When considering how stereotypes function, you should know that stereotypes can apply to any group and be held by anyone. Once social categories are formed, stereotypes become associated with the categories. The following will address key features of stereotypes.

  1. One does not have to believe that all members of a social group have the attribute in order for it to be a stereotype.
  2. A characteristic associated with a group does not have to be inaccurate in order to be a stereotype.
  3. Stereotypes can be positive, negative, or have both positive and negative elements.
  4. Stereotypes can be explicit or implicit.
  5. Cultural stereotypes are often the source of implicit stereotypes.
  6. Power and Privilege matter.

1. One does not have to believe that all members of a social group have the attribute in order for it to be a stereotype.

Rather, one has to believe that more people in the group have the attribute than people in another group.

People may not believe that all or even most Asian people are good at math. But they may believe that overall Asian people are better at math than White people. This makes it a stereotype.

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2. A characteristic associated with a group does not have to be inaccurate in order to be a stereotype.

Some argue that if a statement is true, it is not a stereotype. Even if one asserts that a generalization about a social category is "true," it is still a stereotype.

Some might say that having darker skin is characteristic of African Americans. This is still a stereotype about African Americans and it can have broader implications. Consider that the stereotype about African American's skin color can influence people's memories of particular African Americans. Under certain circumstances, when White individuals are asked to identify whether they have seen an African American before, they will err in the direction of recalling that the person had darker skin color than they actually had (Eberhardt, Goff, Purdie, & Davies, 2004). This results in a tendency to misidentify particular individuals as having been seen before. This is particularly detrimental in situations like police line-ups.

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3. Stereotypes can be positive, negative, or have both positive and negative elements.

Your list of stereotypes in the previous activity may have included characteristics that could be considered favorable descriptions about a group and others that could be considered unfavorable. Just as stereotypes do not have to be inaccurate to be problematic, stereotypes also do not have to be negative to be problematic. Regardless of how favorable a characteristic may be, it is still a stereotype.

Some may associate African Americans with good athletes. Not only can positive stereotypes become prescriptive (for example, African Americans should be good athletes), positive associations with a group may activate other associations, some of which are negative. For example, people may assume that "good" athletes are also "unintelligent" or "aggressive" (Deaux & Lewis, 1984).

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4. Stereotypes can be explicit or implicit.

While explicit beliefs are those that you acknowledge to yourself and others, implicit beliefs are those you unconsciously endorse. This means that you may not even be aware that you hold these beliefs.

You may explicitly believe that women can do anything men can do in the business world but unconsciously hold the belief that men are more decisive and therefore better business managers than women.

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5. Cultural stereotypes are often the source of implicit stereotypes.

You were asked in the stereotypes activity to note which stereotypes you believed existed culturally and whether or not you agreed with them. Cultural stereotypes are beliefs that most people in a particular culture have about members of a group.

While you personally may not associate stinginess with Jewish people, it is likely that you know that many make this association. This knowledge can still influence you.

We learn these cultural stereotypes about men, women, African Americans, Whites, Asians, Christians, Jews, old people, young people, etc. through our language; interactions with others who express stereotypical beliefs; media portrayals of groups in television, songs, movies, and magazines; and a number of other sources that permeate our culture. The massive exposure we have to stereotypes makes it difficult not to have these associations embedded somewhere in our brains. What is important to know about implicit stereotypes is that they can influence your behaviors regardless of whether or not you consciously agree with them.

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6. Power and Privilege matter.

Keep in mind that the above discussion focuses on stereotypes with the assumption that they can be held by anyone about any group. However, it is important to note that it is only when the person has power and privilege over the group being stereotyped that the stereotype will have its most pervasive effects. Those who have power and privilege define what stereotypical characteristics are important and valued in a culture as well as what are devalued. They also control cultural displays of stereotypes that influence implicit associations. Consider why it is often more difficult to name stereotypes for privileged groups like Whites than it is for African Americans or Asians. Review the Introduction to Power and Privilege workshop for more discussion on this topic.

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