Khan, S. R. (2002). Stereotyping from the perspective of perceivers and targets. In W. J. Lonner, D. L. Dinnel, S. A. Hayes, & D. N. Sattler (Eds.), Online Readings in Psychology and Culture (Unit 15, Chapter 3), Center for Cross-Cultural Research, Western Washington University, Bellingham, Washington USA.

This material is copyrighted by the author(s), who have kindly extended to the Center the right to use the material as described in the Introduction to this collection and the form entitled "Agreement to Extend License to Use Work."



Saera R. Khan
University of San Francisco


This chapter provides insight into the process of stereotyping from two different perspectives: the perceiver and the target. From the perceiver's perspective, motivational and cognitive reasons for relying on stereotypes for judgment are discussed. From the target's perspective, two effects, stereotype consensus and stereotype threat research are covered. From both perspectives, it is clear that stereotypes represent a dual-edged sword for both perceiver and target group members.


When discussing concepts such as stereotyping, prejudice, and racism, it is important to first understand the meanings of these three terms. Having the concepts clearly defined helps us to think about how they relate to each other and how they may influence human interactions. First, prejudice can be thought of as one's affective or emotional response to members of a particular social group. Stereotypes are most generally defined as "beliefs about the characteristics, attributes, and behaviors of members of certain groups" (Hilton & von Hippel, 1996, p. 240). Finally, racism is behavior that is discriminative against a particular social group. Each of these concepts clearly influences behavior and therefore can be examined in specific situations. For example, stereotypes are related to one's overall attitude towards a particular group. Characterizations of stereotypes include "pictures in our heads" (Lippmann, 1922) and the definition, "exaggerated belief associated with a category. Its function is to justify (rationalize) our conduct in relation to that category" (Allport, 1954, p.191). Documenting the impact of stereotypes on intergroup relations has been a major interest of social psychologists across cultures. This chapter will examine the process of stereotyping from both the perceiver and the target group's perspective. From the perceiver's perspective, the formation and use of stereotypes will be discussed. From the target's perspective, stereotype consensus as well as stereotype threat will be covered.

Stereotyping from the Perceiver's Perspective

There are multiple perspectives from which to understand stereotypes. For example, from the perceiver's perspective, we can examine the cognitive and motivational reasons for relying on stereotypes for judgment. From the cognitive perspective it can be argued that stereotypes are mental shortcuts that we rely on to obtain information quickly and effortlessly. The accuracy of stereotypes about a particular group or individual is a separate issue. On the other hand, from a motivational perspective, relying on stereotypes (especially negative ones) to form judgments about people who are not members of our particular group helps us maintain or boost our self-esteem.

Self-esteem, or feelings of self-worth, depends on what we think about ourselves as individuals and our accomplishments and talents, and upon the groups to which we belong or with whom we identify. Self-esteem is often viewed as having two components. Our personal self-esteem refers to our feelings of self-worth based on our own individual accomplishments and talents. Collective self-esteem refers to our feelings of worth or pride based on our group memberships. When we rely on negative group stereotypes to judge others we may increase our self-esteem by asserting that our group is somehow better or superior. Thus we contribute to our collective self-esteem. For example, if I use negative stereotypes to describe an ethnic group other than my own, then I'm also implying that members of my ethnic group possess more favorable qualities and can be considered more socially acceptable than members of the other group. Thinking favorably about my group allows me to feel better about myself. Thus producing a boost in my overall self-esteem. Both cognitive and motivational explanations help us understand why stereotypes are so heavily relied upon for judgment.

From a cognitive perspective, stereotypes can be thought of as trait associations we have with a particular social group. These trait associations contribute to our overall attitude towards a particular group. Before discussing how, let's establish a definition for attitude. Most simply put, attitude refers to one's overall evaluation of a particular social category. Attitudes can be divided into two parts: unconscious and conscious. Unconscious or implicit attitudes are defined as, "introspectively unidentified (or inaccurately identified) traces of past experience that mediate favorable or unfavorable feeling, thought, or action toward social objects " (Greenwald & Banaji, 1995, p.8). Implicit attitudes are thought to be unconscious, uncontrollable, unintentional, and efficient. In other words, these are the judgments that you make that are devoid of reason or deliberation. These attitudes are more likely to be based on your gut feeling instead of rational thinking. In contrast, conscious or explicit attitudes are your evaluations based on conscious, controllable, intentional and, effortful thought (Bargh, 1989; 1994; Wegner & Bargh, 1998). How implicit and explicit attitudes are related is unclear. However, recent research suggests that there may be some overlap between these two types of attitude (Bargh, 1989; 1994; 1996; Zbrodoff & Logan, 1986).

