Can you go beyond your stereotypes?

“For the most part we do not first see, and then define, we define first and then see.” Walter Lippman

The other day I attended Science Café Nijmegen. This time it was about cognitive illusions, and one of the speakers, prof. Daniel Wigboldus of Radboud University Nijmegen, talked a bit about stereotypes. His story, in very brief, was that we cannot prevent having stereotypes, because we are programmed to categorise. This can be very handy, for example when we see a long, thin, brown shape on the road and we immediately assume that it is a snake instead of a dead branch – and we jump away. Unfortunately stereotypes are not always that helpful. Happily, we can do something to overcome them.

Stereotypes are widely shared beliefs about the attributes of social groups, which influence judgments if someone is believed to be part of that social group. This also happens in court; racial differences in severity of sentencing in the US are well documented (1). This led to state and federal laws that the sentence should not be influenced by race, gender and socioeconomic status. The interesting thing is that judges actually have been able to overcome these stereotypes, as research now shows that it is the seriousness of the offense and the prior criminal record that mostly determine the sentence. That is the good news.

Of course, researchers didn’t stop there. Blair et al. (2004) have gone a step further to examine the influence of facial features – something one is usually not aware of – on criminal sentencinFacial featuresg. Judges may have been able to filter their stereotypes with regard to broad racial categories, but how are they doing when specifically looking at facial features? Within one racial group (Black or White), some might have more Afrocentric features – e.g. broad nose – than others. Blair et al. (2004) showed that judges gave similar sentences across racial categories, but that sentences were longer the more Afrocentric the facial features of the criminal were. In other words: the broader your nose, the longer you’re going to be in jail.

Their conclusion is that judges are not aware of this bias and, for that reason, cannot control for its influence like they already do for racial categories. This suggests that it is very important to be aware of your stereotypes, so that you can do something about it. Are you aware of your stereotypes and how they might influence your perceptions and your behaviour?


(1) Blair, I.V., Judd, C.M. and Chapleau, K.M. (2004). The Influence of Afrocentric Facial Features in Criminal Sentencing. Psychological Science, 15 (10), 674-679

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