Self-fulfilling stereotypes: Have researchers tried inventing new group stereotypes?

Self-fulfilling stereotypes: Have researchers tried inventing new group stereotypes?

Studies on the stereotype threat have typically used stereotypes that that are common in contemporary culture, i.e. the canonical example being the study that showed African American SAT scores lowered when faced with the stereotype that African Americans are less intelligent than other groups.

Have there been any studies where researchers invented a stereotype (i.e. something random, like "Hispanics perform more poorly at jump rope than other groups") and tested to see if it had any effect on well controlled test subjects?

Have there been any social studies where scientists have tried inventing a new stereotype and implanting it into the mainstream population? (I doubt this because of ethics issues, but it would certainly be interesting!)

The "blue eyes brown eyes exercise" involves a completely arbitrary and invented stereotype.

During part of the exercise, Jane Elliott treated the blue-eyed children as the superior group. The following day, Elliott reversed the exercise, treating the brown-eyed children as the superior group. She treated people with the superior-eye-color-of-the-day as highly intelligent and able to learn, and people with the "inferior" eye color as inherently lazy and stupid.

I hear that, during the exercise, the new stereotype does have a significant effect on the subjects.

Perhaps this exercise by a schoolteacher doesn't really qualify as a "well controlled experiment" performed by a "scientist", but it sounds pretty close to what you were looking for.

Exploring the negative consequences of stereotyping

Social mythologies, like the old saw that "white men can't jump," may in fact have some negative consequences for those being stereotyped. And even if the majority of people do not openly endorse these negative beliefs, recent research suggests that just the mere awareness of these stereotypes can have negative consequences for individuals who are targeted by them, according to two social psychologists at the University of Arizona in Tucson.

Toni Schmader, an assistant professor in the UA psychology department, and Jeff Stone, an associate professor in that department, have conducted several controlled laboratory experiments that examine a phenomenon known as "stereotype threat." Their research helps not only to explain how this mechanism works, but also that strategies can be developed to overcome it.

Stereotype threat, a term coined by Stanford Professor Claude Steele, occurs when individuals whose group is targeted by negative stereotypes try to excel at tasks that are related to the stereotype. In these situations, simply knowing that there is a stereotype against them (a stereotype that says they should perform poorly on a particular task) can lead individuals to actually perform more poorly on the task than they otherwise would.

For example, in research at Stanford University, black students performed worse than white students on a standardized achievement test when they were told that the test measured intelligence. But when the same test was simply presented as a problem-solving exercise, black students performed as well as white students. Changing the way the test was described changed black students' performance.

At the University of Arizona, Toni Schmader has been working to identify the basic cognitive process by which these effects occur. In a recent paper in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Schmader and UA graduate student Michael Johns reported the results of several studies showing that college women score lower on tests of mathematical ability, and Hispanic students might score lower on tests of intelligence, not because they have less ability, but because reminders of negative stereotypes temporarily decrease their "working memory capacity."

Because working memory capacity is integral to concentrating attention on a task, these decreases in working memory capacity interfere with the ability to solve complex problems like the ones found on most standardized tests. Remove any reminder of negative stereotypes, and these individuals perform equally to the students who don't belong to a negatively stereotype group.

Research on stereotype threat has important implications for how standardized test scores are interpreted. Researchers have long tried to understand the basis for the gender gap in math scores and the racial and ethnic group differences on other types of standardized tests. Stereotype threat research suggests that such differences could stem from the mere existence of social stereotypes and not from group differences in actual ability.

Stereotype Threat Awareness

This raises another question: what can be done to reduce or even eliminate the pernicious effects of negative stereotype on test performance. Preliminary findings from a study that Schmader and her students are currently conducting might suggest one solution. Schmader and her group have found that teaching women about stereotype threat and its potential negative effects on test performance might actually arm women with a means of diffusing the threat. The researchers theorize that if women know that any extra anxiety they feel while taking the test could be due to stereotype threat effects and does not suggest that they lack ability, they can reinterpret that anxiety in a way that does not interfere with their performance.

Although much of the research on stereotype threat has examined its effects on intellectual and academic tests, innovative research by Jeff Stone has extended research on this phenomenon into the athletic arena where black athletes are stereotyped to be more naturally athletic, while white athletes are stereotyped to have greater sports intelligence.

In collaboration with Princeton University Professor John Darley and with students Christian Lynch and Mike Sjmoeling, Stone and his research team have found that both black and white athletes performed well on a laboratory golf task in a control condition where nothing was done to remind them about racial stereotypes. However, when performance on the task was linked to "sports intelligence," blacks performed more poorly than whites. But when performance was linked to "natural athletic ability," whites performed more poorly than blacks.

