Psychology: Not-So-Positive Stereotypes

May 14, 2013

True or false: Women are more in touch with their emotions. Immigrants work harder than the native population. Answer: It doesn’t matter, because positive stereotypes like these are more underhanded than their negative counterparts.

Aaron Kay, associate professor of management and of psychology and neuroscience at the Fuqua School of Business, led a series of studies to test how individuals responded to both negative and positive stereotypes. Kay and his team found that people are more likely to discern bias if it’s negative and that bias is harder to spot if it appears with a positive slant.

In the first study, participants read two fake newspaper articles describing scientific findings that reflect common stereotypes of African Canadians, such as those around athleticism. In the other, the article presented negative stereotypes about African-Canadian intelligence.

Readers exposed to the positive stereotype were less likely to report bias in the articles than those exposed to the negative stereotype. In a follow-up, researchers measured the range of emotions when reading the fake articles. The positive stereotype did not produce any notable increase in emotions, while the negative stereotype led to more negative emotion.

The tests also showed how positive stereotypes can have a negative impact on perceptions about an entire targeted group. Another set of participants was asked to rate different groups and note characteristics that could be explained by nature or nurture. The researchers found that it was the positive stereotypes that strengthened belief that general racial differences are biological.

“Positive stereotypes are potent because they insidiously influence people’s general beliefs about the nature of group differences and ironically trigger other negative stereotypical beliefs,” Kay says.