Monday, August 11, 2014

The pain of positive stereotypes

When we think of the problems that stereotypes cause, we typically focus on negative characteristics associated with groups.  Over the years, I have been part of conversations where someone uses the term “Jew” to refer to someone who is being cheap.  I leave those interactions frustrated and angry.

Presumably, though, there are positive stereotypes as well.  In the United States, there are cultural stereotypes that Asians are good at math and that Women are nurturing.  If hearing a negative stereotype about your group gets you upset, does hearing a positive stereotype have the opposite effect?

This question was explored in a series of studies by John Oliver Siy and Sapna Cheryan in the January, 2013 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 

In one study, Asian Americans were brought to the lab where they engaged in a task along with a White participant (who was actually one of the experimenters posing as a participant).  In the experiment, each participant was going to fill out a packet.  One packet had math problems in it, while the other had verbal problems in it.  After a rigged coin flip to make the selection process appear random, the White participant was chosen to select who would fill out each packet.

In the control condition, the White participant handed the math packet to the Asian participant and said, “How about you take this packet, and I’ll work on this one.”  In the positive stereotype condition, the White participant said, “I know all Asians are good at math, how about you take the math packet.  I’ll work on this one.”

After completing the packets, participants rated how much they liked their partner and they filled out some other scales including a measure of how much they felt like their partner depersonalized them by reducing them to a member of their racial group. 

Positive stereotypes did not make people feel good.  When the White participant used a positive stereotype, the Asian participant liked them less and felt more depersonalized.  The positive stereotype also made the participants angry.  Statistically, the amount of depersonalization they felt explained the amount of dislike they felt for their partner.

Other studies in this series demonstrated a similar effect with women who were told that they were nurturing or cooperative because of their gender.  These studies also ruled out some other explanations like the possibility that Asian Americans react negatively to the positive stereotype because it does not acknowledge that they are both Asians and Americans.

Across all of the studies done in this paper, a positive stereotype made people feel less like an individual.  Under some circumstances, though, this did not cause people to dislike the person who used the stereotype.  In one study, Asian American participants were primed to think of themselves either in independent or interdependent terms.  The independent prime asked people to think about ways that they were different from family and friends.  The interdependent prime asked people to think about ways that they were similar to family and friends. 

After this priming, participants were exposed either to a positive stereotype (in this case that Asians are hard working) or to no stereotype. Participants rated how much they liked the speaker as well as whether they felt depersonalized.  As in the other studies, hearing a positive stereotype led to greater feelings of being depersonalized for everyone in the study.  However, only the people with primed to think of themselves in independent terms strongly disliked the speaker.  Those primed to think of themselves in interdependent terms did not dislike the speaker significantly more after hearing a positive stereotype compared to no stereotype.

What is going on here?

Stereotypes of all kinds lump an individual into a group.  When you find a stereotype applied to you, it removes some of your individuality.  That happens whether the stereotype used was positive or negative.  It is frustrating to realize that someone views you just as a member of a group and not as an individual.  And in many situations, that leads you to dislike the person who made the comment.

It is fascinating, though, that when you feel more interconnected with others (as you do when you are primed to think of yourself in interdependent terms), the depersonalization caused by hearing a stereotype aimed at you does not lead to the same dislike of the speaker. 

Finally, I suspect there is an additional factor at play in these studies.  When someone uses a positive stereotype to judge you, it is reasonable to assume that it is only a matter of time until they apply negative stereotypes as well.  That is, you are making a judgment that the person you are talking to uses stereotypes to make judgments.

The studies in this series did find that depersonalization explained the negative effects of positive stereotypes above-and-beyond the judgment that the speaker was racist.  But, the judgment that the speaker was racist (and used stereotypes to judge people) also contributed to the effects.