Stereotypes in Australia: Why do we stereotype?
Stereotypes exist to enable people to sort through complex environments and situations in an easy, effective manner. The formation of stereotypes commonly occurs through ignorance. That is, when individuals know little about a situation or environment they look for easy ways to fill in the knowledge gaps. This is done through processes such as categorisation, social identity and social learning. Once formed a stereotype is maintained through illusory correlations, selective attention or conformation bias and sub-categorisation and thereafter is very resistant to change. This paper examines the theories as to why individuals stereotype through analysing the stereotype that aboriginal’s are “drunks on the dole”. While this negative stereotype has lead to unjustified discrimination and prejudice, research suggests that in a large majority of cases individuals cannot really ‘help’ using, forming and maintaining stereotypes.
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Stereotypes are the characteristics attributed to people based on their membership or perceived membership in a group (Westen, Burton & Kowalski, 2006). They are generalised views that individuals hold about particular groups of people and the belief that all members of a particular group share common traits or behaviours. While the word ‘stereotype’ is often accompanied by negative connotations, stereotypes can be both positive and negative (Westen, Burton & Kowalski, 2006). This paper will focus on a negative stereotype commonly held in Australian society regarding Indigenous Australians. It will explore reasons and theories as to why individuals use stereotypes, how stereotypes are formed and maintained and lastly how and if stereotypes can be changed. Figure 1 presents a concept map depicting the authors understanding of the socio-psychological variables involved with stereotyping.
Indigenous Australians, more commonly referred to as Aborigines, have long been subjected to prejudice, discrimination and stereotyping. One only has to type the words “Australian Aboriginal” into any internet search engine to find articles and stories portraying negative stereotypes and generalisations held about the Australian minority group. Among them is the stereotype that Aboriginals are “drunks on the dole”. Over the last 5 to 10 years, this stereotype has grown and lead to mass prejudice and discrimination against aboriginal people (Heath & Preston, 1998).
The main suggestion behind this stereotype is that all aboriginals drink excessively and ‘live off welfare’ instead of getting ‘proper’ jobs. Sadly, this stereotype is held by an unsettlingly high number of Australians (Heath & Preston, 1998). Though, research suggests majority groups in Australia who currently hold this stereotype are not completely at fault in doing so. In order to completely understand why and how this stereotype came to exist, one must understand why individuals use stereotypes, how they are formed and how they are maintained.
Largely theorist agree that stereotypes exist as a way for the human mind to deal with an increasingly complicated and fast moving environment in an efficient manner (Macrae, Hewstone & Griffiths, 1993). Stereotypes are the mental short cuts that help ensure that human beings do not have to repeatedly recognise and analyse all aspects in each person, animal, event or situation (Macrae, Hewstone & Griffiths, 1993). Thus, stereotypes can be very functional in allowing us to predict some of what will happen in particular situations. Stemming from this two reasons have been suggested as to why stereotypes exist. Firstly, human beings use stereotypes to minimise information processing. As previously mentioned, stereotypes can be seen as energy-saving devices that enable humans to reduce the amount of processing needed when they meet or think about people (Crook & McLean, 2005). Stereotyping enables people to simplify experience and allows individuals to categorise others quickly and effortlessly (Westen, Burton & Kowalski, 2006)
Secondly, stereotypes exist to serve as a social function. Research suggests that stereotypes aid humans in drawing distinctions between groups or ‘us’ and ‘them’ (Crook & McLean, 2005). Perhaps more prominent Century’s ago, stereotypes enable humans to readily identify or recognise those individuals not from their own group that may pose a threat. This ability to stereotype or draw distinctions aided survival and lead humans to believe that they would be safest or “best off” when with members of their own group (Crook & McLean, 2005). While more obvious Century’s ago, Crook and McLean note that stereotyping does exist to serve the same social function today as it did hundreds of years ago, that is, it exists to enable individuals to easily recognise those who belong to their own group and those who do not (Crook & McLean, 2005).
Most commonly, stereotypes appear to form through ignorance, when individuals have little contact with other groups they consider to be dissimilar, thus have no information about them, and attempt to fill the gap by forming stereotypes (Bothwell, Brigham & Malpass, 1989). One major factor in the formation of stereotyping is the tendency individuals have to perceive all members of the ‘out-group’ as the same; this is known as categorisation (Bothwell, Brigham & Malpass, 1989). Categorisation stems from the theory that stereotypes are schemas, or mental short cuts, and involve a person labelling and treating members of out-group’s they know little about as the same (Bothwell, Brigham & Malpass, 1989). Individuals tend to group others outside of their social group in collections of similar characteristics. For example, many Australians tend to categorise or group aboriginals under one large label “aborigine”. They believe that all aborigines are the same and ignore factors such as tribe, culture, colour and origin, and other such differences that can in fact make aboriginals very diverse. Hence, when a stereotype about one aborigine arises, humans tend to assign this stereotype to others they have categorised as “aborigine”.
Similarly, the social identity theory is another theory that suggests stereotypes are formed through in-group out-group perceptions. The theory assumes that people are motivated to evaluate their own group positively, thereby enhancing or maintaining a positive sense of their social self (Verkuyten & de Wolf, 2007; Tajfel & Turner, 1986 as cited in Doise, 1988). The major findings that stem from the social identity theory are that stereotypes emerge from two biases. Firstly, in-group bias refers to the preferential treatment individuals give to those they perceive to be members of their own groups (Ostrom & Sedikidas, 1992). It was found that individuals were less likely to negatively stereotype members of their own group, but more likely to positively stereotype their members (e.g. smarter, more handsome etc.) (Verkuyten & de Wolf, 2007).
