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ChangingMinds Blog! > Blog Archive > 27-Feb-06


Monday 27-Feb-06 

Conforming to stereotype

I was just listening to a radio program about racial stereotyping and conformance to stereotype. One piece of research, for example, showed that black students at university tended to perform below their predicted grades. The key reason, it seems, is that they feel obliged in some way to conform to the stereotypes that are put upon them.

A series of experiments showed the remarkable sensitivity of black people to the stereotype of them being somehow less intelligent than white people.

When an intelligence test was given to a random sample of both black and white students, the black students scored on average lower than the white students. Conclusive evidence, you might say, that black people are less intelligent, thus proving an aspect of the stereotype. What is quite shocking, however, was what happened when exactly the same test was given to another sample, with the simple change that instead of being called an 'intelligence test', it was described as an 'investigation into how people solve problems'. That is, the people taking the test did not feel like they were being tested for intelligence, and rather felt that they were helping some researchers understand how people think in general. The result of this was that both black and white people scored exactly the same. In other words, all it took was for the black students to believe they are being assessed for intelligence for them to subconsciously conform to stereotype.

The sensitivity to stereotype was further illustrated when the second test was preceded by some questions about demographics. When those questions included a simple question about ethnicity, then the scores of the black students in the subsequent test went down again. In other words, all it took was a reminder that they were black for them to start to 'think themselves stupid'.

What this shows is not just that black students are sensitive to stereotypes and will fall into the 'required behavior' at the slightest nudge, but that this is very likely true for almost anyone who fits into a stereotyped group, whether it is based on skin color, nationality, religion, age, gender or even where you live. Pretty much everyone fits into several stereotyped classifications. I am white, male, protestant. No stereotypes? Well, yes, those three have behaviors to which others will expect me to conform. And I'm Welsh, over fifty, a public servant, etc...

For changing minds, the research described above has the pernicious implication that people will very easily conform to stereotypes, particularly when you remind them of this. For those of us who fall into one of the many groups who are stereotyped in some way (which pretty much means all of us), then this is a stern warning to monitor our own thoughts and behaviors, particularly when being observed by others -- and not only outside the stereotype group -- the research also showed that there is strong pressure even when with others of the same stereotype group to conform to the defined pattern.

Your comments

Black people are less intelligent than white people. Intelligence tests aren't the only studies that have been used to conclusively prove this. Blacks have a lower brain mass which is in proportion to their performance on standardized tests. Blacks are 14% of the population but account for over 80% of the crime.

-- David B.

Dave replies:
There are huge generalizations here, David, and you are opening yourself to serious criticism of racism. I don't know of any studies that correlate skin colour to intelligence. Morally, I cannot accept any such connection. I do also realize the importance of separating emotion from proven fact, and for such conclusions, the results of any studies would have to be ratified in a recognized, peer-reviewed academic journal. Without such evidence I have to remain unconvinced. I understand that social context has a lot to do with crime, and the point in the blog is that social stereotyping can be a trap that leads to people accepting and reinforcing the stereotypes that are placed upon them.

I'm sorry David B, but I think your are wrong and to make accusations like that just shows the poor level of understanding you actually have.

I also don't think that it really has to be proved that anyone with any type of skin tone is thicker than anyone else. We are all people and all live in this world together. It really should not be an issue of proving anything -- it is just causing friction between everyone.

-- Maria P.

Bush is forever saying that democracies do not invade other countries and start wars. Well, he did just that. He invaded Iraq, started a war, and killed people. What do you think? Why has Bush turned our country from a country of hope and prosperity to a country of belligerence and fear.
Are we safer today than we were before?
The more people that the government puts in jails, the safer we are told to think we are. The real terrorists are wherever they are, but they aren't living in a country with bars on the windows. We are.

-- Antibush

Dave replies:
Generally I'm pretty apolitical, but George Bush has done such damage to the safety of the world that he is the first US president for a very long time that I truly dislike on a significant scale (to put it politely). He has fallen hook, line and sinker into the hands of the terrorists, who, through him, have created many more terrorists. He is a fool of the highest order which, being in his position, makes for a truly terrifying prospect.

 david b im sorry 2 say i believe you are wrong about the statement you have made it it just shows us your out look on life and also your ignorance. there are many intelligent black people in this world statistics shouldn't be based on a persons skin color but on how a person apply's them self .i feel that people shouldn't have worry about what others think about them because of their race .

