When they think they'll be discriminated against, people do their best to put on a good face for their group, new research finds.
An obese person, for example, might focus on dressing nicely to combat stereotypes of slovenliness. A black man, used to assumptions that he's violent, might smile more.
The new study reveals both that people are well aware of stereotypes and that they try to combat them.
"People often think of prejudice as a simple, single phenomenon — general dislike for members of other groups — but recent research suggests that there are actually multiple, distinct types of prejudice," study researcher Rebecca Neel, a graduate student at Arizona State University, said in a statement. In other words, people don't just dislike overweight people, they stereotype them as sloppy and lacking in self-control. [Understanding the 10 Most Destructive Human Behaviors]
Making an impression
Neel and her colleagues first recruited 75 college students, all self-identified as either overweight or not overweight. They were told they would answer questions about three random demographic groups; in fact, all the students were asked about Muslims, Mexican-Americans and obese people.
The students also were asked to envision meeting someone new and then to choose how they'd make a good impression from options such as arriving on time, wearing clean clothes, smiling and looking relaxed. Some students answered the group questions first so they'd have group-related stereotypes in mind when they got to the first-impressions' questions. Others completed the study the other way around.
The results showed that thinking about stereotyping changed people's behavior. Overweight students who'd first answered questions about obese people were more likely than other participants to rank "wearing clean clothes" as a very important way to make a good first impression. Normal-weight students and overweight students who hadn't been primted to think of stereotypes were more likely to prioritize arriving on time.
In a second study, researchers repeated the test with overweight men and black men. When prompted to think of stereotypes, overweight men ranked wearing clean clothes as the most important step toward making a good first impression. Black men, who are often stereotyped as violent and anti-social, prioritized smiling.
"Members of stigmatized groups may strategically change how they present themselves to others in anticipation of these different emotions," Neel said. She and her colleagues reported their findings April 2 in the journal Psychological Science.
Whereas many stereotypes are harmful, a few can be helpful — at least to some groups. A study released in September 2010 found that men told (untruthfully) that their gender is better at certain navigation tasks actually performed better at course-plotting tasks than men who weren't given that confidence boost. On the other hand, if someone is told their group is worse at a particular task (say, women in math), they'll perform worse, a phenomenon called stereotype threat.
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Stephanie Pappas is a contributing writer for Live Science, covering topics ranging from geoscience to archaeology to the human brain and behavior. She was previously a senior writer for Live Science but is now a freelancer based in Denver, Colorado, and regularly contributes to Scientific American and The Monitor, the monthly magazine of the American Psychological Association. Stephanie received a bachelor's degree in psychology from the University of South Carolina and a graduate certificate in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz.