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Critical Evaluation of the Cognitive Theory of Stereotypin

Graeme Gordon. Stereotyping is a form of pre-judgment 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 from social psychologists and philosophers alike. Many approaches to or theories of stereotyping have thus been raised. This essay evaluates the cognitive approach that categorization 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 behavior 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 individual’s psyche’s within that group.

A further idea of stereotyping, defined by Allport (1954) as “thinking ill of others without a warrant”, is that people “make their mind up” without any personal experience. This pre-judgment about a whole group is then transferred to the stigmatization of any individuals in that group. It is these ideas that the essay aims to evaluate, through the cognitive process of categorization 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-generalization. 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 categorized in such judgments, 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.

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The second feature and characteristic of stereotyping is the exaggeration of the difference between one’s 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 judgments on such stimuli are not made in isolation but in the context of other factors. Applied socially – a judgment about an out-group relies upon other factors surrounding the judgment in question, as well as making a statement about the in-group and the relationship between the two groups. Through stereotyping and categorization 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-generalization taking place (Linville, et al., 1986).

The third characteristic of stereotyping is that of the expression of values. Most stereotypical judgments of group characteristics are in fact moral evaluations (Howitt, et al., 1989). For example, Katz and Braly (1933) studied a group of students’ attitudes 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 of much of this research is that participants are asked to make judgments 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 character 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 categorization (Brown, 1995). Howitt, et al. (1989) take this view also, and add that it is an ordinary process of thought to over-generalize, 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 categorization 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).

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However, the point must be made that, even though language suggests so, categorization 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 categorization also has varying depths of moral meaning, or value, which can lead to varying levels of stereotyping. For example, the categorization of Catholic-Protestant in Northern Ireland. Categorization 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 – categorization 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. Categorization is important in everyday life, as well as in the most extreme of circumstances – for example, the discrimination between friend and foe.

For categorization 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 categorizations. 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 hypotheses on the cognitive consequences of categorization. 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 judgments of physical stimuli, using two categories, and found that the extremes of these groups were exaggerated. However, the differences between the two categories were reduced. This was the first of many experiments testing the two hypotheses, all finding that introducing categorization 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 favoritism of the in-group over the out-groups – pre-judgment, 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 judgments or biases, possibly a feeling of interdependence was needed in addition to classification itself, even in the most meaningless categorization 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). Such a design has become known as the Minimal Group Paradigm. The subjects in this particular experiment were assigned to one of the two categories by their preferences of a group of paintings by two artists, and done so anonymously. Using code numbers (which specified what group each subject was in) and a set of matrices, the subjects were asked to allocate money to different people. They found that more money was given to subjects of the same group than the other group. With no information except group membership, this must have been the only cause for such discrimination, maximizing the differences between the two groups.

According to Allport’s earlier definition of stereotyping, such a pre-judgment must be resistant to change. Such resistance may be put down to the processes of thinking leading to biases (Howitt, et al., 1989), as seen in the experiment above. For us to believe that our prejudgements are correct, what we perceive to be is what we see. For example, Duncan (1976) showed that how we perceive the social world can be affected by our categorizations, such as, in this case, racial stereotypes. The study found that, because black people were stereotyped as aggressive people (by the subjects), the subjects perceived a situation as being more aggressive, close to a fight, when played by black actors whereas, with white actors, it was seen as playful. Such biases may also be looked at as self-fulfilling, or even self-protecting, the “sense of self”. This self positivity is ‘natural’, and as such can be projected onto one’s perception of the in-group – having similar effects at the other end of the spectrum. That is a negative view of an individual, projected onto ‘their’ group, or the out-group. This is the reason for most stereotypes being negative.

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Our categorization and biases can also have an effect on others. Essed (1988) found that white stereotyping of black people had a damaging effect in job interviews, through discomfort and unrest due to the questions asked during the interview. This study was conducted out of the laboratory. A further example of the effects of racial stereotyping on others is a replication of a British government commissioned study in which a black and a white person apply to rent a flat. The landlords pre judgment of black people through stereotyping affected the black man’s chance and legal right to rent the flat (BBC television, Black and White, 1987). This is an example of the out-group homogeneity effect (Brown, 1995). As well as an exaggeration of inter-group differences, another key effect of categorization is the enhancement of intra-group similarities, known as inter-group homogeneity. The effect of this cognitive process of thought, through categorization is the perception that the out-group is more homogenous than the in-group

Hamilton (1979) found that black families were viewed in more categorical terms than white families, who were individually perceived. Jones, et al. (1981) found a similar effect; that members of university clubs saw their group members’ personality traits as more diverse than out-group members. A criticism of this study, and the homogeneity effect as a whole, is that members of an in-group will know their peers more than those of the out-group, especially in terms of personality. Thus, such studies do not contribute wholly to the cognitive explanation of stereotyping. However, the homogeneity effect has undergone investigation by many studies, and conflicting evidence has arisen. Nevertheless, a point that has been overlooked is that, with members of an in-group recognizing variability within their group, surely such variability is seen by members of an out-group, within their group. This displays a cognitive error of ignorance. Even so, there is no empirical evidence to support such a claim.