-- Karol Johnson

Dave replies:
Karol -- You are right that there are many intelligent black people and I work with several of them. Personally I don't care if you're blue: it's your attitude and civility that are most important. I also come from a minority group and have suffered abuse -- I am lucky in that I can see the poverty of such people and do not take offence. Even your intimation of my ignorance. I know that I do not know many things and do not really know what it is like to be black. And I wonder what it is really that makes one person deliberately seek to insult another.

David B...there are ample amounts of intelligent Blacks in the world. As a Black male who was accepted into many esteemed universities, i happen to know quite a few of these men. If you check the records (not your American "Mr. Whitey does no wrong" history books) Blacks not only built this land you call America but also over 50% of the machines and other contraptions which make this clock tick. and as to why Blacks occupy 80% of the jails but only populate 15% of the U.S...there are many theories that I am sure you have no idea about and cannot explain, neither can your government. (lets not forget the innocent Panthers who are still imprisoned) as an 18 year old Black college student, i must say that i am offended.

-- intelligent Black man

David B's reply is a perfect example of the stereotyping this blog entry is attesting to. It also has to do with the power of suggestion. Somewhere in David B's life he was likely taught (inadvertently stereotyped) to believe these impressions he now holds as his own. He was likely surrounded by individuals who taught him to believe that these things were so, and so the tapes keep playing. This David B feels obliged, as you say, to conform to the stereotype he was likely raised in. What I have found to be so, though, is that the larger you purposely make your world, by exposure, the more these stereotypes fall away. The more present we are with individuals, the more apt we are to see the individual, and not the group image we have been taught to see by society at large. The more we educate ourselves, out of our genuine desire to inhabit our own truth, and the more purposely observant we are, the more personal truth we ultimately acquire.

We can't totally fault David B, because he has likely fallen prey to a stereotype of expected behavior by his environment--If We choose to see him as such, then we to, as "intelligent black man" relates are fulfilling the "Mr Whitey Does no wrong" stereotype.

If we each live our personal truths, by educating ourselves and being observant and present with others, we are more likely to behave in a way that more accurately reflects our truth, which may be THE truth.

-- Gloria I

Intelligent is not base on skin tone. Most people have to work dam hard and so a few people just give up. Plus do you know know if the test was fair, was the people from the same background? did they have a similar education? Where the black people chosen from a working class background with a low income and poor education and the white people from a high class background with a very good income so that they could afford to go to private school and get the best education?

I'm a white girl from a working class background, no money and i did go to schools with low teaching levels, which was mainly a white student body and only white teachers, and i have learning difficulties anyway, but that does not stop me being in college, right? A lot of my class mate who did not work hard at school are paying for it now, lots of white students are now with jobs and look like they will be staying in the working class level, but one black boy is doing his A levels and choosing which uni he want to go to. Intelligent is NOT base on skin tone, class, wealth, religion or even on the education level, but it is base on HARD WORK of the person, though money and a good education would help.

-- J. S

 I am curious to the validity of these intelligence tests when they are given to those of different races and ethnicities. From what I have learned, most of these tests are created by white men and are not culturally sensitive and are aimed at the white man population. I could be wrong, maybe new ones have been developed that are culturally diverse. Either way, each race has its own culture and it makes sense to me that they would score higher when they were told something different than it being an intelligent test.

I would like to know David's sources that prove that Blacks are less intelligent than whites. I find it ludicrous to state such a thing. Thus, the reason we now have a black president??!!

-- ali

Dave replies:
First: Blacks are not less intelligent than whites and I've not been convinced by any 'proofs'. Second, the research mentioned in the blog is
not about who is more intelligent than who, but how self-perception around a stereotype can lead people to conform to it. Thirdly, I heard the report on the radio and don't have access to the research material. There's lots of challenge around 'intelligence' any case, for example with broader views of multiple intelligences.

It's a good point, though, to remember that just because research is published that it proves anything. Even the best research only makes probabilistic claims. And finally, I was absolutely delighted that Obama was elected and I have my fingers tightly crossed that he will be able to deliver the US (and the world!) out of its current woes.

Iin my studies of whites verses black behavior whites are acting out behavior from the past and don't realize it and blacks are accepting it because it because it common blacks fills that they have to prove that they can adapt to the white part of society white police treat blacks the way they do because it is a common practice of past behavior and black police follow because it is common in today society until white people and black people realize that their behavior is off track and began to change it the stereotypes behaviours will produce hate division and most of all fear and denial of the truth which our behavior and we are being pressured to change how we treat each other

-- john doe a voice in the wind

Dave replies:
Absolutely. So much of what we are do is driven by subconscious and often dysfunctional beliefs. Sometimes we also know we believe these things and they are wrong but cannot be  bothered to change them.

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