Social Psychology Glossary (2): Stereotype

Welcome to the Social Psychology Glossary!

In these posts, I will explain Social Psychology terms and theories and add some examples from research. 

These terms and theories help social psychologists understand how people perceive others, interact with them, and make judgments about the social world and its members. These psychological processes can impact well-being and decision-making: being aware of their existence is a key factor that helps individuals and society to move towards gender diversity, gender equality, and equality in general. 

The topic in the first glossary was Categorization. Today we will explain what a Stereotype is.

Let’s start!


In Social Psychology, a stereotype is defined as the descriptive, cognitive component of our knowledge about groups. This knowledge, like the categorization process, helps our cognition: the cognitive processes of people are less loaded, remembering only the description of one group, instead of information about every single individual within that group. That implicit or explicit description provides a structure that is used to guide judgments and actions. Stereotypes per se do not always assume a positive or negative evaluation (i.e., valence) of a group. When a stereotype conveys a valence, it’s called stereotypical prejudice

Stereotypes are developed and shared within cultures and societies, can change over time and in different places, and we are explicitly or implicitly exposed to them since our childhood (for a deeper analysis on the topic, see Through The Eyes Of Children: Beware Of Gender Stereotype by Andrea Kočiš). For example, a stereotype about Asian Americans is that they are skinny and wear glasses. 

Interestingly, the stereotypes we have learned impact our cognition even if we are not aware of their activation and, depending on the stereotype, people may perceive the same action differently. For example, people can have different reactions and thoughts when an overweight person and a slim person say, “I like doing sport”. Why? A simple explanation can be that the able-bodied stereotype of overweight people describes its members as lazy. The saying is, therefore, at odds with expectations that stem from that stereotype. This example shows the gap between the abstract, simplified, and thus not exhaustive content of a stereotype and reality, but also the consequences that this gap causes in our cognitive and emotional processes. Stereotypes are not accurate descriptions of individuals: they are, probably, a simplification that our cognition builds in order not to be overloaded.

Stereotypes can play a significant role in professional fields such as hiring someone for a job. For example, research in Social Psychology has noticed that some jobs are perceived as male-typed. Those jobs are not only envisioned as needing stereotypically masculine attributes to succeed but also are numerically dominated by men. What if a woman applies for one of these jobs? According to the lack of fit framework, a woman would be disadvantaged because the stereotypes associated with her as a woman are perceived as at odds with the type of job. As a result, men will be hired more likely than women, perpetuating the underrepresentation of women in that field.

As we can see in these examples, stereotypes can often steer the impression of how people perceive others, but this is not the only direction. The activation of a stereotype about one of our identities can impact even our own behaviors and so, eventually, our chances of success and failure. Specifically, there is a model that describes how stereotypes can threaten the success of members of stigmatized groups. This model is called Stereotype threat and will be analyzed in more detail in the following post.

Suggested readings

Chen M, Bargh JA. 1999. Consequences of automatic evaluation: Immediate behavioral predispositions to approach or avoid the stimulus. Pers. Soc. Psychol. Bull. 25:215–24

Craig, M. A., & Bodenhausen, G. V. (2018). Category (non) fit modulates extrapolative stereotyping of multiply categorizable social targets. Social Cognition, 36(5), 559-588. DOI: 10.1521/soco.2018.36.5.559

Dovidio JF, Gaertner SL (2010) Intergroup bias. Handbook of Social Psychology, eds Fiske ST, et al. (Wiley, New York), 5th Ed, Vol 2, pp 1084–1121.

Eagly, A. H., & Chaiken, S. (1993). The psychology of attitudes. Fort Worth, TX: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.

Heilman, M. E., & Caleo, S. (2018). Combatting gender discrimination: A lack of fit framework. Group Processes & Intergroup Relations, 21(5), 725–744.

2 thoughts on “Social Psychology Glossary (2): Stereotype”

  1. Pingback: Social Psychology Glossary (3): Stereotype threat - Solutions

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