Tag Archives: Personality

Positive Stereotypes Are Pervasive and Powerful

Pop quiz: hands up — how many of you think positive stereotypes are OK?

I suspect that for many of you, your first reaction may have been, “well, yeah, they’re positive, right?” I can totally empathize with that shortcut, but consider this excellent quote from Gordon Allport, one of the “founders” of personality psychology: “People may be prejudiced in favor of others; they may think well of them without sufficient warrant,” [quote excerpted from journal article cited below].

Last year, researchers sought to summarize some of the research about positive stereotypes. There were a number of interesting findings. For instance:

Among [a] sample of Asian American students, the majority (52%) had negative reactions (e.g., feeling marginalized) to their group being considered the “model minority” compared with 26% who had positive reactions. […] Although the subjective favorability of positive stereotypes may facilitate their expression among perceivers who intend them as “compliments,” the targets of such stereotypes can feel depersonalized as if they are being acknowledged exclusively through their category membership. [Emphasis mine]

So, while it might be a ‘positive’ stereotype that Asian Americans are considered the “model minority,” it’s possible that an Asian American may feel as if they are being depersonalized when having the stereotype directed at them. That is, they may no longer feel like they’re a person, but rather that they simply belong to this category called “Asian American.”

Let’s back up for a moment.

When I talk about stereotypes in my lectures to students, one of the first things I do is explain the mechanics of a stereotype. Our brain is processing way more stimuli than we could possibly fathom. For instance, in your office right now, do you hear the hum of the lights or the sound of the fan? If you’re on the bus or in a car, do you notice the sound of the brakes? How about at home… do you still hear the creaky sounds of the floorboards or the plethora of sounds that come out of the basement/vents? I suspect the answer to many of these questions for most of you will be no and that’s because you have habituated to them. Your brain has recognized them as non-threatening and moved on to focus on other stimuli — people.

There are so many people on the planet. Really, we could say that there are over 7 billion different kinds of people, but that’s impossible for a brain that’s trying to process as much as it can. So, when you meet people, your brain is busy trying to recognize patterns that it can map onto previous people you’ve met. When everyone’s brain does this, it follows that a thing called “stereotype” emerges. That is, a stereotype is our brain’s way of trying to find a shortcut for understanding the different kinds of people we interact with during our lives.

So, in the example above about Asian Americans, somewhere along the way, someone’s brain decided Asian Americans represented what they believed was a ‘model citizen.’ Forgetting for a second whether this is valid, it’s likely that there were other people’s brains came to this conclusion and so the stereotype is perpetuated.

Just because our brain is doing this in the “background” doesn’t make it ok. As humans, there are so many biases that we have to be aware of when making decisions — our brain taking shortcuts with stereotypes is just one of them. So, what can you do?

Well, as I often say when it comes to biases — the first step is awareness. You’ve gotta recognize that you’re falling prey to stereotyping and once you recognize that you’re doing it, I urge you not to be so hard on yourself. Let’s be clear — I’m not giving you a “pass” for stereotyping, no. But the culture from which you derive can have a lasting effect on your beliefs about people (which inform whether you employ stereotypes).

One quick and easy way to awareness — if you’re ready for it — is Harvard’s Project Implicit Test. I did a quick search and I was surprised that I’ve only mentioned this one other time in the last few years on this site and it was only in passing. From their site:

Psychologists understand that people may not say what’s on their minds either because they are unwilling or because they are unable to do so. For example, if asked “How much do you smoke?” a smoker who smokes 4 packs a day may purposely report smoking only 2 packs a day because they are embarrassed to admit the correct number. Or, the smoker may simply not answer the question, regarding it as a private matter. These are examples of being unwilling to report a known answer. But it is also possible that a smoker who smokes 4 packs a day may report smoking only 2 packs because they honestly believe they only smoke about 2 packs a day. Unknowingly giving an incorrect answer is sometimes called self-deception; this illustrates being unable to give the desired answer.

The unwilling-unable distinction is like the difference between purposely hiding something from others and unconsciously hiding something from yourself. The Implicit Association Test makes it possible to penetrate both of these types of hiding. The IAT measures implicit attitudes and beliefs that people are either unwilling or unable to report.

If you’re ready for the results, I strongly suggest you take the test.

ResearchBlogging.orgCzopp, A., Kay, A., & Cheryan, S. (2015). Positive Stereotypes Are Pervasive and Powerful Perspectives on Psychological Science, 10 (4), 451-463 DOI: 10.1177/1745691615588091

Situations Dictate Behavior: List of Biases in Judgment and Decision-Making, Part 8

We’re into the 8th week of cognitive biases. A couple of weeks ago, I was trying to decide between the confirmation bias and the fundamental attribution error and decided on the confirmation bias. I’m not sure why I decided to go with the gambler’s fallacy last week (as opposed to the fundamental attribution error), so I thought I’d “circle back” and pick up the fundamental attribution error… in case you were really pining for it.