Why did these students seem to perform in ways that are consistent with the stereotype? Other results from these studies, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in 1999, suggested that when students thought the task pertained to the negative stereotype about their racial group, they had lower expectations about how they would perform on the task and were more distracted by other thoughts. These factors partially accounted for their poorer overall performance.

In research published in 2002 in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, Stone reported that White athletes might try to cope with stereotype threat by self-handicapping their performance. In other words, when they believe that a task assesses their natural athletic ability, they practice less ahead of time. These findings imply that stereotype threat processes may begin before people start to struggle on a difficult test just the mention of a negative stereotype in a performance situation can motivate people to use defensive behaviors that help them avoid the negative characterization.

Sports vs. Academic Performance

In a new project, Stone aims to link his research on sports stereotypes back to academic performance. This research, in collaboration with Professor C. Keith Harrison at the University of Michigan, will investigate how the "dumb jock" stereotype impacts the academic performance of college student athletes in the classroom.

It is important to note that participants in all of these studies never report a conscious awareness that their performance might be impacted by their mere awareness of negative stereotypes. Nevertheless, the results of these controlled experiments show that these effects do occur. Research also reveals that the individuals who are most susceptible to these effects are those who are likely to be the most motivated to do well and most interested in maintaining a positive image of their group.

For example, in Stone's studies, only white athletes who see sports as important to their self-worth show stereotype threat effects on their athletic performance and in Schmader's research, women who see their gender as an important part of their identity show the largest stereotype threat effects on their math test performance. Of course, all of these findings imply that the subtle effects that stereotypes can have on performance will only perpetuate the perception of group differences in ability.

However, these two researchers believe that the key to dismantling stereotype threat may be increased awareness that this phenomenon exists, not only among those who are targeted by the effects but also by those who interpret their performance scores.

Stereotype Threat:What are the Impacts?

By Catherine Good, Ph.D., Senior Research Scientist

In the first of our three-part series, we introduced the idea that stereotype threat is a situational predicament in which individuals fear they will confirm negative stereotypes about their group. That is, they worry they will be judged on the basis of a stereotype rather than on their own merits. The threat of confirming a stereotype has many consequences. Part two in this series will outline three of them, and illustrate how they can manifest in the classroom.


Perhaps the most obvious impact of stereotype threat can be seen on test results – especially those that are high-stakes, such as the SAT and ACT, end-of-year state assessments or final school exams. Because these tests matter, the stakes of a potential poor performance are even higher. Thus, the pressure to disconfirm a negative stereotype can interfere with a student’s ability to perform to his or her potential. In fact, any test that purports to measure a student’s abilities sets the stage for stereotype threat that could disrupt performance.

Classroom practices that emphasize normative assessments (comparing an individual’s performance to others in a group) and celebrate only the highest performers rather than the steady improvers can establish a climate in which stereotype threat becomes an issue. The focus on measuring students, coupled with the relevant stereotype that one group of students (e.g., the girls in math class) is less capable than another group (e.g., the boys in math class) can temporarily establish a fixed-mindset for students in which they worry about proving their ability (and thus, proving the stereotype wrong) rather than improving their ability. And as we have documented in previous posts, a fixed mindset leads to a host of negative academic outcomes.

Executive Functions

As researchers began to understand the construct of stereotype threat more fully, they started asking the question, “What is the mechanism by which stereotype threat leads to underperformance?” The obvious suspects were executive functions, namely cognitive control functions that are necessary for concentration and thinking. One particularly useful executive function is working memory. Working memory is responsible for our ability to hold, process and manipulate information and essential for reasoning and decision making. But working memory has a limited capacity. The more it is used for one task, the less resources are available for another task. Researchers have shown that stereotype threat saps working memory capacity.

Stereotype threat can also impair executive functions by increasing the amount of stress children experience in the classroom. When the classroom climate heightens stereotype threat, the stress response can become chronic for some students. Stress has been shown to impede healthy brain development, including the centers of the brain that house working memory and executive functions.

Stereotyped students tend to actively monitor their performance, perhaps as a way to be vigilant for potential pitfalls or possibilities of confirming the stereotype. These monitoring processes can use up working memory resources, leaving less available for the task at hand. Finally, stereotype threat leads to increased negative thoughts and emotions that students actively attempt to suppress. Have you ever tried not to think of something? It has the ironic effect of making that something actually more prevalent in your mind while also eating up cognitive resources. In sum, stereotype threat disrupts the cognitive processes that allow us to effectively access and use our knowledge. The result is reduced achievement.

