"If Everyone Jumped Off a Bridge...?" Use Caution when Discussing Stereotype Prevalence in Stereotype Reduction Efforts

In cautioning me against following the wayward behaviors of my friends, my mother used to rhetorically ask, "well, if they all jumped off a bridge, would you follow them?" The moral of the lesson was that I should not follow others, even if they are all doing something that is oh so appealing--or so I presume that was the intended lesson to be learned. 

I was reminded again of those lessons when reading a recent article from Michelle Duguid and Melissa Thomas-Hunt (2015) about efforts to reduce stereotypes.* In stereotype reduction efforts, trainers will frequently discuss how most people have implicit forms of bias and most people stereotype. Knowing this, people would remain mindful of their biases and try to reduce them. This is ostensibly done so people do not feel blamed or that the finger is being pointed at them. I have used this approach in my classes and in implicit bias training I conduct around campus for various units. In a recent climate and diversity conference we held, the keynote speaker also used this approach. 

While widespread, Duguid and Thomas-Hunt's research suggest the approach might actually have unintended negative effects. When people believe most other people engage in a behavior, they are also likely to do so. For example, prejudice expression is largely a function of social norms, as people are more likely to express prejudice against people (e.g., child molesters) when society condones it.[1] Similarly, people are more likely to recycle when they know others have done the same.[2] Within the context of stereotyping, the knowledge that others engage in such behaviors might give people the freedom to do so themselves. 

To examine this, the authors conducted five experimental studies, focusing on a variety of targets, such as women, older persons, and persons who are overweight. They also varied their samples, including undergraduates, as well as working adults. While their methods varied, they generally randomly assigned people to three groups: people who received information about the vast prevalence of stereotyping, people who were told that stereotyping is rare, and a control group, where participants did not receive any information. The authors then explored a number of outcomes, such as explicit stereotyping (e.g., one rates women differently than men) and more subtle measures, such as the belief that certain actions violated a stereotype and negotiation behaviors. 

Results indicate that people who were told about the prevalence of stereotyping were more likely to endorse stereotypes against others. This was observed for both explicit measures and implicit behaviors. There is a silver lining, though. Just as people might be more likely to stereotype when they know others do, the authors found that participants were less likely to stereotype when told that many people tried to overcome stereotype preconceptions. Thus, the social norms for acceptable behaviors worked in both directions. 

In discussing their findings, Duguid and Thomas-Hunt suggested:

Ironically, the very approach purported to reduce stereotyping [conveying the message that everyone stereotypes and that we should be mindful of our biases] may backfire and actually increase its occurrence. The results of our studies suggest that to reduce stereotype expression and its effects, it might be more useful to capitalize on social norms by highlighting the pervasiveness of individuals' willingness to exert effort against their unconscious stereotypes. (p. 354)

I, for one, will certainly remain mindful of these findings the next time I offer training about implicit biases and stereotyping. 

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* Duguid, M. M., & Thomas-Hunt, M. C. (2015). Condoning stereotyping? How awareness of stereotyping prevalence impacts expression of stereotypes. Journal of Applied Psychology, 100, 343-359.

[1] Crandall, C. S., Eshleman,m A., & O'Brien, L. (2002). Social norms and the expression and suppression of prejudice: The struggle for internalization. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 82, 359-378.

[2] Goldstein, N. J., Cialdini, R. B., & Griskevicius, V. (2008). A room with a viewpoint: Using social norms to motivate environmental conservation in hotels. Journal of Consumer Research, 35, 472-482.