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.
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.
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.
Devine and other psychologists have done numerous studies on how automatic and controlled information processing influence stereotypical thinking. In a famous study, Devine found that white college students were aware of stereotypes of African Americans, regardless of whether they agreed with the stereotypes or not. This is support for the automatic information processing because the stereotypes were part of their information base. That is, their knowledge of the stereotypes informed their views on the world; just being aware of the stereotypes meant that the stereotypes were in some way part of their automatic information processing, whether or not they acted on those automatic thoughts and prejudices.
Devine then exposed the students to words subliminally. One group was given stereotypical words, and the other was given non-stereotypical words. After that, the subjects were asked to read a story about a character named Donald. Those who were subliminally exposed to stereotypical words judged Donald more harshly than those who were subliminally exposed to non-stereotypical words. In short, the subliminal message of the stereotypes inhibited their ability to overwrite the automatic information processing with controlled information processing. That is, it kept them from being able to suppress those automatic stereotypes, so they ended up acting on their first, stereotypical thoughts instead of controlling their thoughts.
Other studies have found that there are several other things that make it hard to engage in controlled information processing. When people are distracted, overwhelmed, tired, or not paying attention, they are more likely to rely on stereotypical, automatic information processing.
Automatic information processing is when we process the information in the world around us quickly and without conscious thought. In contrast, controlled information processing involves processing information with deliberate thinking and analysis. Studies have shown that stereotypes are part of automatic information processing and that non-prejudiced people override the automatic processing of stereotypes through controlled information processing.
After this lesson, you'll be able to:
- Differentiate between automatic and controlled information processing
- Explain the effects that prejudice, or a lack thereof, have on automatic processing of stereotypes
- Describe how a person can overcome automatic information processing
- Discuss research results on stereotype processing