Stereotypes are widely held evaluative generalizations about a group of people (Aronson et al. 2007). They are characteristics assigned to all members of a group, in spite of the individual differences between the members. Stereotypes can be based on gender, age, race, beliefs, culture, ethnicity etc.

Stereotypes can be both positive or negative and greatly contribute to the prejudice and discrimination in our society. There are many theories that explain why and how they are formed, for example, the illusory correlation, confirmation bias and the social-cognitive theory. They can be formed due to illusory correlation whereby a trait is assigned to a group without any relationship between the two variables. They can also be formed due to confirmation bias, where we only focus on our predisposed impressions and disprove or ignore opposing other factors. Stereotyping is a way in which we categorize a large amount of social information into different groups depending on the typical characteristic displayed by different groups (social cognitive theory). Campbell (1967) argues that it is formed due to the grain of truth hypothesis which states that if a trait were to be attributed, it must have a reason.

As the oversimplified generalizations are made and subconsciously ingrained, our  behavior towards certain individuals, depending on their stereotype, could change. For example, the stereotype for an elderly person might be a person with grey hair, wrinkles and mobility difficulties, so the way we behave around an individual that has that stereotype, we move slower to adjust to their pace and be more careful. The study of Spencer et al. (1977) which demonstrated the potential danger of stereotyping. This study involves the mathematical testing of male and female participants. The participants were told (put under stereotype threat), before they had done the test that females would under-perform and males are better at math. The researchers found that this resulted in the female participants scoring lower than the males. However, a literature test was performed where the participants were not put under any stereotype threat and found that male and female scored almost equally well. This study shows that when under stereotype threat, we tend to act according to the stereotype whether its conscious or subconsciously.


Social Identity Theory

One’s self-concept is the person’s idea of who they are based on who they associate themselves with, their environment and their behavior. Henry Tajfel, in 1979, developed the social identity theory whereby one’s identity is based on: social categorization, social identity, social comparison and positive distinctiveness. Tajfel believed that the groups we are in, heavily influenced our sense of who we are, and so groups lead to the development of a social identity.

Tajfel stated that social categorization ordered the environment into in-groups (group containing the individual) and out-groups (group that the individual doesn’t belong to). Social categorization allows for one to feel similar to others in the group, perceive that everyone in the out-group is the same, it also allows us to distinguish our in-group from the out-group by identifying the differences. Exaggeration of intra-group similarities and inter-group differences commonly occurs, this is called the category accentuation effect.

Tajfel’s definition of social identity is the social groups in which we identify ourselves with. He believed that by associating ourselves with the in-group members and displaying norms of the social group, we would take up the behavior displayed, which would form part of our self-concept.

Social comparison also plays a role in developing our self-concept. Tajfel states that the way we see ourselves in comparison to the people around us helps us measure our abilities and potential etc. In other words, it allows us to know how we ‘rank’ or place in social settings.

According to the social identity theory, we instinctively attempt to positively identify our selves, this is the self-esteem hypothesis. Therefore, when comparing in-groups and out-groups, we would perceive the in-group as superior – ethnocentrism.

Tajfel et al. (1971)’s study using the minimal group paradigm. This is where participants are placed as in-groups and out-groups randomly due to an arbitrary criteria eg. tossing coin. Tajfel split a sample of 48 British schoolboys into 2 groups randomly, however, the participants were told that they were separated by their preference from 2 paintings. The participants worked individually. They were then tasked with a set number of points and was asked to allocate them to in-group members and out-group members. They also followed a chart which stated that for a set amount of points allocated to an in-group member, a sum of points had to be given to an out-group member, eg. 7 points allowed for in-group and 1 point had to be given to the out-group. As the number of points distributed to the in-group increased, the difference between points given to the out- and in- group decreased, eg 14 – in and 15 -out. Tajfel found that not only did the participants allocate more points for their in-group (positive distinctiveness and in-group favoritism and out-group discrimination), in order to enhance the variability between the groups, the participants gave less points to themselves, so that they would have to give the out-group even less (category accentuation effect).

However, the social identity theory has been criticized in a number of studies. For example, the self-esteem hypothesis has been discredited by a studies proving that the increase in self-esteem drawn from the discrimination of the out-group is too short term and does not translate to one’s self-concept. Although Tajfel aimed to attribute self-concept due to situational factors, rather than dispositional factors, many argue that the formation and association of oneself to different social groups is based on their disposition.

With that said, the development of the social identity theory instigated many other studies which supports the theory. The theory helps us understand our need for belongingness, the derivation of our self-esteem and the variability in attitude displayed in different social situations. It has also notably contributed towards the understanding of how we construct our own personal identities.