Categorization, according to the above, is a ‘natural’ cognitive process, that ‘naturally’ leads to stereotyping. As Howitt, et al. (1989) state: ‘cognitive dynamics [of stereotyping] are a natural part of thinking because we must categorize the social world, and in doing so, inevitably build up stereotypical assumptions, protected by our cognitive biases ‘. The cognitive approach of categorization does have its flaws, however. Categorization theorists give a rather mechanistic impression of cognition, and thus, their approach to stereotyping (Billig, 1985). We do have a choice in our assumptions and there is flexibility about human thinking (Howitt, et al., 1989). Therefore, cognition is not as rigid as categorization implies. It is an oversimplification in itself to suggest that language oversimplifies the world because it is due to language that our views of the social world can be expressed. However, language does not have to be present for stereotyping to be present. For example, the Minimal Group Paradigm.

Even so, language aids our categorization and thus, our stereotyping. It is the same language that we may use to stereotype that enables us to be the reverse. For example, in the interviews mentioned above, the interviewers could be taught to ask non-categorical questions. As concepts in our minds, tolerance is as easy as prejudice. Our supposed necessity to simplify the world, as we are “incapable” of taking in ‘every new stimulus as unique’ (Park and Rothbart, 1982), may also be balanced by a statement of the opposite: ‘we would find difficulty in adapting to a world which required action if no new stimulus could be treated as unique, but every unique stimulus had to be considered as similar to others’ (Billig, 1985). This is the basis of Billig’s argument of particularisation against categorization – which gives rise to the processes of individualization – treating and perceiving group members as individuals. Categorization argues that, through our ‘natural’ pattern of thought, or cognition, our perception of stimuli is categorized by their similarities rather than their individuality.

Billig suggests that this can change, through a motivational process in categorization itself, giving flexibility to such cognitive processes. We are aware of the possibility and ability to change. However, we do not express this flexibility because it is a disruption of the norm, or, of the social group-thought. Goffman (1959) views everyday life as dramaturgical (‘All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players…’ Shakespeare). To disrupt this would be to change the script, and break out of the conformity of the social group, self-to-self, and to others. Even so, this illustrates that through our ability to categorize, we have the ability to particularise and ‘do more with the stimuli than accumulate more instances of predetermined categories’ (Billig, 1985). In Billig’s alternative approach to stereotyping, he also raises the point of category selection – a problem that cognitive psychologists have often overlooked.

Tversky and Gati (1978) found that different stimuli are judged on their similarities and differences before categorization and this judgment can be different depending on what way the stimuli are perceived. Billig’s point is that we must particularise before categorizing and thus a link has been formed. Categorization implies a rigidity in our cognition. Stereotypes, by nature, are overgeneralizations. Such inflexibility is not a possible process of our cognition – ‘categorization does not exist in isolation ‘ (Billig, 1985). As categorization leads to many categories, through its definition, surely only one such category could possibly be so rigid and inflexible, as other categories must be used by it, and thus be flexible. Therefore, categorization is not a rigid process but involves change – which is reflective of our cognition and change is possible (conflicting with Allport’s definition).

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The difference between the two groups affects other attributes of the out-group, including those that are similar to the in-group. By subdividing further such similarities, we are initiating a defense against change in our attitudes and categories. This inventiveness is another example of the flexibility of categorization. In the most extreme cases, this can lead to an inventiveness demonstrated by racial theorists, which in fact, contradicts their prejudice and rigidity of categories. This flexibility can be illustrated further by studies that have shown that in stereotyping, people imply that most of a group posses a stereotypic trait but not all members. Thus, is the need for ‘special cases’, the realization of individualization and tolerance (Billig, 1985). According to the cognitive approach, stereotyping is a group process. It may occur in groups, but it is the individual psyches that make up the group, that project their stereotypes through a group. We do have the ability to see people as individuals and particularise their unique characteristics.

We can change, as even categorization is flexible, which undermines the cognitive approach with categorization, although it may take time on a social level. To conclude, the cognitive approach alone does not give us an understanding of stereotyping. However, it does anchor the fact that through our ‘natural’ thought processes we do categorize, which leads to stereotyping. It also highlights the importance of the individual and the group. There are, however, problems that have been overlooked by cognitive psychologists which we need to understand, in order to fully understand the ‘changing dynamics and nature of stereotyping in our society ‘ (Howitt, et al., 1989). There is also the need to look further than the causes of stereotyping and into its effects in order to understand the processes of our thought, of stereotyping.


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Critical Evaluation of the Cognitive Theory of Stereotypin. (2021, Mar 19). Retrieved August 8, 2022, from