Social psychologists interested in stereotyping are especially concerned with how our implicit and explicit attitudes influence our tendency to rely on stereotypes for judgment. If we can understand how stereotypes are formed in the first place, then maybe we can begin to document how our unconscious and conscious processes shape our beliefs, thoughts, and behaviors. Ultimately, understanding the structure of racial attitude may offer effective suggestions for reducing inter-group (religious, ethnic, racial) conflict. Unfortunately, the field of investigation has become complicated with concerns over how to appropriately measure both types of attitude, how they are related to each other, and how they contribute to behavior (Khan, in press). For the sake of clarity, only the formation of explicit attitudes will be discussed in this chapter. Readers interested in implicit attitudes and stereotypes may refer to Kirsner et al.'s (1998) book on implicit and explicit mental processes.

Asking people directly about their beliefs is thought to capture their explicit attitudes towards a particular social group. In early attitude research, participants used Likert scales ranging from strongly agree to strongly disagree to indicate their evaluation or feelings. Researchers assumed that examining one's particular attitude provided insight into his or her tendency to endorse or use stereotypes. In classic stereotyping research studies, participants were asked to list the traits associated with particular social groups (Gilbert, 1951; Karlins, Coffman, & Walters, 1969; Katz & Braly, 1933). In these studies, American college students listed the different traits they thought best described different ethnic groups. It was interesting to see the remarkable consensus among the students in the traits they thought characterized each group. Furthermore, these series of studies demonstrate that stereotypes about ethnic groups do shift somewhat over time.

One of the most dramatic examples of these changes is stereotypes for Asian-Americans. Studies demonstrate how changes in a stereotype reflect social and political shifts in inter-group relations, particularly those between minority groups and White-Americans in the United States. Because the Chinese and Japanese came to be seen as political and economic competition by the majority group, the negative stereotypes that initially included physical and racial descriptions such as "yellow" or "slant-eyed", changed to negative characterizations such as "treacherous", "dangerous", and "shrewd" (Sue & Kitano, 1973). In previous studies, the Chinese were described as "loyal to family ties", "tradition loving", "industrious", "quiet", "meditative", and "courteous", and the Japanese were described as "industrious", "ambitious", "efficient", "loyal to family ties", "imitative", "courteous", and "intelligent" (Karlins, Coffman, & Walters, 1969; Kurokawa, 1971). With the general perception expressed by the majority group that all ethnic groups of Asian descent in America can be described in similar terms, the stereotype of these different Asian groups has become referred to as the Asian-American stereotype. According to a recent study, the Asian-American stereotype is composed of traits such as "self-disciplined", "reserved", "traditional", "intelligent", "studious", "hard-working", "cutthroat", "hostile", and "shrewd" (Jackson, Hodge, Gerard, Ingram, Ervin, & Sheppard, 1996; Jackson, Lewandowski, Ingram, & Hodge, 1997). Recent studies suggest that the stereotype of Asian- Americans has expanded over time to include both positive and negative traits. Also, a recent study by Devine and Elliot (1995) shows that people are still aware of the negative stereotypes associated with different ethnic groups but those low in prejudice are reluctant to express them openly. Low prejudiced participants are more likely to feel guilt than high prejudiced participants when discussing racially charged topics. Researchers ask people to describe the stereotypes that correspond to different groups in hopes of assessing not only what society in general thinks but also how individuals from those particular groups might be judged.

From research conducted from the perceiver's perspective, we learn that stereotypes serve a cognitive and motivational function. From a cognitive perspective, they represent a double-edged sword. Stereotypes offer quick information with relative ease. However, the information obtained is unlikely to adequately describe group members accurately. In other words, stereotypes feel like they are a legitimate source of information because they are easy to rationalize, but they are often inaccurate in practice. Often the particular stereotypic characterization created by members of the majority group about a minority group is influenced by economic and social competition. One can see how this evolves by examining the changing stereotypes used to describe particular groups.