The second bias is the out-group homogeneity bias. This bias is similar to categorisation and suggests that individuals see members of their own group as being relatively more varied than members of other groups (Hamilton, 1976). Thus, like categorisation, this biases perceptions of diversity. Hence, the actions of one individual will lead to the belief that all individuals in that group are similar.
A third popular theory as to how stereotypes are formed is the social learning theory. Simply put, this theory assumes that stereotypes are directly learnt from influential others. These influential others are usually parents, peers, the media, religious leader, teachers and members of one’s family (Verkuyten & de Wolf, 2007). A recent study (Verkuyten & de Wolf, 2007) supported this theory when it found that groups tend to develop shared understandings of the social world. The researchers noted that while some individuals may directly experience behaviours linked to a specific stereotype, in most cases individuals will form stereotypes even if they have never themselves experienced or seen evidence of this stereotype, simply because it is a belief held by their group or it is learned through social interactions within their group. These findings suggest that individuals learn from and are influenced by stereotypical attitudes held by other members of their group.
Researchers have long recognised that individuals tend to maintain rather than change their stereotypes despite receiving evidence against them (Hicklin & Wedell, 2007). Most commonly, stereotypes are maintained through illusory correlations, selective attention and sub-categorisation.
Illusory correlation is the phenomenon of seeing the relationship one expects to see even when no such relationship exists (Hicklin & Wedell, 2007). For example, an individual who holds the stereotype that all aboriginals are on the “dole” sees an aboriginal man walking down the street on dole collection day. The illusory correlation phenomenon would suggest that this individual would most likely to see a relationship between the aboriginal man walking down the street and dole day and conclude that the man must be on his way to collect his dole, even though there is no evidence of the relationship. In this sense, the illusory correlation phenomenon acts to confirm previously held stereotypes, even when no such evidence exists (Hicklin & Wedell, 2007). Thus, the stereotype is maintained or strengthened every time an individual identifies a relationship between the group and the stereotypical behaviour.
Similarly, selective attention involves attending to stereotype relevant information only. One of the key factors that stems from the selective attention theory is confirmation bias (Jonas, Schulz-Hardt, Frey & Thelen, 2001). Confirmation bias is a tendency to search for or interpret new information in a way that confirms one’s preconceptions and avoid information and interpretations which contradict prior beliefs (Jonas, Schulz-Hardt, Frey & Thelen, 2001). For example, a study by Heath and Preston (1998) found that when participants holding the stereotype that aboriginals drunk more alcohol then non-aboriginals read fictitious statistic’s that stated 7 out of 10 aboriginals and 8 out of 10 non- aboriginals consume alcohol excessively, they were more likely to view the alcohol consumption of aboriginals as negative and more likely to ignore or make excuses for the alcohol consumption of the non-aboriginals (Heath & Preston, 1998). Thus, in the face of disconfirming evidence, the participants made justifications or only attended to stereotype relevant behaviour in order to confirm and maintain the stereotype.
A third mechanism that individuals and groups use to allow for stereotype maintenance in the face of disconfirming evidence is sub-categorisation (Kunda & Oleson, 1998). Seta and Seta (1993) proposed that people often generate compensatory expectations when confronted with stereotypically inconsistent events. The researchers found that when participants were faced with extreme behavioural inconsistency, they attempted to salvage the stereotype by sub-categorising those members who did not conform to the stereotype (Seta & Seta, 1993). In this sense, participants made an “exception to the rule”, that is, they did not change the stereotype and they did not mentally remove the individual from the group, rather they placed the “deviant” group member in a separate category within the group as a means of maintaining their stereotype (Kunda & Oleson, 1998).
Researchers have acknowledged that in some cases stereotypes can change, though it is also recognised that this is a rare occurrence and stereotypes, once formed, are commonly resistant to change. The contact hypothesis (Allport, 1954 as cited in van Dick et al., 2004) demonstrated one way in which stereotypes can be changed. The hypothesis suggests that regular contact or interactions between members of different group’s decreases negative stereotypes, providing the interaction is passive and occurs under favourable conditions. Four optimal contact conditions are outlined to be fundamental in the reduction of stereotypes; equal status, common goals, cooperation and support of authorities and other group members (Allport, 1954 as cited in van Dick et al., 2004). The research suggests that through regular contact with a group, under favourable conditions, individuals can learn to change or override stereotypes that they hold about that particular group. Though, other researchers suggest that the evidence is still highly controversial and open to much interpretation and that stereotypes are more likely to be maintained then changed (van Dick et al., 2004).
Unfortunately, it would appear that stereotypes are challenging to change. They exist to enable people to sort through complex environments and situations in an easy, effective manner. The formation of stereotypes commonly occurs through ignorance. That is, when individuals know little about a situation or environment they look for easy ways to fill in the knowledge gaps. This is done through processes such as categorisation, social identity and social learning. Once formed a stereotype is maintained through illusory correlations, selective attention or confirmation bias and sub-categorisation and thereafter is very resistant to change. Thus, in the instance of the stereotype that aboriginal’s are “drunks on the dole” the evidence appears to suggest that because this stereotype has already been formed, those who hold it will be more likely to try maintain it rather than change it. The research also suggests that due to the fact that individuals use and form stereotypes to serve as social functions and mental short-cuts that simplify the world, it is not always possible for an individual to not stereotype. Therefore, regrettably, aboriginals may be subjected to prejudice and discrimination stemming from stereotypes for many more years to come.
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Link to Appendix A