After reading this article you will learn about the role of stereotypes in perception.
The term stereotype means something fixed, without variations. In a psychological sense it means a fixed way of responding to or perceiving or judging the qualities of a group of people who shared some common characteristics.
For example, if we believe that every person who is able to communicate fluently in the English language should be very intelligent, then this is an example of stereotyping. Now what is happening here is that certain fixed ways of perceiving which have been learnt and acquired earlier in different contexts come to control and determine ‘person perception’ irrespective of the particular situation and object-specific characteristics.
Thus, there are several examples of stereotyping. When the senior author was young ‘he used to be told that people who are very short cannot be trusted’. Similarly in some cities in the north, house owners prefer South Indian tenants, because people from the south are generally perceived as cleanliness-oriented, less aggressive, and pay the rent regularly.
Now we can see that impressions acquired earlier based on one’s own limited experience or impressions transmitted by others and not based on one’s Stereotypes lead us to attribute certain qualities to others. Very often, this results in wrong perception and judgement, making us insensitive to individual differences. But occasionally stereotypes do provide a helpful base for perceiving and judging others. Stereotypes can be positive or negative.
Similarly, they may influence not only our perception of other persons but also sometimes of even physical objects. Thus, brand loyalty is an example of a stereotype. Many people come to believe that a certain branded tea is good and go on hunting for it. This is also an example of stereotypes.
Some of the earliest studies on stereotypes were carried out at the University of Michigan (Katz, Rice and others). In a very interesting experiment, a set of photographs of people dressed in different styles was given. The reader were told that one photo was that of a senator, one that of a politician, one that of a bootlegger etc.
They were asked to identify which photographs represented whom. Actually, there was no other clue and the reader should have pleaded their inability to do what they were asked to do, but this did not happen. Very quietly and silently they went on identifying and matching the various photographs with various occupations and of course most of their judgements were wrong. Subsequently when they were asked as to what cues they have employed, they were rather vague and referred to the dress, the type of hat a person was wearing etc.
Here we have an example of stereotypes influencing perception.
In our everyday life our perceptions are very much influenced by past learning or experience to a large extent. No doubt, all perceptions are influenced to some extent by past experience. But in the case of stereotyped perception, past experience completely determines the perception, the present cues being totally overlooked.
We thus have in our social vocabulary a lot of stereotypes. We have stereotypes about people, communities, institutions and nationalities. For example, if I am told that a particular young person has a degree from one of the reputed institutions, immediately I conclude that he must be very intelligent, very competent and must be hailing from a very cultured background; my imagination may run riot.
Stereotypes very often lead us to misperception and wrong judgement. Sometimes, they are partially true but rarely totally true. What is happening here is that several characteristics are attributed to a person or persons, based simply on past knowledge or information. Stereotypes involve a considerable amount of stimulus generalization.