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Social Psychology – Stereotyping and Prejudice

Answers the Question

How can the tendency to make faulty associations form negative stereotypes of minorities and affect behaviour?

How it Began

David Hamilton and Robert Gifford (1976) conducted a series of experiments that demonstrated how stereotypic beliefs regarding minorities could derive from illusory correlation processes. To test their hypothesis, Hamilton and Gifford had research participants read a series of sentences describing either desirable or undesirable behaviours, which were attributed to either Group A or Group B. Abstract groups were used so that no previously established stereotypes would influence results. Most of the sentences were associated with Group A, and the remaining few were associated with Group B


Each group had the same proportions of positive and negative behaviors, so there was no real association between behaviors and group membership. Results of the study show that positive, desirable behaviors were not seen as distinctive so people were accurate in their associations. On the other hand, when distinctive, undesirable behaviours were represented in the sentences, the participants overestimated how much the minority group exhibited the behaviours.

A parallel effect occurs when people judge whether two events, such as pain and bad weather, are correlated. They rely heavily on the relatively small number of cases where the two events occur together. People pay relatively little attention to the other kinds of observation (of no pain or good weather).

Therefore, stereotypes can lead to biases, distortion, generalization, and they can unconsciously affect our judgment and memory, which in turn can affect our behaviour.

Key Terminology

Stereotype – a fixed, over generalized belief about a particular group or class of people.

Illusory correlation is the phenomenon of seeing a relationship between variables (typically people, events, or behaviours) even when no such relationship exists.

Prejudice – unjustified negative attitude toward an individual based of the individual’s membership in a group.

Discrimination – putting group members at a disadvantage or treating them
unfairly as a result of their group membership.

Personal Discrimination – acts of discrimination committed by individuals

Institutional Discrimination – discriminatory policies or practices carried out by organizations and other institutions

In Brief

The use of stereotypes is a major way in which we simplify our social world; since they reduce the amount of processing (i.e. thinking) we have to do when we meet a new person.

By stereotyping we infer that a person has a whole range of characteristics and abilities that we assume all members of that group have. Stereotypes lead to social categorization, which is one of the reasons for prejudice attitudes (i.e. “them” and “us” mentality) which leads to in-groups and out-groups.

Most explanations for illusory correlation involve psychological heuristics: information processing short-cuts that underlie many human judgments. One of these is availability: the ease with which an idea comes to mind. Availability is often used to estimate how likely an event is or how often it occurs.  This can result in illusory correlation, because some pairings can come easily and vividly to mind even though they are not especially frequent.

What does this mean for Organisation Development?

The formation of illusory correlations usually starts with memorable events that are easy for the person’s brain to access. For instance, a salesman might wear his underwear backwards by mistake one day and then do well in a negotiation. This event sticks in his mind and he decides that wearing his underwear backwards is lucky, even though he performed well in sales negotiations before. Readily available memories tend to rise to the top of a person’s memory, and they will become evidence to support an illusory correlation even though there may be plenty of evidence that contradicts the apparent connection.

Illusory correlations can spread through society. As people hear stereotypes and urban legends, they absorb them and look for confirming information around them. Many people believe, for example, that eating sugar makes children hyperactive, although studies do not support this. When someone who believes this sees a child being active after consuming candy, it confirms the illusory correlation. Incidents where children ate candy and behaved normally afterward are not as readily available to the person’s memory.

Being aware of the existence of illusory correlations is important. People who believe two things are linked can try seeking out evidence to disprove the claim to see if the correlation is real. Scientific studies sometimes provide useful information, and people may also find it helpful to do things like keeping a log. The detailed records will help people identify whether a correlation exists, and how strong it is. It is also important to be aware that correlation is not causation, and a link between two things may not be causal in nature.

OD Interventions to Remove Stereotypes

  1. Remove Cues That Trigger Worries About Stereotypes – remove physical cues that make it seem that an organisation setting is defined by the majority group
  2. Convey That Diversity is Valued – For instance, communicate a multicultural ideology that explicitly values diversity
  3. Create a Critical Mass – Increase the visibility and representation of people from minority groups in key decision making and project lead positions
  4. Create Fair Tests, Present Them as Fair and as Serving a Learning Purpose – Use gender- and race-fair tests, communicate their fairness, convey that they are being used to facilitate learning, not to measure innate ability or reify stereotypes
  5. Value Employees’ Individuality – Remind employees of aspects of their individual identity
  6. Improve Cross-Group Interactions – Foster better intergroup relations, remind employees of similarities among groups, undo stereotypical associations through cognitive retraining, promote cooperative project teams
  7. Present and Recruit Positive Role Models from Diverse Groups – Expose employees to successful role models from their group who refute negative stereotypes
  8. Help Employees Manage Feelings of Stress and Threat – Teach employees about stereotype threat so that they attribute anxiety to stereotype threat rather than to the risk of failure, teach employees to reappraise arousal as a potential facilitator of strong performance rather than barrier to it
  9. Support employees’ Sense of Belonging – Teach employees that worries about belonging to a social group/organization are normal, not unique to them or their group, and are transient rather than fixed
  10. Convey High Standards and Assure Employees of Their Ability to Meet These Standards – Frame critical feedback as reflective of high standards and one’s confidence in employees’ ability to meet those standards, more generally, teach students to view critical feedback as reflective of feedback-givers’ high standards and confidence in their ability to meet the standards
  11. Promote a Growth Mindset About Intelligence – Teach employees that intelligence is like a muscle—that it is not fixed, but grows with effort, Promote this conception of intelligence or ability as a norm.
  12. Value-Affirmations to Reduce Stress and Threat – Have employees write about , reflect on, and perhaps discuss core personal values