Stereotyping From the Perspective of the Target

It is equally important to assess the impact of stereotypes on the individuals belonging to the stigmatized group. When examining inter-group processes, it is important to understand that both groups can be perceivers and targets simultaneously. That is, members of both groups can be seen as perceivers who rely on stereotypes to judge each other and both groups can be seen as targets of the stereotypes associated with their particular group. Typically though, when it comes to examining the content and the impact of the negative stereotypes, the dominant or majority group in power suffers less than the lower status or minority group. Because the majority group holds greater power in society, they have a greater hand in developing the accepted "wisdom" about particular groups. It is not uncommon to find that people belonging to majority groups have greater difficulty coming up with stereotypes about their own group than about minority groups (Simon & Hamilton, 1994). Unfortunately, the majority group's characterization of a minority-group is often adopted by members of that group as well. Stereotype consensus refers to the extent to which similar traits or descriptors are used to describe a group. Research demonstrates that in-group members also attain a consensus in describing themselves (Haslam, 1997; Haslam, Oakes, Reynolds, Eggins, Nolan, & Tweedie, 1998). Stereotype consensus among in-group members is particularly troubling if the stereotypical traits are primarily negative. According to social identity theory (Tajfel & Turner, 1979; Turner, 1982), one's self-concept partly consists of group memberships in social categories. Thus, individual group members may internalize stereotypical negative traits as part of his or her self-concept. Even if group members do not personally believe the stereotypes to be true, they may suffer from "stereotype threat" which refers to the anxiety felt by minority members that they might behave in a way to confirm existing stereotypes (Steele & Aronson, 1995).

There is abundant research documenting the harmful effects of stereotypes on various group members (e.g., Steele & Aronson, 1995). Two processes that demonstrate the true complexity of stereotypes will be examined. Most of the time we can readily see the negative effects of stereotypes, but research has shown few instances that reveal the dual nature of stereotyping: stereotype consensus and stereotype threat.

Stereotype Consensus

Stereotype consensus is defined as the extent to which people use similar traits to describe a group. Research shows that in-group members also exhibit stereotype consensus when describing their own group (Haslam et al., 1999). This process can be explained by the self-categorization theory, an extension of social identity theory (Turner, 1985, 1987). Self-categorization theory focuses on how we can describe ourselves at different levels of identity. Within this theoretical framework, the self can be categorized at three levels: superordinate, social, and personal. At the superordinate level, identity is based on being a human being as opposed to other forms of life (e.g., humans versus animals). At the intermediate social level, identity is based on perceiving the self as an in-group member in contrast with out-group members. When categorization occurs at the social level, individuals perceive themselves as part of certain social groups but not others (e.g., 'male', 'student', 'Indian'). Finally, at the subordinate personal level, the person perceives themselves as unique in contrast with other people including in-group members. We can categorize ourselves at any of these three identity levels and that level has implications for how information is processed about the self and others (Turner, 1985, 1987).

Most of the research on self-categorization theory has concentrated on the social identity level (Hogg & Turner, 1987; Turner, 1985). When the self is categorized at the social level people see themselves as possessing traits associated with their group, including stereotypical traits. One very interesting thing to note is that when stereotype consensus does occur, research thus far has shown that people choose positive stereotypes to describe their groups. When we think about people boosting their self-esteem by their group memberships, this result makes sense. In Haslam et al.'s study, participants who categorized themselves at the social level (i.e., as group members) showed higher stereotype consensus than those who categorized themselves as individuals (i.e., at the personal level). When people categorized themselves at the social level they perceived themselves and their in-group members as highly similar and favorable. In contrast, when participants categorized themselves at the personal level, their personally relevant attitudes became cognitively accessible and resulted in decreased stereotype consensus. A recent study by Tsuru and Khan (2002) demonstrated that stereotype consensus occurs for both a majority and minority group in a United States sample of White-Americans and Asian-Americans. One major implication of this area of work is that stereotype consensus can be beneficial to the members of a group when positive stereotypes are associated with that particular group. However, future research on stereotype consensus needs to be conducted on groups that are primarily associated with negative stereotypes.

Stereotype Threat Research

Dramatic examples of how stereotypes influence not only one's conceptualization of the self but also one's behavior comes from research on stereotype threat. Steele and Aronson (1995) have shown that when high achieving African-American undergraduate university students were told that they would be taking a test that would evaluate their intellectual ability, their performance on this test was significantly poorer than undergraduate university White- American students who were also given the same set of instructions. In contrast, when both groups of students were told that the test was not indicative of intellectual abilities, there were no differences in performance. The researchers explain that when the African-American students were told that the test was designed to measure intellectual ability, it activated the fear that they might confirm the existing negative stereotype of African-Americans as intellectually inferior. This fear interfered with their performance on the test. It is not that the students believed the stereotype themselves, rather it was their fear that others do and they might supply confirming evidence to them.

