Definition: A stereotype is “…a fixed, over generalized belief about a particular group or class of people.” (Cardwell, 1996).

For example, a “hells angel” biker dresses in leather.

One advantage of a stereotype is that it enables us to respond rapidly to situations because we may have had a similar experience before.

One disadvantage is that it makes us ignore differences between individuals; therefore we think things about people that might not be true (i.e. make generalizations).

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The use of stereotypes is a major way in which we simplify our social world; since they reduce the amount of processing (i.e. thinking) we have to do when we meet a new person.

By stereotyping we infer that a person has a whole range of characteristics and abilities that we assume all members of that group have. Stereotypes lead to social categorization, which is one of the reasons for prejudice attitudes (i.e. “them” and “us” mentality) which leads to in-groups and out-groups.

Most stereotypes probably tend to convey a negative impression.  Positive examples would include judges (the phrase “sober as a judge” would suggest this is a stereotype with a very respectable set of characteristics), overweight people (who are often seen as “jolly”) and television newsreaders (usually seen as highly dependable, respectable and impartial).  Negative stereotypes seem far more common, however.

Racial Stereotypes

stereotypes that never caught on
stereotypes that never caught on

Researchers have found that stereotypes exist of different races, cultures or ethnic groups. Although the terms race, culture and ethnic groups have different meanings, we shall take them to mean roughly the same thing at the moment.

The most famous study of racial stereotyping was published by Katz and Braly in 1933 when they reported the results of a questionnaire completed by students at Princeton University in the USA.

They found that students held clear, negative stereotypes – few students expressed any difficulty in responding to the questionnaire.

Most students at that time would have been white Americans and the pictures of other ethnic groups included Jews as shrewd and mercenary, Japanese as shrewd and sly, Negroes as lazy and happy-go-lucky and Americans as industrious and intelligent.

Not surprisingly, racial stereotypes always seem to favor the race of the holder and belittle other races. It is probably true to say that every ethnic group has racial stereotypes of other groups; some psychologists argue that it is a “natural” aspect of human behavior, which can be seen to benefit each group because it helps in the long-run to identify with one’s own ethnic group and so find protection and promote the safety and success of the group. There is no evidence for this view, however, and many writers argue that it is merely a way of justifying racist attitudes and behaviors.

Katz and Braly (1933) – Racial Stereotyping

Aim: To investigate stereotypical attitudes of Americans towards different races.

Method: Questionnaire method was used to investigate stereotypes. American university students were given a list of nationalities and ethic groups (e.g. Irish, Germans etc.), and a list of 84 personality traits. They were asked to pick out five or six traits which they thought were typical of each group.

Results: There was considerable agreement in the traits selected. White Americans, for example, were seen as industrious, progressive and ambitious. African Americans were seen as lazy, ignorant and musical. Participants were quite ready to rate ethnic groups with whom they had no personal contact.

Conclusion: Ethnic stereotypes are widespread, and shared by members of a particular social group.

Katz and Braly repeated their research in 1951 and 1967. The results can be seen in the table below.

Research Evaluation

The Katz and Braly studies were done in the 1930’s and it can be argued that cultures have changed since then and we are much less likely to hold these stereotypes.  Later studies conducted in 1951 and 1967 found changes in the stereotypes and the extent to which they are held.  In general, stereotypes in the later study tended to be more positive but the belief that particular ethnic groups held particular characteristics still existed.

Also, it should be noted that this study has relied entirely on verbal reports and is therefore extremely low in ecological validity. Just because participants in a study will trot out stereotypes when asked does not mean to say that people go around acting on them. People do not necessarily behave as though the stereotypes are true.

The limited information that the experiments are given is also likely to create demand characteristics (i.e. participants figure out what the experiment is about and change their behavior, for example give the results the psychologist wants).

Finally, there is the problem of social desirability with questionnaire research – people may lie.

Further Information


Prejudice and Discrimination

Social Identity Theory

Prejudice and Discrimination prejudice and discrimination

Examples of Discrimination Examples of Discrimination

The Psychology of Prejudice, Stereotyping and Discrimination: An Overview The Psychology of Prejudice, Stereotyping and Discrimination


How to cite this article:

McLeod, S. A. (2008). Stereotypes. Retrieved from

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