The fundamental attribution error may sound complicated (I mean, hey, there are three words!), but it’s actually quite simple once you get the hang of it. Normally, I explain the bias and then provide examples, but I think talking about an example will help to solidify the understanding of this bias. In a study done in 1967, researchers asked participants to assess whether a person was pro-/anti-Castro based on an essay the person had written. In one group, participants were told that the essayists were able to choose whether they wanted to write for the pro-side or the anti-side. Of course, when participants believed that essayists were able to choose which side they wanted to write for, they rated those essayists as having more positive (or negative) feelings towards Castro. In the second group, participants were told that the essayists would have their position determined by a coin flip. Meaning, the essayists had no control over whether they were going to be writing a positive/negative essay of Castro. It was all left up to chance (the situation!). Despite the participants’ knowledge of this, on average, they still rated the positive essays as a sign that those essayists had a positive view of Castro. Similarly for the negative essays as a sign that those essayists had a negative view of Castro. Participants were blind to the situation constraints

So that’s the fundamental attribution error — the idea that the situation dictates the behavior of the person, rather than the person’s personality. If you’re looking for some more examples:

  • You call up your friend and find out that they’ve done nothing all day. You assume that your friend is lazy. In fact, your friend was up all night caring for their sick grandmother.
  • You’re sitting a stop light when it turns to green. You advance out into the intersection only to nearly be smashed into by someone who runs the red light. You scoff at the person for running the red light. Little did you know that person was racing to get a pregnant wife to the hospital as she’d just gone into labor. (Ironically, you’d done something similar the week earlier.)
  • Mitt Romney’s declaration that 47% of the population who don’t pay income taxes will categorically support larger government “because those ‘who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them’ can never be persuaded to ‘take personal responsibility and care for their lives.'” In actuality, the 47% of the population who don’t pay income taxes are “…not some distinct parasite class, but rather ordinary, hard-working people who either already have paid or will soon be paying quite substantial taxes.”

Ways for Avoiding the Fundamental Attribution Error

1a) Empathy

As with many of the other biases, empathy is one of the quickest ways to thwart its power of you. If I put myself in the shoes of another, I’m more likely to understand that there might be more going on in the situation than I can see from my perspective. For instance, if we look at the red light example from above, by empathizing with the driver who runs the red light, I have a much higher chance of understanding that there running the red light is not a demonstration of their disregard for the world around them, but maybe that there’s something urgent to be taken care of.

1b) “Why Would a Rational Person Behave This Way?”

The above sentence is essentially a way to create a sense of empathy, but in case empathy is an ambiguous term, I’ve marked this ‘way’ 1b. Asking yourself this question will make it easier to consider the other factors at contributing to a situation.

Note: While the fundamental attribution error tells us that people make the mistake of devaluing the situational factors, it’s important not to sway too far the other way and totally discount the personality factors that might be contributing to a situation. For those folks that do sway too far to the situational factors affecting behavior, there’s a bias for it: actor-observer effect.

If you liked this post, you might like one of the other posts in this series:

Conscientiousness in the Classroom, Conscientiousness in Completion

I teach organizational behavior (OB) at the undergraduate level. Well, to be more specific, I’m a TA for OB at the undergraduate level, but because of the structure of the class, students rarely see the professor for the class and spend most of their time interacting with me as the person at the front of the classroom.

This past week we talked about individual differences — personality. Naturally, we spoke about the Big 5. In reviewing the dimensions of personality we read through some scenarios together and had to identify which personality dimension was implicated. In one of those scenarios, we read about someone faced with a dilemma:

It’s Friday and her friends have invited her out to a concert and she also has plans for Saturday/Sunday. However, she has assignments that are due on Monday.

For folks that know about the Big 5, this example is clearly implicating the Conscientiousness dimension of the Big 5. Why am I telling you all of this? Well, because this happened to me this weekend. It’s not completely surprising that this would happen to me because I usually score very high on conscientiousness, but I thought it was rather coincidental that it happened the same week that we were discussing this concept in class.

Both of the classes I have this semester occur on Monday (afternoon and evening). For both of these classes, I’ve got quite a bit of reading to do, which is okay, but since these classes are outside my field of expertise, some of the reading takes longer (as I have to look up words — from time-to-time — to contextualize my understanding).

If I think back to my days an undergrad, I’d often find myself reading on Sunday night/evening, to make sure I was prepared for class on Monday morning. This weekend, something different happened: I spent most of the day Friday and most of the day Saturday working — really hard. As a result, when I sat down to dinner on Saturday evening, I felt relaxed because I knew I had very little work to complete on Sunday. This feeling… is wonderful.