Studies on stereotype threat and gender demonstrate this effect as well. In the United States, women are stereotyped as having less developed math skills than men. Spencer, Steele, & Quinn (1999) found that when U.S. women were given a math test that was supposedly gender-relevant, they performed more poorly than the U.S. men who were provided with the same instructions. However, when there was no mention of gender, women performed just as well as men.

Another set of studies conducted by Shih, Pittinsky, and Ambady (1999) demonstrate the duality of stereotype threat. In their first study, they pitted the stereotype of Asian-Americans as good in math and the stereotype of women not being good in math against each other. In one condition, Asian-American women were given a math test when their female identity was made salient. In another condition, Asian-American women were given the same test with their Asian- American identity made salient. Compared to the control condition (where no identity was made salient), participants in the Asian-American-identity salient condition performed with the most accuracy, followed by the control condition, which was followed the female-identity condition. In a follow-up study, whether stereotype threat comes from membership to a particular group or the ethnic stereotype associated with that particular group was examined. In other words, would all Asians be influenced by the stereotype activation or not? In this study, Asians from Canada were used because the stereotype that Asians are good at math is not prevalent in Canada as it is in the United States. The results revealed that the Canadian-Asian females' performance on the math test was not influenced by the activation of the Asian identity, but was influenced in the expected direction when female identity was made salient. Thus, the overall results from these studies show that the effect of stereotype threat is limited to the existing stereotype of that particular group. Three major conclusions can be drawn from this work. First, stereotype threat is not limited to just producing negative effects. Performance on the math test increased for Asian-Americans when their ethnic identity was made salient. Thus, positive stereotypes associated with one's group identity can lead to an increase in performance. Second, the results show that the content of the stereotype does not need to be explicitly activated to obtain the effects. In the studies previously mentioned, stereotype threat was introduced by directly bringing up the existing stereotype. In the present studies, the stereotype threat was introduced implicitly. In other words, participants did not even know that particular group identities were made salient. The activation of the stereotype on the part of the research subjects occurred at an unconscious level. Lastly, the ethnic stereotype and not the group identity determine whether the threat has any impact on performance. Because the stereotype is the underlying force behind the differences in performance, then changing the content of the stereotypes should lessen some of the differences in performance that vary across different ethnicities and gender. Another way to eliminate the negative effects of stereotype threat is to make different identities salient if there is potential for stereotype threat. For example, have women focus on a different aspect of their identity other than gender when working on a math problem. Hopefully, making another aspect of the identity salient should not lead to a decrease in performance. One potential problem is that for some people, separating their gender identity from other aspects of their identity may be difficult.

The goal of this chapter was to provide some insight into understanding the complexity of stereotypes from the target and perceiver perspectives. From the research covered in this chapter, we see that the effects of stereotypes can be negative for the members of the target group. Stereotypes have the potential to shape self-concept and how people view the link between themselves and their in-group. Furthermore, stereotypes can impede performance in certain tasks. On the other hand, we've also seen that if positive stereotypes exist about one's group, then there is an opportunity to bolster one's self-esteem when thinking about one's group and one's self. In addition, performance can even improve on important tasks. Regardless of whether stereotypes are accurate depictions of any group, the perceptions of stereotypes shape how one sees others and how one sees her or himself, be that negatively or positively.


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Questions for Discussion

1. What are some reasons people rely on stereotypes for judgment?
2. What's the difference between implicit and explicit processes?
3. How does stereotype consensus shape our identity?
4. What are some ways stereotype threat can negatively influences target group members?
5. What are some ways stereotype threat can positively influence target group members?
6. Consider the long history of psychological research on stereotypes. Identify the major
contributions to this tradition.
7. Develop a research strategy whereby you can gain some insight into how individuals form
stereotypes about other people or cultures.
8. Survey some of the leading journals in social psychology. Identify research articles dealing with stereotypes and summarize what seems to be interesting contemporary psychologists in this area.

About the Author

Dr. Saera Khan is an assistant professor of psychology at the University of San Francisco. She received her Ph.D. in Psychology from Washington University in St. Louis. Her research explores how motivation and information processing influence the use of stereotypes when judging others. Her goal is to gain a comprehensive view of stereotyping by examining the process from the perspective of the perceiver, as well as the target (i.e., the individual belonging to the stereotyped group). Her most recent publication is in Basic and Applied Social Psychology, Khan, S. R. & Lambert, A. J. (2001). The title of her chapter is "Perceptions of "rational discrimination": When do people attempt to justify race-based prejudice? Her email address is:

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