Increasing refugee movements around the world have not only instigated solidarity among the host societies but also anti-refugee sentiments and actions. One apparent reason for this hostility can be seen in stereotypes such as “refugees are criminal and dangerous”. From a psychological viewpoint, however, next to their obvious downsides, stereotypes can be useful tools. But what are stereotypes? When do they help or harm? Why are they so persistent and what to do about them? This blog gives some scientific insights into these questions.
Social psychology defines stereotypes as the characteristics one attributes to a certain social group and its members1. Stereotypes can relate to any sort of social group membership be it based on nationality, religion, profession, or one’s dietary habits. The thoughts that automatically come to our minds, when we encounter someone we identify as American, Muslim, doctor, or vegan all count as stereotypes – whether they are positive, negative or neutral in valence. Of course, the typical image that we associate with a group rarely covers the whole picture. Thus, statistically, stereotypes are never 100% true. But why do we frequently rely on such unprecise means when we are thinking about social groups?
Why do we need stereotypes?
The simple answer to this is: because they are useful. We have limited mental resources and need to structure our social environment. To this end, grouping people together is highly efficient. Deriving expectations based on group memberships are much less effortful than evaluating every individual separately1,2. Stereotypes prepare us for encounters with yet unknown members of a group. They trigger fast and intuitive reactions that might in the best case prevent us from danger1. If the media, for instance, promotes the image of refugees as dangerous, we might be afraid of our new neighbor from Syria. This can foster avoidant or even aggressive behaviors in order to protect ourselves. At this point, it becomes clear that the benefits of stereotypes come with serious downsides. They simplify our social environment and prepare us for future interactions. But they also serve as a breeding ground for hostility between groups.
Why are stereotypes harmful?
Negative stereotypes can lead to negative attitudes and behaviors toward members of a social group. When we attribute negative characteristics to a social group – for instance, that refugees are dangerous – this likely serves as an argument for a negative evaluation of that group – in this case, disliking refugees. Such negative attitudes or prejudice can foster discrimination and violence1. History tells us that this spiral of hate can even culminate in genocide. For instance, the Nazi regime made use of and reinforced Germans’ stereotypes about Jews in order to legitimate the holocaust. Thus, stereotypes may serve as a basis for the cruelest deeds humans are capable of. Therefore, changing (especially negative) stereotypes remains one of the most urgent challenges in times of increasing migration and the resulting social diversity.
Why are stereotypes so hard to change?
Stereotypes not only have a cognitive and preparative function but also help to fulfill basic psychological needs. As social beings, humans strive for a positive view on themselves and the social groups they belong to. In this sense, evaluating other social groups as more negative helps to keep up this positive self-concept. This tendency is stronger among people who identify more with their own social group3. For instance, strong identification with one’s nation fosters negative stereotypes and prejudice against immigrants. In addition, some stereotypes are culturally shared and persist over generations – they appear in children’s books and are maintained through language. All this contributes to stereotypes’ stability and resistance to change.
How can we still overcome stereotypes?
In principle, people can control their stereotypes and inhibit potentially negative outcomes, if they are motivated to do so2. However, many people are neither aware of their stereotypes nor motivated to change them. Yet, stereotype change is also possible in these cases. First and foremost, contact with members of another social group can induce stereotype change by providing a more accurate and (most often) positive image. This is especially the case when contact occurs on eye level, when common goals are set, and when there is institutional support4,5. But contact sometimes is hard to establish, either due to physical distance or psychological barriers such as prejudice and anxiety6. Here, other strategies might be more promising.
Contact does also works in more indirect forms. People tend to revise their biased views if they know of friends who have good relations with members of another group7. Even merely imagining contact with another group can help to overcome stereotypes and prejudice8. This highlights the importance of communication through third parties such as friends and colleagues but also politicians and the media. They can have an impact on whether we change or maintain our beliefs. In this regard, the words we choose when communicating about other groups are important. Recent studies show that negating a stereotype (e.g., “refugees are not dangerous”) is a more effective way to induce change than affirming the opposite (e.g., “refugees are benign”)9. Taking such subtle differences into account in our everyday conversations might be one brick in paving the way to more tolerance between groups.
How to deal with stereotypes after all?
In conclusion, I would argue that we have to accept that stereotypes are a part of human nature. They are, indeed, useful psychological tools. But we should be highly cautious regarding their potential downsides. Being aware of stereotypes and knowing how they (also accidentally) spread, are important first steps. But eventually, we need to put effort into changing negative stereotypes about disadvantaged or rivaling groups. In doing so, we could prevent conflicts between groups and facilitate a peaceful living together.
1 Dovidio, J. F., Hewstone, M., Glick, P., & Esses, V. M. (2010). Prejudice, stereotyping and discrimination: Theoretical and empirical overview. In J. F. Dovidio, M. Hewstone, P. Glick, & V. M. Esses (Eds.), The SAGE Handbook of Prejudice, Stereotyping and Discrimination (pp. 3–28). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications Inc.
2 Macrae, C. N., & Bodenhausen, G. V. (2000). Social cognition: Thinking categorically about others. Annual Review of Psychology, 51, 93–120. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev.psych.51.1.93
3 Tajfel, H., & Turner, J. C. (1979). An integrative theory of intergroup conflict. In W. G. Austin & S. Worchel (Eds.), The social psychology of intergroup relations (pp. 33–48). Monterey, CA: Brooks/Cole.
4 Allport, G. W. (1954). The nature of prejudice. Cambridge, MA: Perseus Books.
5 Pettigrew, T. F., & Tropp, L. R. (2006). A meta-analytic test of intergroup contact theory. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 90, 751–783. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-35220.127.116.111
6 Binder, J., Zagefka, H., Brown, R., Funke, F., Kessler, T., Mummendey, A., … Leyens, J. P. (2009). Does contact reduce prejudice or does prejudice reduce contact? A longitudinal test of the contact hypothesis among majority and minority groups in three european countries. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 96, 843–856. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/a0013470
7 Vezzali, L., Hewstone, M., Capozza, D., Giovannini, D., & Wölfer, R. (2014). Improving intergroup relations with extended and vicarious forms of indirect contact. European Review of Social Psychology, 25, 314–389. https://doi.org/10.1080/10463283.2014.982948
8 Crisp, R. J., & Turner, R. N. (2012). The imagined contact hypothesis. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 46, 125–182. https://doi.org/10.1016/B978-0-12-394281-4.00003-9
9 Winter, K., Scholl, A., & Sassenberg, K. (2020). A matter of flexibility: Changing outgroup attitudes through messages with negations. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Advance online publication. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/pspi0000305
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