more similar. Tajfel studied judgements of physical stimuli, using two categories, and found that the extremes of these groups were exaggerated. However, the differences within the two categories were reduced. This was the first of many experiments testing the two hypotheses, all finding that introducing categorisation into an otherwise undifferentiated situation, distorts people's perceptual and cognitive reasoning, and their functioning. Further studies have been conducted with the aim of taking these findings beyond the physical level, and into the social context, by examining the favouritism of the in-group over the out-groups - pre judgement, or stereotyping. Horwitz and Rabbie (1982) reported on an earlier experiment in which they demonstrated this inter-group discrimination. They found that, in groups of four people, for there to be any inter-group judgements, or biases, possibly a feeling of interdependence was needed in addition to classification itself, even in the most meaningless categorisation of groups. A more recent experiment that they conducted found that, with larger group numbers, in-group - out-group discrimination was present. Tajfel (1981) studied the 'meaning' of a group, and found that simply belonging to a group, of no meaning, is enough to lead to stereotyping. Simply belonging to a group meant that subjects were put into one of two categories, that had no group characteristics attached to them (i. e. interaction, beliefs, previous background).
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