The Learning Process

The effects of stereotype threat on academic performance have been well documented, but what about the impact of negative stereotypes on learning? Might stereotype threat disrupt the learning process in much the same way it disrupts performance? Preliminary research says yes. And when learning is impaired, this can lead to real deficits in knowledge over time.

Making errors is a natural part of the learning process and is often accompanied by an emotional response. Most people are able to down-regulate that emotional response and quickly direct attention back to the learning task. But for those under stereotype threat, the emotional response to mistakes not only leads them to withdraw effort and engagement in the learning process, but also makes those efforts less effective. In other words, under stereotype threat emotions block the path to learning. Learning outcomes are also directly impacted by stereotype threat. For example, girls learn less mathematics when the context of learning includes stereotype threat than when the context is less threatening. So in reality, , stereotype threat not only disrupts the ability to effectively access and use knowledge, it also disrupts the ability to build that knowledge.

These are just a few examples of how stereotype threat can undermine efforts to teach students and help them reach their potential. I encourage you to share your thoughts on Twitter with @Turnaround #The180. We are curious to learn how you have seen or defeated stereotype threat in your classroom, and if there are other topics you wish we would explore further. Stay tuned for the final entry of this three-part series where we will discuss easy-to-implement classroom-based solutions that can help make your stereotyped students become ready, engaged learners.

Overcoming Racial Stereotypes

Racial stereotypes are automatic and exaggerated mental pictures that we hold about all members of a particular racial group. When we stereotype people based on race, we don’t take into account individual differences. Because our racial stereotypes are so rigid, we tend to ignore or discard any information that is not consistent with the stereotype that we have developed about the racial group.

How Do We Develop Racial Stereotypes?

We develop our racial stereotypes in a variety of ways. On a very simple level, it’s human nature to categorize people. It’s our way of making a complex world simpler. From an early age, we learn to place people and objects into categories. However, when we’re very young, we tend to put less of an emphasis on attributing values to these categories. As we grow older and are influenced by parents, peers, and the media, our tendency to label different racial groups as superior/good or inferior/bad increases significantly. Additionally, the less contact we have with a particular racial group, the more likely we are to have negative feelings about the group. Any negative experiences that we have with a member of a particular group will strengthen our racial stereotypes and create fears about particular races. Based on our fears, we develop an us-versus-them mentality that tends to be self-protective in nature. As a result, we miss opportunities to learn and thrive from our differences.

Are Our Racial Stereotypes Harmful?

Some people might say, “There’s no harm in having racial stereotypes or making racial or ethnic jokes based on stereotypes. People these days are so politically correct and should just loosen up. Anyway, there’s always a kernel of truth in every stereotype.” In some instances, all of the above might be true. However, in most cases, racial stereotypes are harmful because they ignore the full humanity and uniqueness of all people. When our perceptions of different races are distorted and stereotypical, it’s demeaning, devaluing, limiting, and hurtful to others. In some cases, people who are repeatedly labeled in negative ways will begin to develop feelings of inferiority. Sometimes, these feelings of inferiority can lead to self-fulfilling prophecies that perpetuate the stereotype. Racial stereotypes can also foster feelings of hate and aggression that might lead to a false sense of entitlement and superiority. For those individuals who have power, this can lead to their engaging in discriminatory and racist practices.

How Do We Overcome Our Racial Stereotypes?

Because of their harmful effects, we should make a real commitment to try to overcome our racial stereotypes. This can be achieved by first acknowledging that we’re human and that we do harbor racial stereotypes. Next, we should work to become more aware of our inner thoughts and feelings and how they affect our beliefs and actions. When we have a stereotypical thought about a racial group, we should follow it up with an alternative thought based on factual information that discounts the stereotype. We can obtain this factual information by leaving our comfort zones and exposing ourselves to people of different races. We should be willing to engage in honest dialogue with others about race that at times might be difficult, risky, and uncomfortable. We should also seek out media portrayals of different races that are realistic and positive. Attending churches, plays, concerts, and movies that celebrate diversity will also broaden our worldview. As we gain more awareness and knowledge about racial groups, not only will our racial stereotypes lessen, but we will also become better equipped to educate and challenge others about their racial stereotypes. As we change ourselves, we can elicit changes in others through our examples and the quality of our conversations. In doing this, we work to create a society in which all races are valued, appreciated, and embraced.

