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Deconstructing Stereotypes

by Debbie Gibson

A father and son are involved in a horrific automobile accident. The father is killed, and the son is rushed to the hospital for emergency surgery. Upon their arrival, however, the surgeon takes one look at the child and says, "I cannot operate on him. He is my son." How is this possible?

The riddle—playing on gender stereotypes—is an excellent example of the power stereotypes play in shaping our thoughts and actions, according to UK social scientist Margo Monteith, an assistant professor of psychology. If you did not figure out that the surgeon is the child's mother, don't feel bad. Monteith says she was on the cusp of receiving her Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin–Madison in 1991 when she first heard the riddle. At the time, she did not figure it out either.

Today, Monteith regularly uses this riddle as a way to help her students think about stereotypes, a subject she began researching in graduate school. From a psychological perspective, stereotypes are merely evaluations stored in memory. They function as a kind of mental shorthand, helping save cognitive resources, particularly when we are doing multiple mental tasks at one time.

This mental shorthand, a way of sorting things by type, is particularly useful for small children who have so much to learn about the world and are learning at such a fast pace. Perhaps that is one reason research has found that 25 percent of three and four-year-olds have well-ingrained stereotypes, and that by age five, almost all children have stereotypes in place.

Of course, this sorting is not all benign.

"Stereotypes are also used as justifications for actions," Monteith says. "For example, the stereotype of blacks prior to abolition was that of the happy Sambo, always a smile on his face, docile but not very smart—someone who needed to be cared for. That stereotype justified slavery. After abolition, the stereotype of blacks changed, and they became people to be feared. This justified the violence that was taken against them." Fortunately, people are capable of controlling the influence of stereotypes. How we do this—and could learn to do it better—is the focus of Monteith's current research on the subject.

"I am interested in understanding the self-regulatory process we use to decrease the influence of stereotypes," Monteith says. "Psychology literature has always assumed that something automatic cannot be controlled because by definition it is automatic. However, my research has shown that people regularly catch themselves using stereotypes and then control their reaction."

The researcher uses a 16-scenario questionnaire which asks participants to answer a series of "should" questions followed by a series of "would" questions. For example, I should laugh at racist jokes/I would laugh at racist jokes. The questions are random, so the shoulds and woulds for a particular action are not consecutive. The questionnaire is then validated by behavioral tests. Interestingly, the tests prove that people answer the questionnaire accurately and are more aware of their use of stereotypes than might have been predicted.

"People are much more aware of stereotypes than we might think," she says, "but it is a confusing struggle. They don't know why they have the stereotypes and may not even believe them on a conscious level." Whether they ever pin down the plethora of reasons why the stereotype exists (media images, parental influences, etc.), awareness of the stereotype is the key to controlling it, according to Monteith's research.

"You have to be on the lookout, to be aware of your responses," she says. "Otherwise, there is no possibility of controlling them. Secondly, you have to have a sense of self efficacy, that you really can control your response." Change is neither easy nor quick, she adds.

"Change is very difficult, but once people are aware of the stereotype, they become more self focused, asking themselves questions such as, 'Why did I do that?' or 'Why did I say that?' When they are in a similar situation—exposed to a similar stimuli—they can begin to halt the association between the stimuli and the predicted response."