Unit 3 The stereotyping process

How to Outsmart Your Own Unconscious Bias | Valerie Alexander | TEDxPasadena

Unconscious biases, implicit and mental associations

Unconscious biases also affect the kind of stereotype that our brains will form. Based on Greenwald & Banaji (1995), this type of bias is based on the fact that people make associations and judgements unconsciously that are difficult to control.

Thinking through all that information, do you think that it is all about individual bias? Does that mean that each individual has the capacity to change their stereotypical way of thinking?

Unfortunately the answer is no:

  • Shiffrin and Schneider (1977) showed that semantic associations can be learned through rigorous practice but it is very difficult to unlearn them.
  • Lai et al., (2016) showed that implicit associations are changeable through intervention, but the effects are short-term, suggesting that more long-term interventions may be needed for long lasting effects.
  • They have also suggested that children may be more receptive to implicit stereotype changes than adults.

Research, then, has widely focused on semantic associations as the main way through which stereotypes are formed, the focus on individual bias has been heavy (Hinton, 2017).

Mental associations is a similar concept only referring to all kinds of associations happening in the brain. Mental associations have been found to relate to early childhood experience (Wilson, Lindsey & Schooler, 2000).

→ What do we mean with ‘semantic associations’?

Sheth et al. (2005) defined semantic association as “a direct or indirect relation between two entities” (such as words) in a meaningful way. By meaningful, they mean that the semantic associations can be useful in a specific context for application.

Context is important too, with manifestations of associations changing for the same person depending on the environment and/or context within which they are primed to make an appearance (Hahn & Gawronski, 2015).

Based on the concept of the ‘predictive brain’ that proposes that the human brain is a ‘prediction machine’ (Clark, 2013), it is now believed that perception – and thus bias – is formulated based on experience – and thus the world around us.

As our brains seek to minimise uncertainty and predict events to avoid surprise, we rely on our prior experience to calculate the probability of an event happening. We also use these probabilities that we develop throughout our lives to predict or expect what will happen in a new experience without having to process it as completely new. This saves time and energy for our brains and makes living easier.

Based on this and other research, along with a refocus on earlier explanations of stereotypes, a part of the literature has now been focusing on the cultural origins of stereotypes instead of viewing them as only something that is formed within the individual person’s brain.

If we are using knowledge coming from prior experiences to predict and expect new ones, then it follows that our predictions and expectations are influenced by those prior experiences. Since our experiences do not just happen in a void, but are part of the world we live in and our immediate environment, then it follows that our environment directly influences our predictions, expectations, perceptions and ultimately biases and stereotypes we have developed. Stereotypes are therefore learned, and “can be both explicitly and implicitly taught or reinforced to people through many different social influences, including but not limited to friends and family, neighbors, teachers, peer groups, as well as larger societal influences”(Rosenthal & Overstreet, 2016). Of course mainstream and social media can now create, promote and sustain stereotypes for large groups of audiences around the world.

For example, imagine two students from the same country (Greece), Helen and Nick, sitting at a park in London where they study, and talking about gender inequalities. While Helen proposes that we still have a long way to go to make things fair for women, Nick believes that women are treated with a certain level of favouritism. In this context, Helen’s identity that takes primacy is the fact she identifies as a woman, while for Nick it is that he identifies as a man. Now, imagine that a group of British students is coming through the park carrying bottles of alcohol at 11 AM in the morning. In this scenario, as this is not something typically seen in Greece, it is highly probable that Helen’s and Nick’s perception of themselves will shift towards their common identity of being Greek as it became more salient by the group of British people passing through. It follows that in that content Helen and Nick perceive themselves to be part of the same group and not two different ones. ←

So, how is it all connected?

Mental associations, including semantic associations for words, are created through experiencing the outside world and our environment. These associations as they become internalised they also become implicit, meaning that we do not consciously think about them. This is where unconscious biases derive from. Internalised mental and implicit associations that our environment has taught us to be “true” about the world and the people around us became part of our perception. Think of them as a filter through which we view everyone and everything without really choosing to do so. This is the power of the predictive brain that uses all this learned information to avoid surprise, save energy and save time.

Looking at stereotypes from the perspective that they can be useful for our brains in order to save energy and time and make sense of a chaotic word, some people, including some researchers, argue that stereotypes can reflect reality and can be based on the prevalence of characteristics in groups (e.g., Wolsko et al., 2000). This thought process can justify stereotyping and it suggests that stereotyping does not necessarily have negative effects on people. However, stereotypes and those who use them have a natural tendency towards overgeneralisation which becomes problematic as these overgeneralizations are inaccurate. Stereotypes’ use and their inherent inaccuracies have harmful consequences for the mental health and general wellbeing of those who are being stereotyped ​(Rosenthal & Overstreet, 2016).

Reflection question: What do you think? Are stereotypes useful to some extent or not?

Video: Can stereotypes ever be good? – Sheila Marie Orfano and Densho

Let’s have a crash course recap: Prejudice and Discrimination: Crash Course Psychology #39