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When All Efforts Fail to Retain Them…Unintentional Biases May Be At Work

Rates of associate attrition from the largest law firms in the United States are higher than ever, in spite of years of efforts to reduce them. As associate compensation has soared, the tenure of these well-paid young attorneys at their firms has become ever shorter.

According to research conducted by the NALP Foundation, almost 80 percent of attorneys at large firms leave within five years of being hired. Minorities and women depart their firms at much higher rates than do non-minority attornfeys. Trying to find a woman attorney of color still at her original large law firm employer eight years after being hired would prove more challenging than finding the proverbial needle in a haystack.

If affinity groups, mentoring programs, reduced-hours policies, on-site child care, opportunities to trade money for hours and diversity training fail to stem the exodus of associates from large firms, why aren't these efforts producing their desired effects?  Women and attorneys of color share with white male lawyers many reasons for leaving, including the assumption that work and life are a zero-sum game mind-numbing assignments that have little to do with their reasons for pursuing a legal career and the slim odds of making partner, along with a lack of perceived control over the factors ultimately influencing that decision.  Large firm culture continues to cling to norms established by the white men who created and continue to dominate private practice. Current billable-hours requirements require male and female attorneys to choose law over life. As a result, many associates entering firms begin their tenure with a plan to leave after paying down their law-school debt.

When, in my capacity as a consultant, I conduct focus groups of associates, it is now rare to hear any aspirations to partnership.  Wealthy, burned out partners paying multiple alimonies do not inspire longevity among most junior attorneys.  However, diverse attorneys, more than their white male counterparts, bump up against other cultural norms that have been part of law firm mores for so long that they appear to be professional requirements rather than preferences or the way things have always been done.

What Are Unintentional Biases

Indeed, I strongly suspect that cultural assumptions-normative in law firms and in the larger social structure in which they are embedded-and the self-fulfilling prophecies to which they lead, play a significant role in many failed efforts to retain diverse attorneys.  In particular, unintentional biases may lead many women and attorneys of color to leave their firms. Psychological research indicates that unintentional biases arise from the normal human tendencies to categorize things and people into groups, to prefer familiar things and similar people and to cognitively simplify our complex world. These mental processes evolved no doubt due to their survival value (e.g., it's essential to differentiate dangerous enemies from our kin.)

When we engage in social categorization we accentuate the differences between groups. We also attribute greater differentiation between the individuals in the groups to which we belong than to outgroups.  We tend to homogenize the behavior of groups with which we do not identify we underestimate differences within these groups.

As a psychologist who consults with law firms and lawyers, I encounter this routinely.  Although all psychologists are not assumed to look alike, I am told that we think and act alike (for example, too "touchy feely") while at the same time being reminded of the distinctiveness of individual attorneys and their firms.

It is also the case that we favor our own groups and their members while disparaging or discriminating against groups to which we do not belong. For example, we are likely to see them as less able than in-group members, to recall their errors while easily remembering the successes of similar others, to be less generous and at times to behave more aggressively toward them. 

Relying on stereotypes, like categories, is a strategy to make the world simpler and therefore easier to negotiate. Stereotypes are mental shortcuts or heuristics-beliefs we have about the attributes typical of particular groups.

Research has demonstrated that our beliefs about what makes a "good lawyer" are the same traits attributed to men: individualistic, tough, independent, etc. Women, on the other hand, are assumed to be nurturing, dependent and caring-not your image of the powerful leader you want running your firm. And, as the current political scene so clearly demonstrates, we don't like women who don't fit the stereotype of how women are "supposed to be."

Regardless of your political preferences, the fact that Hilary Clinton is perceived as competent but aggressive, and the media frenzy over her "fake" tears, should drive home just how difficult it is for a woman to violate her prescribed stereotype. The same qualities that indicate strength and confidence in a man are viewed as arrogance and aggressiveness in a woman. 

The content of racial stereotypes may lead well-intended people to assume that Asian-Americans will have answers to all technology and mathematics questions, American Indians will want to work on American Indian land law issues, Latino-Americans can reveal the secrets of how to sells to the Hispanic market and that African Americans are simply less competent since their prior achievements were likely due to affirmative action rather than ability and ambition.

I am not at all suggesting that most large law firm attorneys hold conscious negative biases about women or attorneys of color. The process that I am suggesting undermines so many well-intentioned efforts to retain women and attorneys of color is far more insidious. 

