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What is a Stereotype? - Definition, Function & Formation

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  • 0:32 Cognitive Schemas
  • 2:13 Social Identity
  • 3:00 Prejudice Formation
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Polly Peterson
Stereotyping is something we do daily, even if we don't realize it. By classifying groups of people, we can better understand the world around us, although prejudice may be a result. In this lesson, we'll watch Amy categorize strangers she sees on a bus and determine the reasons why humans tend to stereotype.

Meet Amy. Amy is going to help us to better understand stereotypes. When she rides the bus to work, she makes assumptions about the other passengers. She looks around the bus, trying to decide where to sit. For each person, she looks at gender, age, ethnicity, religion and other social groupings. These categories are called cognitive schemas, which are based on preconceived expectations. Who will she sit next to?

Function of Stereotypes

Before we answer that question, let me explain that stereotypes allow us to process new information, compare this information in terms of our past experiences and make decisions on appropriate behavior.

After a quick scan of the strangers on the bus, Amy sits down next to this guy. She's feeling social and he looks like a fun, friendly guy who seems like he'd be easy to strike up a conversation with. They chat and he asks for her number, which boosts her self-esteem, but also makes her uncomfortable, so she gets off at the next bus stop.

Not having thought this through, Amy finds herself in an unfamiliar part of town. One of the other passengers gets off the bus, too, and is walking behind her. To avoid what she believes is a potentially dangerous situation, Amy ducks into a convenience store to wait for the next bus.

On a basic level, stereotypes help us to quickly determine whether to initiate a flight, fight or social response to any situation. The other passenger could potentially be a friend or enemy, but Amy makes a quick judgment based on stereotypes.

Evolutionary psychologists have suggested that the ability to stereotype gives humans an advantage for survival. We may stereotype snakes as bad, and although not all are harmful to us, this positive stereotype helps us to avoid potentially dangerous snakebites.

Our social identity, or membership in particular groups, largely determines our everyday interactions. Interestingly, we perceive our ingroup ('us') as composed of different types of people, whereas the outgroup ('them') is seen as homogenous. Within the ingroup, the viewer focuses on social distinctions, but within the outgroup similarities are enhanced and often used to gloss over the diversity.

Negative stereotypes of outgroups can become fixed so that exceptions are overlooked, leading to distorted caricatures of groups. These overgeneralizations can eventually lead to prejudice and discrimination. Prejudices can be used to legitimize social, economic and political discrimination.

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