Social Stereotyping and Communication Essay

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Psychological theory conceptualizes ‘stereotypes’ as cognitive structures or schemas that represent widely shared beliefs about the defining characteristics of social groups. Any group might be subject to stereotypes, but the most commonly studied stereotypes are those based on race or ethnicity, nationality, religion, sex, and age. The beliefs that compose stereotypes may include physical characteristics, personality traits, behavioral tendencies, etc. According to the Stereotype Content Model (SCM; Fiske 2012), warmth (or its lack) and competence (or its lack) are the fundamental dimensions that define stereotypes of all groups. As cognitive structures, stereotypes serve as resources that help individuals to organize and respond to new people and situations. Social stereotyping refers to this use or application of stereotypes in person perception and social interaction. Because stereotypes are often applied without conscious awareness of their influence, they have the potential to lead to bias and prejudiced behaviors.

Giles’  Communication Accommodation Theory (CAT; Giles et al. 1991) showed how group identity processes can influence communication behavior, outlining the conditions under which an individual might choose to converge with or diverge from the linguistic style or accent of an outgroup member, as well as the consequences of that convergence or divergence. CAT later expanded its focus to incorporate stereotypes of outgroups into its model of the communication process, considering how individuals accommodate or not to group stereotypes in their communication with outgroup members. As CAT has continued to evolve, its models have incorporated the individual characteristics of communicators as predictors of both their reliance on negative as opposed to positive stereotypes of outgroup members, and their proclivity to approach the interaction as intergroup rather than interpersonal.

 Social stereotyping can also be reflected in the language used to describe the behaviors of those in stereotyped groups in comparison to that used to describe the behaviors of members of ingroups. These characteristics of language in the context of social stereotyping are reflected in the linguistic intergroup bias. That is, individuals tend to use more abstract language in describing negative characteristics of outgroups and positive characteristics of their ingroups, whereas they tend to use more concrete language to describe positive behaviors of outgroups and negative behaviors of ingroups (Biernat 2009).

 Recently interest has developed in the phenomenon of self-stereotyping, i.e., behaving in ways consistent with negative stereotypes of one’s group (Hummert 2011). Some self-stereotyping behavior may result from situational factors that call forth negative group stereotypes, such as the over-accommodative or biased communication behaviors of others or requests to perform tasks on which one’s group is stereotyped negatively (e.g., a memory test for older people, a math test for women). Other self-stereotyping can occur as individuals describe their own actions in stereotypic terms (Hummert et al. 2004).

The interrelationship of communication and social stereotyping creates a challenge for reducing social stereotyping in the communication process. First, from a cognitive perspective, stereotypes are useful heuristics that enable communicators to reduce their uncertainty when they encounter new people. Second, from a CAT perspective, communicators rely on stereotypes not because they wish to engage in prejudiced communication, but to be effective communicators by adapting their communication to the needs of the other person. Third, stereotyping in communication occurs most often at an implicit or unconscious level, so that communicators are unaware that they are basing their communication choices on stereotypes. Fourth, the ways in which stereotyping emerges in communication can be very subtle, occurring even at the level of word choice, and serve to reinforce the underlying stereotypical beliefs. Communication is thus inextricably linked to the creation and maintenance of social stereotyping, but as a result also offers the route to its reduction (Yzerbyt & Carnaghi 2008).


  1. Biernat, M. (2009). Stereotypes and shifting standards. In T. D. Nelson (ed.), Handbook of prejudice, stereotyping, and discrimination. New York: Psychology Press, pp. 137–152.
  2. Fiske, S. T. (2012). The continuum model and the stereotype content model. In P. A. Lange, A. W. Kruglanski, & E. T. Higgins (eds.), Handbook of theories of social psychology: vol 1. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, pp. 267–288.
  3. Giles, H., Coupland, N., & Coupland, J. (1991). Accommodation theory: Communication, context, and consequence. In H. Giles, J. Coupland, & N. Coupland (eds.), Contexts of accommodation: Developments in applied linguistics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 1–68.
  4. Hummert, M. L. (2011). Age stereotypes and aging. In K. W. Schaie & S. L. Willis (eds.), Handbook of the psychology of aging, 7th edn. San Diego, CA: Elsevier Academic Press, pp. 249–262.
  5. Hummert, M. L., Garstka, T. A., Ryan, E. B., & Bonnesen, J. L. (2004). The role of age stereotypes in interpersonal communication. In J. F. Nussbaum & J. Coupland (eds.), The handbook of communication and aging research, 2nd edn. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, pp. 91–114.
  6. Yzerbyt, V. & Carnaghi, A. (2008). Stereotype change in the social context. In Y. Kashima, K. Fiedler, & P. Freytag (eds.), Stereotype dynamics: Language-based approaches to the formation, maintenance, and transformation of stereotypes. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, pp. 29–57.

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