Cognitive psychologists have demonstrated that stereotypes and biases can operate outside of our conscious awareness, distorting our perceptions, judgments and memories and influencing our behavior. Implicit biases most often reflect stereotypes that people truly do not know they have and often consciously reject and abhor.

Human beings also have a normal tendency to seek confirmation for their biases. We seek, notice and interpret information that confirms our beliefs and ignore, avoid or undervalue data that contradict them. It is also easier to recall confirmatory information. 

When we make rapid decisions we are vulnerable to being guided by our implicit biases, even those we would not consciously endorse. Automatic, unconscious biases are most likely to influence our judgments and behavior during stressful circumstances, in complex situations, and when we are time-pressured. Our gut feelings, intuitions and snap judgments typically reflect these automatic, unexamined biases.  In particular, unintentional biases have been shown to strongly, negatively influence the performance evaluations as well as friendliness, willingness to help and non-verbal behavior toward out-group members.

Stigmatized Policies

Hours continue to be the bottom line measure of an associate's worth. It is very difficult to define less tangible criteria that most law firm partners would agree might make a part-time attorney more valuable than a full-time one. Women practicing law on reduced-hours schedules have more than demonstrated that traditional beliefs about professional commitment are wrong-headed, but such assumptions are slow to change.

A partner who consciously or unconsciously believes that mothers are less committed to their legal careers than are attorneys without children might be likely to interpret a woman's absence from her office as a sign that she's home with her children rather than with a client. In fact, this is precisely what surveys conducted by the Project for Attorney Retention have found.

Whereas attorneys who are not parents are assumed to be engaged in some work related activity when not at their desks, once women return from maternity leave, their absences are often attributed to involvement in family affairs. This assumption both derives from and confirms the theory that her commitment to her career has diminished. 

Based on this assumption, it would follow that the partner would save more challenging stretch assignments for more promising associates. The belief that a mother cannot have the unimpeded focus of someone not distracted by childcare issues could easily lead to selective perception and memory of her errors. Again, the Project for Attorney Retention has found that many women attorneys receive poor evaluations for the first time in their careers after returning from parental leave.

The option of reducing hours by itself is insufficient to retain women. Implicit stereotypes make the use of such policies stigmatized it's no wonder that only 5.4 percent of attorneys take advantage of them while they are almost universally available. As research by Catalyst and others indicates, women more often leave their firms because they feel pushed out rather than pulled by family demands.

Many women leave their firms in exhaustion and despair after years of being "out-group" members who are excluded from the informal networks needed for career advancement opportunities, and having tried repeatedly to prove their competence to partners whose unconscious biases blind them to evidence inconsistent with their beliefs. Meanwhile, the supervising attorneys who expected them to leave have their assumptions confirmed by their departures.  Their role in creating self-fulfilling prophecies remains invisible to them.

Self-Fulfilling Prophecies

A similar process occurs for attorneys of color.  Indeed, scholars like David Wilkins assert that black associates are less likely to get good assignments early on due to implicit assumptions about their competence, or what some have called "the prejudice of low expectations."

The NALP Foundation's "After the JD" Longitudinal Study reported that minority associates were more likely to be assigned routine tasks such as research and due diligence and less likely to receive challenging work assignments that communicate trust or promote autonomy.

The ABA Commission on Women in the Profession's study, "Visible Invisibility," found that the mentors of women of color did not help them become integrated into the firm's internal networks, receive desirable assignments or have substantive contact with clients.

"Perhaps the most subtle and sinister way in which
implicit biases influence the retention process is
through what psychologists call micro-inequities,
small, often non-verbal and hard-to-prove events."

The sheer presence of a mentoring program should not be expected to eliminate the effects of implicit bias on the part of mentors. Implicit stereotypes result in an accumulation of disadvantage. It is not an uncommon experience for an attorney of color to make an error on an assignment due to the lack of prior learning opportunities.  Again, confirmation biases lead such errors to be noticed, remembered and interpreted as indicators of incompetence, thus confirming the stereotype.

Even in large firms with work assignment systems intended to ensure equal opportunities to learn, the reality of the system varies from one practice group to another. Very often, informal market systems truly govern how associates receive assignments. In these cases, opportunities flow through informal networks from which women and minorities are excluded.


Perhaps the most subtle and sinister way in which implicit biases influence the retention process is through what psychologists call micro-inequities, and Stephen Young has popularized as micro-messaging. These small, often non-verbal events are usually hard to prove and small in nature but not trivial in effect.