Attribution Errors

When attributing the behaviour of others, according to the actor-observer theory, the attribution is always based on a guess. This guess however can be influenced by a number of factors causing the attribution to be wrongfully placed. There are 4 main theories of attributional errors, which are: fundamental attribution error, self-serving bias, illusory correlation, and the self-fulfilling hypothesis. This article will focus on fundamental attribution error and the self-serving bias.

Although it is logical to acknowledge that both situational and dispositional factors play a role in the attribution of behaviour, many people tend to ignore situational elements and only focus on one’s disposition. In other words, if a person is seen to be yelling, we conclude that they have an angry personality and ignore other situational factors that might’ve had implications towards this behaviour. This is called the fundamental attribution error.

The study conducted by Jones and Harris in 1967, supports the theory of the fundamental attribution error. They enlisted university students and asked for them to read and evaluate essays written by fellow students about Fidel Castro’s ruling in Cuba. The essays were written in the form of either supporting Castro’s ruling or critiquing his ruling. The students writing the essay were split into 2 groups: Choice-condition group where the students were free to choose whether they supported or opposed to Castro’s rule. Or the no-choice-condition whereby the students were randomly assigned either pro- or anti- Castro. The participants were then tasked to attribute the essays in both condition either to situational factors (random assignment) or dispositional (reflective of their own opinion). The researchers found that the participants attributed the essays from the choice-condition to dispositional factors. They also found that participants attributed the essays in the no-choice-condition to dispositional factors, despite having known that they were randomly assigned and had no choice in the decision.

Another error in attribution is the self-serving bias. The self-serving bias illustrates that we explain our own successes due to dispositional factors and blame failures on situational factors. Eg. if one did not perform as well during a race, they would say that it is due to them not having breakfast, the floor being slippery or any other external factor but not because they are not as good as they had thought. This is demonstrated in the study of Johnson et al. in 1964. In this study, the participants, consisting of psychology students were asked to teach children how to multiply numbers by 10 and 20. They taught the children using a one-way intercom system. After the students had been taught, they did a set of worksheets on their own for participants to asses their learning progress. The worksheets were marked externally and in such a way that the children were split randomly in 2 groups and in group 1, the questions were all marked correct, regardless of if they were and in group 2, the questions were either marked wrong for the multiplication of 10 then correct for that of 20, or completely wrong on both the multiplications. The researchers found that when the participants evaluated the marks of the children, they attributed the improvement due to the participant’s own teaching ability but they attributed the children’s failure due to the children’s lack of ability.

Nature vs Nurture?

Heider (1958) stated that we all have a tendency to want to explain human behaviour. Often, when evaluating one’s actions, the debate between nature vs nurture comes to play.  Since it is difficult to understand the reasons for other people’s actions, we would normally have to take a guess, this is the actor-observer effect. For example, when a person gets angry, two questions could arise: Does he/she have an aggressive and temperamental disposition? Or was it just because he/she was in a heated situation?

Does one attribute behaviour to dispositional causes, or situational causes? Dispositional causes are based off of a person’s integral characteristics. This could refer to a person’s belief, personality and so on. Situational causes are based on external factors including the environment’s social setting, atmosphere and pressure.

In Mischel’s study during 1968, he concluded that situational factors outweighed dispositional factors, in other words, external factors were would effect our behaviour more than internal traits. His study on school students in which he assessed their level of conscientiousness in terms of attending classes on time and submitting their homework. He found that within the same students, their conscientiousness varied from class to class and occasion to occasion due to other factors (eg. stress, friends). Therefore, he argued that since the same students display varied behaviour towards each class and at every occasion, the cause of the behaviour must have been due to situational factors instead of dispositional.

However, in Epstein’s study in 1983, he argued that a person’s disposition effects the tendency of which they make certain actions. He studied the behaviour of a group of college students and found that the behaviour displayed in a particular situation at an occasion cannot be used to predict the behaviour of the individual in the similar circumstances in another occasion. However, he concluded that when the behaviour of the participants’ were aggregated over the duration of 2-weeks, the behaviour would then be highly predictive of their behaviour in similar situations over the following 2-weeks. In other words, if a participant showed anxiety in large social circles one day, the same participant’s attitude towards large social circles could change for the next day. Though, over a long period of time, if the participant showed consistent anxiety towards large social settings, it can be predicted that the participant would be anxious in occasions with large social groups.

These studies show that situational factors as well as dispositional factors has a role in dictating the behaviour of an individual.