In May, the American Psychological Society (APS) held their annual conference at which numerous prominent social psychologists gave presentations. The latest issue of Observer, the APS magazine, contains articles summarizing a few of those presentations. This is the third in a series of posts (to link to the first two, click here and here) by the Situationist excerpting and supplementing those articles. Below you will find excerpts of Eric Wargo’s excellent summary of Situationist Contributor Susan Fiske’s presentation “divisive dichotomies.”
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Susan T. Fiske, Princeton, began her talk “Venus and Mars, or Down to Earth?” by reflecting on some of her early motivations in going into psychological science. In her undergraduate courses in psychology, she couldn’t help noticing that “all the individual differences had a good end and a bad. And you could almost always tell which end described the person who made up the scale.”
Since, at that point in time, most of the people making the scales were men, it isn’t surprising that the “good” ends of the scales were often named with traits that seemed to connote stereotypically masculine values: “Perceptually thorough, math self-confident, linguistically specialized, physically directly assertive, tough minded, justly moral.”
Fiske, who is a Past President of APS, described her “eureka moment” as being when she came across the term field independence. “Field dependence was this disease women had,” she said.
She showed the shift of perspective that occurs when you change the phrasing of these personality categories: “What about being field sensitive instead of being field dependent? What about being perceptually fast? Oh, does that mean men are perceptually slow? What about being cautious about math, instead of being un-self-confident? What about women being generally linguistically skilled? What about women being subtly socially assertive?”
“We all love dichotomies,” Fiske said. “Even scientists tend to think in dichotomies — either/or — but the similarities are often greater than the differences between the groups that we’re studying.” People tend to maximize the differences between categories and minimize differences within them, she said, citing as an example the low effect sizes found in meta-analyses of gender differences. “It’s just not either/or.”
Despite ambivalent differences found in much gender research and the advances made by women in the field since Fiske’s undergraduate days, psychologists are still not immune to gender-biased thinking. “It’s quite clear that people’s values and identities matter when they do this kind of science.”
“I’m not saying that people are politically biased and that their science is suspect,” Fiske explained. “I’m saying that people pursue what they find interesting, and what people find interesting is informed by their values and their identities.”
Group differences, when used unjudiciously, “have the tendency to divide us and oversimplify,” Fiske said. For one thing, differences assumed to exist between groups can become self-fulfilling (as in the phenomenon of “stereotype threat”) and prescriptive. Even positive attributes can be damaging when assigned to a whole group.
“When there is stigma, it is likely to be on multiple dimensions,” Fiske said. She cited research that 80-85 percent of variance in interpersonal and intergroup impressions is explained by two dimensions: perceptions of warmth and perceptions of competence. Groups can be stigmatized even if they are viewed positively on one of these dimensions. Precisely where different groups fall in this two-dimensional warmth-by-competence space determines the kinds of stigma groups can expect.
For example, housewives and effeminate gay men fall in the upper left — perceived as warm and nice but not competent — and may arouse pity as a result. Career women and Asians, by the same token, fall in the lower right — competent but cold — and may be received with reactions of envy. People who are mentally ill or poor fall in the lower left — not competent and not friendly — and may be dehumanized as a result.
“Stigmas differ. It’s not just ‘I hate them’ and ‘I love us.’ It’s not just that ‘My end of the scale is good, and your end of the scale is bad.’ . . . These stigma dimensions matter because emotional prejudices come quickly on their tail: pity, envy, disgust. Those are different kinds of stigma. And the discrimination that gets directed at these different groups is quite distinct and quite predictable from the emotions. For instance, consider the difference between being attacked and being neglected. Both of those are discrimination.”
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To listen to a recent interesting NPR audio report (entitled “Stereotypes Are Only Human”) on the role and effect of stereotypes, click here. For a sample of stereotypes in film, click on the Youtube vides below.
Numerous previous Situationist posts, including the following, have looked at different types of stereotypes and their effects: “Unlevel Playing Fields,” “Hoyas, Hos, & Gangstas,” “Race Attributions and Georgetown University Basketball,” “Black History is Now” and “Implicit Bias and Strawmen,” “Prejudice Against the Obese,” “Your Group Is Bad at Math,” “Women’s Situation in Economics,” “Dueling Stereotypes and the Law,” and “Don W-Ho?“