The day-to-day experience of diverse attorneys is often filled with experiences of invisibility: The absence of a greeting or eye contact, minimal interaction, an unfriendly tone of voice, a facial expression communicating impatience, or cool and rejecting body language. Attorneys of color routinely hear references to "qualified minorities" but not "qualified whites" when discussing recruitment. They are often asked to be representatives of their racial/ethnic groups.

The accumulated effects of these micromessages are debilitating. Attorneys of color and women who've left their firms repeatedly say there was no single incident that drove them away. Instead, the constant subtle aggressions, exclusions, insults and invalidations drove them out of their firms. 

The subtlety of micro-aggressions makes them thorny to protest. It's difficult to imagine a woman associate complaining to a partner that he makes eye contact with the men in his practice group but not with her. People from stigmatized groups are often least likely to complain, in an effort to avoid confirming the stereotyped traits attributed to them. The fear of being labeled a "whiner" regularly silences women associates. 

Furthermore, stigma itself can be preoccupying and stressful. In order to prove competence to supervisors who unconsciously assume otherwise, women and attorneys of color must breach three successive partner filters: what he notices, how he interprets his observations, and his memory of that interpretation. It's easy to understand why the expectation that one must prove one's competence can interfere with performance.

The fact is that informal rules and cultural beliefs govern workplace behavior far more than new policies grafted onto them. When reduced hours are stigmatized they do little to decrease attrition. The presence of a diversity initiative by itself rarely spares women and attorneys of color exposure to offensive jokes and countless other microinequities.  By themselves, mentoring programs cannot prevent mistakes made by diverse attorneys from being viewed as confirmation of incompetence. "Objective" performance criteria like billable hours easily conceal the absence of opportunities to get the work needed to bill those hours.

They Need to Want to Stay

Fundamentally, attrition will not be stemmed until senior attorneys choose to behave in ways that make young attorneys want to continue to work there. 

Retention efforts are unlikely to be improved by efforts to change attitudes, conscious or otherwise. This is part of the reason that traditional diversity training has failed. However, there is research that suggests that people can adjust for biases if they are made aware of their potential influence. 

Experienced attorneys have well developed self-checking processes that they utilize in legal contexts. These skills should transfer to situations in which evaluations take place. Since biases are most likely to influence judgments in stressful and time-pressured circumstances, allowing ample time to consider all of the evidence may reduce the reliance on stereotyping heuristics.

The knowledge that implicit biases are frequently expressed nonverbally can enable partners concerned with retaining talented women and attorneys of color to intentionally behave in friendlier and more inclusive ways.  However, they must be committed to taking the time to use this knowledge in order to behave differently. To the extent law firm partners sincerely want to retain talented young attorneys, they can and will do this.

Accountability Matters Greatly

Research on what organizations can do to check implicit bias suggests that accountability measures have the most potent effects.

The more accountable senior attorneys feel (the more they expect their judgments, assignment decisions and introductions to clients to be public), the less likely they are to be influenced by implicit biases. Obviously, this is the rationale behind the current diversity monitoring of corporate counsel.

From my perspective, the most promising approach to accountability is one that makes it possible for law firm owners and employees to explicitly and directly discuss issues of bias and their interpersonal effects.  Well-intentioned senior attorneys, after some initial defensiveness, might welcome being made aware of the fact that they are inadvertently pushing out attorneys whom they wish to retain.

Instead of standard diversity training, firms might do better in their retention efforts by providing training in emotional intelligence, effective delivery of feedback, interpersonal conflict management and mechanisms for preventing biases from influencing judgments and behavior.

What is a stereotype anyway?

“To talk about stereotypes, one has to first define what they are. Stereotypes are simply beliefs about a group of people.”

Firstly, there should be a better definition.

Even online dictionaries do better than that – and so does Lee Jussim, the social scientist in question. So political agenda of article’s author is checked.

But the message she is peddling here is not the definition, but that social sciences have a “left-wing” bias (read: US Democratic Party), and they don’t want you to know that stereotypes are accurate, and stereotype threat thus cannot be true. Underpinned by anecdotes from Jussim’s “anti-authoritarian” upbringing, his hardship in his career, and a long detour about the reproducing problem.

(Jussim doesn’t measure (pdf) any of these things. He is just looking whether they are reasonably accurate, and he concludes that some stereotypes are.)

A stereotype is 1) my belief about people I don’t know – but also 2) my knowledge of the stereotypes concerning me. (And a lot more things, but let’s just take these two for now.)

In other words, I know that they know that I know. Yes, people are that bad. I will act according to my own expectations of what people expect from me, even when it is not enforced by the threat of a burning stake. I can only confirm or deny the stereotypes against me – so I am stuck with them, either way. (Good thing they don’t accuse me of having a criminal disposition, because that would seriously suck.)

In other words, I enforce the stereotypes on myself. A stereotype is a self-executing piece of meme installed on me – and it doesn’t need to be actively enforced, as long as I am aware of it.

If you ever spent time in an international environment you will see what I mean. Take the endless repetition of where-are-you-froms, and the cliches it triggers. Of course, I know they mean it nicely. But if they keep repeating the sights of my hometown, the conversation never takes off from the “Where are you from?” level.

One day I decided to have some fun and experiment with new countries. When we reached the socials and people still kept asking their where-are-you-froms, I said something else – just to hear something new for a change. It went horribly wrong. A gentleman, who spent two days in perfect gentlemanly manner had overheard me introducing myself as Russian. Within a second, his arm appeared on my waist and his lips uncomfortably close to my ear as he whispered: “You are in need of a passport then?” I could hear his lips smacking as he talked. Obviously, Russians must be desperate. So I learned.

But a stereotype is not simply enforced, it is implanted first.

All a meme needs to spread in a population is obedience to follow its commands and the willingness to replicate its message. And replicate we do. Don’t you find it curious how people cannot stop repeating those tedious cliches? There is no way someone hadn’t heard of the cheese-eaters in their life and yet, something compels us to repeat it just in case. So we do repeat compulsively.

Now let’s see whether we obey. And how?

Study 1

Study 1 was designed to provide an initial test of our emotion regulation hypothesis by examining targets’ efforts to suppress their expression of anxiety while under stereotype threat. One challenge in testing this hypothesis is that techniques do not exist to measure spontaneous suppression tendencies, particularly if individuals might be reluctant to admit feeling anxious in the first place. To solve this problem we adapted a reaction time task designed to measure anxiety by assessing patterns of attention to anxiety-related stimuli (Mathews & MacLeod, 1986). Although typically used as an implicit measure, we manipulated whether participants knew the intent of the task so that their responses could be used to index efforts to regulate the expression of anxiety. In one condition, this reaction time measure was described in neutral terms in order to measure participants’ anxiety levels without their awareness. We expected that stereotype-threatened participants would automatically attend to anxiety-related stimuli, providing evidence of increased anxiety when the measure was implicit. In a second condition, we described the reaction time measure as an instrument designed to assess anxiety and provided information about the logic of the measure. In this condition, we expected that this information would allow targets to engage in expressive suppression by actively redirecting their attention away from threat-related stimuli. This prediction is based on the idea that participants under threat would be motivated to avoid any expression of anxiety as part of the effort to suppress their experience of anxiety (e.g., Jackson, Malmstadt, Larson, & Davidson, 2000). In this way, we were able to use the same measure to capture the experience of anxiety and efforts to suppress it.

We tested these hypotheses by exposing women to stereotype threat in the domain of math ability and having them complete a working memory measure of executive resources after completing the reaction time measure of anxiety. We predicted that we would detect evidence of active suppression when stereotype threat was present and when the women were aware that their anxiety levels were being assessed. Because awareness that anxiety is being measured is not necessary for the experience of stereotype threat, we expected that stereotype threat would deplete executive resources regardless of the whether or not participants were aware that anxiety was being assessed.


Participants and Design

The participants were 85 Caucasian female psychology students attending a large American university who participated for course credit or $10. Participants were recruited if they reported scoring at least 500 on the quantitative section of the SAT (or equivalent converted ACT score) and reported awareness of the relevant stereotype (i.e., responded 3 or below to this question: “Regardless of what you personally believe, do you think there is a stereotype that men and women differ in their math ability?” where 1 = men are stereotyped as better than women, 4 = there is no stereotype that men and women differ, and 7 = women are stereotyped as better than men). Participants were randomly assigned to one of four conditions in a 2 (stereotype threat) × 2 (anxiety measure description) between-subjects design. Four women were excluded from analyses due computer malfunction (n = 1), a failure to follow task instructions (n = 2), or for knowing a member of the study personnel (n = 1). All analyses were conducted on a final sample of 81 women.


