The Situationist

Archive for August 26th, 2007

You Shouldn’t Stereotype Stereotypes

Posted by The Situationist Staff on August 26, 2007

aps-poster.jpgIn 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.”

* * *

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’tSusan Fiske 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.”

* * *

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?


Posted in Conflict, Implicit Associations, Life, Social Psychology | 4 Comments »

College Sweethearts and Breaking Up

Posted by The Situationist Staff on August 26, 2007

College Breakup

In their Georgetown Law Journal article “The Situational Character: A Critical Realist Perspective on the Human Animal,” (available on SSRN) Situationists Jon Hanson and David Yosifon discuss ineffective forecasting:

The best evidence about our ability to predict (or even remember) our emotional states reveals that we are often poor judges of our own well-being. The problem is not so much that we do not know what will bring us pleasure or pain. People typically are correct to assume that a new car will elicit some happiness and that a bad accident will generate unhappiness. The problem is that, owing to our ineffective forecasting, we vastly overestimate the intensity and duration of our emotional reactions to such happenings.

Winning the lottery, landing a good teaching job, and falling in love all may bring us some joy. Losing a bet, a job, or a lover will certainly bring sadness. But none of these events will affect us as much as we tend to imagine. Because of this impact bias, “common events typically influence people’s subjective well-being for little more than a few months, and even uncommon events — such as losing a child in a car accident, getting cancer, becoming paralyzed, or being sent to a concentration camp — seem to have less impact on long-term happiness than one might naively expect.”

A new study in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology explores ineffective forecasting in the context of college couples who break-up. Psychologists Eli Finkel and Paul Eastwick of Northwestern University are the study’s authors and below we excerpt an Reuters story by Julie Steenhuysen on their work.

* * *Breaking Up

Despite the laments of pining pop stars and sad sack poets, U.S. researchers now think breaking up may not be so hard to do.“We underestimate our ability to survive heartbreak,” said Eli Finkel, an assistant professor of psychology at Northwestern University, whose study appears online in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.

Finkel and colleague Paul Eastwick studied young lovers — especially those who profess ardent affection — to see if their predictions of devastation matched their actual angst when that love was lost.

“On average, people overestimate how distressed they will be following a breakup,” Finkel said in a telephone interview.

The nine-month study involved college students who had been dating at least two months who filled out questionnaires every two weeks. They gathered data from 26 people — 10 women and 16 men — who broke up with their partners during the first six months of the study.

The participants’ forecasts of distress two weeks before the breakup were compared to their actual experience as recorded over four different periods of time.

Not surprisingly, they found the more people were in love, the harder they took the breakup.

“People who are more in love really are a little more upset after a breakup, but their perceptions about how distraught they will be are dramatically overstated when compared to reality,” Finkel said.

“At the end of the day it, it is just less bad than you thought.”

* * *

Every break-up stems from a relationship’s beginning, and for more on the beginning of relationships, check out our post from May entitled “First Dates and Feeling Good.” More recently, our post “The Situation of Happiness” explains, among other points, how happiness positively correlates with marriage (which is probably not something you want to tell a recently-heartbroken college student).

Posted in Emotions, Life | Leave a Comment »

%d bloggers like this: