The Situationist

Archive for December 7th, 2007

Susan Fiske — on Teaching Situationism

Posted by The Situationist Staff on December 7, 2007


In 2004, social psychologist Amy Hackney interviewed Situationist contributor Susan Fiske for the journal, Teaching of Psychology. (The full interview is available as a pdf file here.) Below, we have excerpted several of the sections of the interview in which Professor Fiske describes (1) some of the challenges she faces when teaching students stereotyping, prejudice and discrimination, (2) pedagogical tactics for meeting those challenges, as well as (3) some of her path-breaking research on stereotyping.

For teachers and students of social psychology, social cognition, and related fields, the interview contains some valuable insights.

* * *

Hackney: It seems that today’s cultural climate is not as vigilant against injustices as the climate in the 1960s and 1970s was. Do you have any teaching strategies to help undergraduate students become aware of social justice issues?

Fiske: Oh yes. One of the first things I do in my Psychology of Racism class—but you could easily do it in Introductory Psychology)—is to get everyone to list several answers to the question “Who am I?” Then I ask them to draw a line under what they have written so far and list their ethnicity. Almost to a person, the White students do not spontaneously list their race (a few will say Italian-American, and so on, but almost never White or European American). Almost to a person, the students of color (especially Black, Latino, and Asian, but sometimes also the Jewish students) will spontaneously list their ethnicity. I collect my students’ anonymous answers and when I present the data to them in a 2 x 2 matrix (White/Non-White Student x Mention/No Mention of Ethnicity), they are impressed. Another thing I do as a didactic exercise is the Implicit Association Test (IAT) in class (see here). People can feel how much longer the counterstereotypic associations take. A third exercise involves calling out students’ names to separate them into groups, then asking them why they think they have been divided up—what their group has in co9mmon, and so on. This exercise prompts them to discuss social identity. All three exercises provoke a lot of discussion. . . .

* * *

Hackney: You’ve shown recently that stereotypes of outgroups are composed of two independent dimensions—warmth and competence (Fiske, Cuddy, Glick, & Xu, 2002). Can you describe these research findings?

Fiske: People want to know if strangers are friend or foe (i.e., allies or competitors). From this perception follows strangers’ alleged warmth, friendliness, and trustworthiness. People then want to know whether the strangers can act on their own intentions (e.g., high status or not). From this perception follows the strangers’ alleged competence, intelligence, and skill. We have found the Warmth x Competence space in every culture we have tested, with their own societal groups, so we think it is a basic human proclivity to group people this way (Cuddy et al., in press). In most cultures, perceived competitors, and in every culture, perceived status predicts perceived competence. It’s odd that we would assume our competitors are not nice people and that high-status people automatically deserve it, but we do.

Hackney: Why do you think that warmth and status are such important dimensions? Do these dimensions have some special meaning to humans?

Fiske: I think people have a core social motive to belong. Thus, the first thing people want to know about other people is whether they are with them or against them—in my group or not in my group. You can make a social evolutionary argument for this point. I tell students about the health psychology data showing cardiovascular and immune risks to social isolates. I point out that throughout human history, being banished from the group has amounted to a death sentence. People need other people to survive and thrive, so they are motivated to identify and stay close to ingroup others. The other dimension, status, tells you whether the others can act effectively on their intentions. Some ingroup others are low status and cannot act on behalf of the group but instead need the group’s help (e.g., children, older people, those with disabilities, some people down onfiske-quotation.jpg their luck). Outgroup others who are low status can be ignored. High-status people can enact their will, whether it is in your favor or not. One attends upward because those people control one’s outcomes.

Hackney: How do you introduce these ideas to your students?

Fiske: I sometimes introduce the ingroup-outgroup idea by walking into class and reading students’ names off a list, dividing them into a few groups, as if there is a pattern. I ask them to figure out the basis for the division—what they have in common within their group. Usually they find something, but then someone suggests that maybe the groups are random, which in fact they are. As for status and power, I’ve never done this activity, but I think the Star Power exercise (people are divided randomly into arbitrary groups and given subtle rules for trading points, which results in one group becoming privileged over time. . . ) would be a brilliant, though time-consuming way to demonstrate status differences. It creates a microcosm of status hierarchies in the classroom.

Hackney: You’ve also written a lot about the importance of social power in the development of stereotypes and prejudice (Fiske, 1993; Fiske & Berdahl, in press). Can you describe this research?

Fiske: By our definition, people with power (often correlated with status) control resources. Therefore they do not depend as much on other people. They can do what they want, which may mean that they act for good or ill. Because they do not depend on others, they do not need to attend to them as much. I think this tendency makes them vulnerable to using their most available stereotypes, by default. Stephanie Goodwin, my collaborator in some of this work, pointed out that they may also want actively to maintain their position, so they may also stereotype by design to justify their position (Goodwin, Gubin, Fiske, & Yzerbyt, 2000). Sometimes, because of personality, values, or situation, power holders may feel responsible for others and so attend carefully to them as individuals. People may use power for greed or for good.

Hackney: Do these research findings imply that the content of stereotypes will change as the power of different groups change or is the content of stereotypes stable?

Fiske: Our work on the stereotype content model suggests that as groups’ perceived status and perceived cooperativeness improves, stereotypes of them will change accordingly (Cuddy, Fiske, & Glick, . . . [2004]). We have seen this process happen historically with Chinese immigrants in the 1850s, who were seen as peasant laborers, versus now when they are seen as highly competent entrepreneurs. Blacks are not viewed entirely differently depending on whether they are perceived to be rich or poor. Women are also viewed differently depending on their social status, which is the basis of Peter Glick’s and my ambivalent sexism theory (Glick & Fiske, 1996, 2001). So definitely, yes, as groups change social position, te stereotypes of them also change. These stereotypes are not accurate, though, because the entire group gets lumped wherever the prototypic members are located.

Hackney: You’ve mentioned stereotypes based on ethnicity, gender, age, sexual orientation, and so on. Does there seem to be any qualitative differences in these kinds of stereotypes?

Fiske: Some stereotypes are unambivalently positive (e.g., us and our allies) or negative (e.g., drug dealers, poor people, homeless people), whereas others are ambivalent. One kind of ambivalence targets pitied groups (e.g., older people, people with disabilities), and the other kind targets envied groups (e.g., Asians, Jews, rich people). The pitied and envied groups each elicit a mix of positive and negative behavior, according to work with Amy Cuddy (Cuddy, Fiske, & Glick, . . . [2004]). Pitied groups get active help but passive neglect, whereas envied groups get passive cooperation but active harm when the chips are down. Both of these kinds of stereotypes differ from the active and passive harm (attack and neglecting) directed toward the unambivalently negative groups.

Hackney: After the recent presidential election, my students and I discussed whether Americans would elect a White female president or a Black male president first. Interestingly, the White female students felt certain that a Black male would be elected first, but both male and fhilary-barak.jpgemale Black students felt that a White female would be elected first. Can social psychological research give insight to these contrasting answers? That is, do we know what the quantitative difference is in the extent to which we stereotype or are prejudiced against different group members?

Fiske: Quantitative degrees of prejudice differ on two dimensions. Black professionals are seen as highly competent but not very warm. Female professionals are seen as less warm than male professionals, so I suspect the White female students are right, but we’ll see. These of course, are public reports. The IAT data indicate warmth toward women generically, but that picks up people’s own mothers, not female political candidates. People like and respect women, as Alice Eagly has often noted, but it is less clear that people want women in positions of power, as her work also indicates (Eagly, Makhijani, & Klonsky, 1992). It’s hard to compare apples and oranges. I always avoid talking about which group is most oppressed. It’s divisive and it doesn’t end up prioritizing any group’s concerns. It is better to acknowledge that there are unique historical and current features to each group’s situation, but that some common ground occurs in the press for social justice. Prejudices run in packs, so combating one may well combat others.

Hackney: You’ve also written about the importance of social motivation (Fiske, 2004). How do social motives lead to stereotypes, prejudice, and discrimination? Does one motivation seem to be more important than another? Or are the motivations dependent on the situation?

Fiske: From teaching introductory social psychology in public and private universities, to large lecture, small honors, and graduate proseminars, I became frustrated with the lack of integrative themes for teaching this fabulous material. In class I identify the core social motives that personality and social psychologists keep nominating over the years. I lay out an argument that belonging is the most basic of the core social motives, and of course, it means that we are inherently oriented toward other people in order to survive and thrive. From this point follows “cognitive” motives for socially shared understanding and for a sense of control, as well as “affective” motives for enhancing self and trusting others. These motives appear and reappear throughout social psychology, but the point here is that intergroup biases relate to each of these motives.

Hackney: What have you found to be the most effective way to explain this complex point to students?

Fiske: As a BUC(k)ET of motives (belonging, understanding, controlling, enhancing self, and trusting others), and then weaving them into every topic in the course. I believe in teaching from integrative themes. Social psychology is wonderful, but it is often taught like by throwing a handful of confetti at students. I believe in streamers, so I constructed these themes, from what social and personality psychologists have been saying for 100 years. It tends to pull things together.

Hackney: Going back to the quantitative differences in stereotypes and prejudice, some of my minority students feel that racial prejudice will never end in the U.S. and that it is pointless to keep hoping and trying. Have you run across these feelings in your students? How do you respond?

Fiske: Every time I teach psychology of racism, the students get depressed halfway through the semester after I tell them how automatic and natural it is to favor people like themselves. We spend the rest of the semester looking at solutions (constructive contact, liberal education, multicultural population shifts). I remind them, though, of how far we have come.

Hackney: Speaking of solutions, I have my students participate in a day of social justice, in which they are challenged to live each minute of that day in an inclusive, unprejudiced, and nondiscriminatory way as possible (adopted from Plous, 2003). Some students commented that this assignment was mentally exhausting, even stressful, and for that reason, they did not think it was possible to live each day with social justice in mind. How would you respond to these students?

Fiske: It takes practice. Everyone slips up. However, it can become a habit of the head and mind, even becoming an enthusiasm for new cultural experiences. Being a student of psychology (especially social psychology and psychology of prejudice) shows how open they already are.

Hackney: As a final note, can you suggest any tips on effective ways of helping students see the value of social psychology in dealing with the many social ills of our time?

Fiske: Become a social psychologist—or a research assistant to one!

* * *

To read the entire interview, click here for the pdf. For related Situationist posts, see “Women’s Situational Bind,” “Being Smart about ‘Dumb Blonde’ Jokes,” “Gender-Imbalanced Situation of Math, Science, and Engineering,” Sex Differences in Math and Science,” “You Shouldn’t Stereotype Stereotypes,” “Women’s Situation in Economics,” and “Your Group is Bad at Math.”


Cuddy, A. J. C., Fiske, S. T., & Glick, P. (2004). When professionals become mothers, warmth doesn’t cut the ice. Journal of Social Issues, 60, 701-718.

Eagly, A.H., Makhijani, M.G., & Klonsky, B.G. (1992). Gender and the evaluation of leaders: A meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 111, 3-22.

Fiske, S. T. (1993). Controlling other people: The impact of power on stereotyping. American Psychologist, 48, 621-628.

Fiske, S. T. (2004). Intent and ordinary bias: Unintended thought and social motivation create casual prejudice. In M. Bazerman & M. Banaji (Eds.), Social psychology of ordinary unethical behavior, special issue of Social Justice Research, 17, 117-127.

Fiske, S. T. & Berdahl. J. L., “Social power,” In A. Kruglanski & E. T. Higgins (Eds.), Social Psychology: A Handbook of Basic Principles, 2007, 678-692.

Fiske, S. T., Cuddy, A. J. C., Glick, P., & Xu, J. (2002). A model of (often mixed) stereotype content: Competence and warmth respectively follow from status and competition. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 82, 878-902.

Fiske, S. T., & Cuddy, A. J. C. (2006). Stereotype content and relative group status across cultures. In S. Guimond (Ed.). Social comparison processes and levels of analysis: Understanding culture, intergroup relations and cognition (249-263). UK: Cambridge University Press.

Glick, P., & Fiske, S. T. (1996). The Ambivalent Sexism Inventory: Differentiating hostile and benevolent sexism. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 70, 491-512.

Glick, P. & Fiske, S. T. (2001). An ambivalent alliance: Hostile and benevolent sexism as complementary justifications of gender inequality. American Psychologist, 56, 109-118.

Goodwin, S. A., Gubin, A., Fiske, S. T., & Yzerbyt, V. (2000). Power can bias impression formation: Stereotyping subordinates by default and by design. Group Processes and Intergroup Relations, 3, 227-256.

Plous, S. (Ed.). (2003). Understanding prejudice and discrimination. New York: McGraw-Hill.

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