Why are Gender Stereotypes So Persistent?. Anita M. Meehan Kutztown University Senior Seminar Spring 2005. Abstract.
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Anita M. Meehan
Senior Seminar Spring 2005
Stereotypes are slow to change. Meehan and Janik (1990) found that we tend to ignore inconsistent information while we simultaneously have better memory access for information consistent with traditional stereotypes. Second and fourth graders estimated how often they saw 54 different gender-related pictures (see Figures 1 and 2). In the experiment, all picture types (nontraditional, traditional, and gender-neutral) were shown equally often. Meehan and Janik (1990) argued that stereotypes are a byproduct of normal cognitive processes that usually help us to process information efficiently. This poster describes some of the psychological principles related to the acquisition and maintenance of gender stereotypes.
Social psychology focuses on how others influence our thoughts and actions. Topics include attitude formation, person perception, and impression formation. Stereotypes are sets of beliefs that we hold about others. We often rely on stereotypes when we form first impressions and gender is one of the first things we notice about a person. Although gender stereotypes have changed somewhat and gender roles and behaviors are more androgynous, there is still an expectation that males will exhibit a masculine personality and engage in traditional masculine behaviors whereas females will be feminine in personality and behavior.
Stereotypes are learned and their formation relies on the principle of stimulus generalization. Anthropologists have studied cultures with alternative gender roles, although cross-cultural similarity is more common (Williams, Bennett, & Best, 1975). Stereotypes are based on frequency information about how often males are “associated with” certain stimuli or behaviors vs. how often females are “associated with” the same stimuli or behaviors. Classical conditioning, operant conditioning, and observational learning all play a role in acquisition of gendder beliefs and behaviors, although this doesn’t rule out the possibility that biological differences contribute to some gender differences in personality and cognition.
Stereotypes are an example of a cognitive bias known as illusory correlation (Chapman, 1967). This occurs when people falsely think that two events are correlated or think that a weak correlation is much stronger than it actually is. Illusory correlations are related to a cognitive strategy people employ, the availability heuristic (Tversky & Kahneman, 1973). We estimate frequency based on how “available” specific examples are in memory. Memory recall is affected by the recency and familiarity of events. For instance, if you can readily think of examples of males who are doctors, but have a hard time coming up with female doctors, you might inaccurately estimate that 90% of physicians are males and 10% are females.
Sensation and Perception chapters in most introductory textbooks (e.g., Feldman, 2002) discuss how we recognize objects and people. Bottom-up processing involves the action of sensory receptors; top-down processing refers to the role that prior knowledge, context, and expectations play in stimulus recognition. For example, I recognize students in my courses more quickly if I encounter them on campus rather than off-campus. Stereotypes operate like top-down processes: they help us to understand and interpret gender-related stimuli we encounter. We often see what we expect to see and fail to notice the unexpected.
A bird in the the hand is worth two in the bush.
A major task of social development is the acquisition of a culturally appropriate gender role identity. Children establish their own gender identity as male or female by age 3 and by age 5 or 6 they demonstrate extensive knowledge of cultural gender roles (Kohlberg, 1966). Consistent with Piaget’s theory (Inhelder & Piaget, 1958), young children are more literal and concrete in their gender beliefs and behaviors. With age, and progress through concrete and formal operational stages, gender concepts and behaviors become more flexible and adaptable across the lifespan.
Chapman, L. J. (1967). Illusory correlation in observational report. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior, 6, 151-155.
Feldman, R. S. (2002). Understanding psychology (6th ed.). Boston: McGraw-Hill.
Kohlberg, L. A. (1966). A cognitive-developmental analysis of children’s sex-role concepts and attitudes. In E. E. Maccoby (Ed.). The development of sex differences. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
Inhelder, B. & Piaget, J. (1958). The growth of logical thinking from childhood to adolescence. New York: Basic Books.
Meehan, A. M. & Janik, L. M. (1990). Illusory correlation and the maintenance of sex role stereotypes in children. Sex Roles, 22, 83-95.
Tversky, A. & Kahneman, D. (1973). Availability: A heuristic for judging frequency and probability. Cognitive Psychology, 5, 207-232.
Williams, J. E., Bennett, S. M. & Best, D. L. (1975). Awareness and expression of sex stereotypes in children. Developmental Psychology, 11, 635-642.