Understanding Prejudice
Understanding Prejudice
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The Psychology of Prejudice: An Overview

Self-Perpetuating Stereotypes

Woman in a swimsuit taking a math test Once stereotypes are learned -- whether from the media, family members, direct experience, or elsewhere -- they sometimes take on a life of their own and become "self-perpetuating stereotypes" (Skrypnek & Snyder, 1980). As discussed earlier, one way this can happen is by people experiencing a stereotype threat that lowers their performance. Stereotypes can also become self-perpetuating when stereotyped individuals are made to feel self-conscious or inadequate. For example, research on self-objectification has found that when women take a difficult math test while wearing a swimsuit, they perform more poorly than do women wearing regular clothes, whereas men show no such decline in performance (Fredrickson, Roberts, Noll, Quinn, & Twenge, 1998). Even subliminal priming can lead to self-perpetuating stereotypes. For instance, when people over 60 years old are subliminally exposed to words such as senile, incompetent, and alzeimer's, they show signs of memory loss (Levy, 1996).

In a dramatic demonstration of how priming can lead to self-perpetuating stereotypes, Mark Chen and John Bargh (1997) subliminally exposed White students to either White or Black male faces taken from popular magazines. Then, once racial stereotypes were implicitly activated, students were paired with another White student who had not been exposed to any faces, and the pair was asked to play a game together. The results showed that: (1) compared to students primed with White faces, students primed with Black faces later displayed more hostility during the game (consistent with racial stereotypes concerning Black hostility), and (2) this hostility in turn led the unexposed partner to respond with an increase in hostility. The unsettling conclusion: Simply by looking at Black faces, White people may be primed to behave in ways that elicit hostility from Black people.

Self-perpetuating dynamics have also been documented in interactions between women and men. Perhaps the best known experiment on this point was published by Mark Snyder, Elizabeth Tanke, and Ellen Berscheid (1977). In this study, male-female pairs were audiotaped for ten minutes while they got acquainted with each other via the telephone (the male and female soundtracks were recorded separately for later analysis). Unbeknownst to the women, though, the men were first given one of eight randomly assigned snapshots of a woman -- ostensibly their partner -- so they could have "a mental picture of the person they're talking to." In reality, four snapshots were of women previously rated as highly attractive, and four were of women rated as unattractive. Thus, some of the men were led to believe that their conversation partner was physically attractive, and others were led to believe that their partner was unattractive.

Not surprisingly, when independent raters later listened to the male soundtrack of these conversations, men who thought they were talking with an attractive woman were judged as more sociable, sexually warm and permissive, outgoing, and humorous than men who thought they were talking with an unattractive woman. Of greater interest were ratings of the female soundtrack. Presumably in response to differences in male behavior, women who were initially perceived as attractive actually sounded more stereotypically attractive than did women who were originally thought to be unattractive, even though their male partner's preconceptions were induced at random and had nothing to do with how physically attractive the women actually were. What makes these results remarkable is that male beliefs affected female behavior so strongly that outside listeners -- who knew nothing of the experimental hypotheses or attractiveness of the women -- could hear the difference.

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