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College Classroom Activities

The Effect of Stereotypes: What's in a Label?


To demonstrate how stereotypes affect the self-perception and behavior of the person who is stereotyped.


Obtain the same number of adhesive labels (e.g., of the kind for file folders) as there are students in your class, and write a stereotypic attribute on each label. Some examples include violent, athletic, cute, overemotional, incompetent, good at math, lazy, untrustworthy, unclean, musical, materialistic, diseased, unintelligent, exotic, forgetful, and frail.


After discussing research and theories on stereotyping, explain that you will conduct a labeling exercise to help students learn about how stereotypes work. Tell students that participation in this exercise is optional, and that anyone who prefers not to participate directly can simply play the role of an observer.

Next, attach a label on each student's forehead (or back) so that the label is not visible to the wearer. Make clear that these labels are being assigned randomly and have nothing to do with students' actual attributes.

Then ask students to spend 15 minutes talking with each other about "future goals" (another general topic can be chosen, but this one works well in eliciting responses to the labels). Tell students that they should circulate in order to talk with several different people, and that they should treat one another according to the other person's labeled attribute. For example, someone labeled "forgetful" might be repeatedly reminded of the instructions.

After 15 minutes, reconvene the class and ask students to leave their labels on for a little while longer (if the class size and furniture allows, it's best to sit in a circle). Then ask students to share how they felt during the exercise, how they were treated by others, and how this treatment affected them. Students will often mention their discomfort not only with being stereotyped but with treating others stereotypically.

Finally, tell students that they can now remove their labels. Then discuss questions such as the following:

  • Was the label what you guessed, or were you surprised by it?
  • When people stereotyped you, were you able to disregard it?
  • Did you try to disprove the stereotype? If so, did it work?
  • How did you feel toward the person who was stereotyping you?
  • If your attribute was positive (e.g., "good at math"), how did you feel?
  • When stereotyping others, how easy was it to find confirming evidence?
  • When stereotyping others, how did you react to disconfirming evidence?

These questions offer a natural forum to discuss subtyping, self-fulfilling prophecies, confirmation biases, belief perseverance, and other psychological factors involved in stereotyping.


  1. This exercise works well with 10-60 students, but when there are more than 20 students, you should find a way to affix labels efficiently. One technique is to have a TA or class member help affix labels. Another is to distribute the labels and have students affix them to each other.

  2. For instructors using Understanding Prejudice and Discrimination, this activity is best used in connection with Section I (on stereotyping), Section II (on stigmatization), or Section IV (on contemporary racism).

Adapted from Goldstein, S. B. (1997). The power of stereotypes: A labeling exercise. Teaching of Psychology, 24, 256-258.