Stereotypes and Automatic & Controlled Information Processing

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  • 0:06 Information Processing
  • 1:54 Stereotypes and Processing
  • 3:09 Stereotypes-Processing Studies
  • 4:53 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Natalie Boyd

Natalie is a teacher and holds an MA in English Education and is in progress on her PhD in psychology.

People process information in many different ways. In this lesson, we'll explore two ways of processing information, automatic and controlled, and how they relate to stereotypes and prejudice.

Information Processing

Every day, we are bombarded by information. Sights, sounds, thoughts, feelings, not to mention the facts and opinions we confront all the time. At any given moment, your brain is processing thousands, sometimes millions, of bits of information.

Like a computer, too much information can cause your brain to slow down and not be able to process the most important information. To help make your brain run more smoothly, it takes shortcuts. Sometimes this means blocking out information, such as when we tune out certain parts of our environment in order to focus on something specific. Sometimes this means processing information in automatic, subconscious ways.

If, for example, we hear a loud bang, our hearts are likely to speed up. We know that a loud bang could mean danger, and so we automatically prepare to fight or to flee. We don't think about it; we just automatically process the bang and react.

When people respond to information automatically and without taking the time to think about it, it's called automatic information processing. Compare this to controlled information processing, which is when people take information and consciously and deliberately think about it before they process it.

Fleeing responses after hearing a loud bang involve automatic information processing.
Automatic Information Processing Example

For example, Hal sees Tom talking and laughing with Hal's girlfriend. He might automatically process this information as a threat. What if Tom is trying to steal Hal's girlfriend? His automatic information processing leads him to jealousy. But, if Hal takes a second to think about it, he realizes that Tom is a good friend and that he's just a friendly guy. His controlled information processing system tells Hal that Tom is just talking to Hal's girlfriend, not trying to steal her away.

Stereotypes and Processing

Automatic and controlled information processing come into play often in everyday life, including when we are confronted with stereotypes.

Psychologist Patricia Devine first pointed out that when people come into contact with others from another group, they automatically process the information of the others as stereotypes. For example, when Leo, a black man, and Alex, a white woman, first meet, they both automatically think of stereotypes. Leo automatically assumes that Alex is nurturing, and Alex assumes Leo is a good basketball player.

However, that first automatic processing is not the end of the story. Non-prejudiced people overwrite the automatic processing with controlled processing. Maybe Leo thinks to himself, 'I don't really know Alex, so maybe she's not nurturing. I'll just have to wait and see.' And, maybe Alex thinks to herself, 'Who knows if Leo even likes basketball? Maybe he prefers croquet.'

When they are both able to let go of their early, automatic processing stereotypes and instead rely on their controlled processing, they are able to move beyond stereotypes. If they are not able to engage in controlled information processing, though, their stereotypes turn into prejudice.

Choosing to overwrite stereotypes involves controlled processing.
Information Processing Stereotype Example

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