Dot probe task

We measured anxiety and the suppression of anxious responses using the dot probe task (Mathews & MacLeod, 1986). This measure relies on the logic that anxiety tends to increase attention toward threat-related stimuli (MacLeod, Mathews, & Tata, 1986). In this task, two words were presented on a computer screen simultaneously, one word above the center point of the screen and the other word below the center point. The words disappeared after 1 s and a small dot appeared in the same position as one of the previously displayed words. 2 Participants were instructed to indicate as quickly as possible whether the dot was located in the top or bottom position. On the 20 critical trials, one of the words in the pair was related to anxiety (e.g., nervous, anxious, scared) while the other was a neutral word matched for length and frequency. There were 10 filler trials containing only pairs of neutral words. The position of the dot varied randomly such that it appeared in the same position as the anxiety word for half of the critical trials and in the position of a neutral word for the remaining trials. The position of the anxiety word also varied randomly and was located in the top or bottom position an equal number of times. Reaction times were recorded from the onset of the dot appearing.

We computed an index of attention allocation to anxiety-related words by subtracting the average reaction time to identify the location of the dot for trials when it appeared in the same location as the anxiety word from the average reaction time for trials when the dot appeared in the same position as the neutral word. Thus, higher positive scores indicate increased vigilance for anxiety-related stimuli, a response associated with increased anxiety (MacLeod et al., 1986). However, if participants under threat are attempting to suppress anxious responses, we expected that they would actively avoid the anxiety words when told that attention to these words is a sign of increased anxiety. As a result, participants trying to suppress the expression of anxiety under threat would tend to be slower in identifying the location of the dot when it appeared in the same location as the anxiety word (i.e., lower negative values should indicate expressive suppression in the threat condition).

Working memory

We measured executive resources using dual-processing measure of working memory called the reading span task (see Schmader & Johns, 2003). In this task, participants were first presented with a word, which they were directed to memorize for later recall. A sentence was presented next and participants were asked to count the number of vowels contained in the words. At the end of a series of sentence–word combination trials (i.e., a set) participants were asked to recall as many of the words from the preceding series as possible. Each set included 4, 5, or 6 word–sentence trials, and the sets were presented in random order. There were four blocks of each set size (12 sets total) for total of 60 word–sentence trials. We assessed working memory using the absolute span score—summing the total number of words recalled from only those sets where all the words were recalled correctly (La Pointe & Engle, 1990).

Self-reported anxiety

Self-reported anxiety (α = .86) was measured as the average of participants’ ratings of how agitated, anxious, nervous, uneasy, and worried they felt using a 7-point scale anchored by not at all (1) and very much (7).


We manipulated stereotype threat using procedures Inzlicht and Ben-Zeev (2000) developed and validated. Upon entering the lab, all participants were seated at adjacent computer workstations. In the stereotype threat condition, the female participant was seated at the middle workstation so that she was flanked by two male confederates. A male experimenter explained that the purpose of the study was to administer a test of mathematical aptitude in order to collect normative data on men and women. In the no-threat condition, 3 female participants were told by a female experimenter that the purpose of the study was to administer a problem-solving exercise in order to collect normative data on college students. All participants were told that they would complete the math test/problem-solving exercise in two parts, separated by two filler tasks, and that they would receive performance feedback at the end of the session. In actuality, the filler tasks were the tasks of interest: the dot probe task and working memory measure.

After completing an initial set of word problems (to induce threat and bolster the cover story), participants were presented with the dot probe task. In the neutral description condition, the task was identified as a measure of perceptual focus, whereas in the anxiety measurement condition the task was identified as a measure of state anxiety. Participants in this condition were also told that “people who are feeling more anxious should be quicker to identify the location of the dot when it appears in the same position as the anxiety-related word.” We predicted that if women under threat try to regulate anxiety they would avoid directing their attention toward the threat-related words on the dot probe task in order to suppress the expression of their anxious affect. Participants then completed the working memory task, also described as filler task, and the self-report measure of anxiety. The experimenter then announced that there would not be sufficient time to complete the second problem set. Participants were then probed for suspicion, debriefed, and thanked for their participation.

Results and Discussion

Working Memory

Our prediction about the effect of emotion regulation on executive functioning translates into a main effect of stereotype threat on the number of words recalled on the working memory task. A 2 (stereotype threat) × 2 (anxiety measure description) between-subjects analysis of variance (ANOVA) on the absolute span score yielded only the predicted main effect of stereotype threat, F(1, 77) = 9.53, p < .01. Replicating previous research (Schmader & Johns, 2003), women in the stereotype threat condition (M = 24.99) recalled fewer words compared to women in the problem-solving control condition (M = 33.03 d = 0.69).

Dot Probe Task

Only reaction times for correct responses were used to compute the attention allocation index. Error rates were not affected by the manipulations and were low overall (1.73%). Analysis of attention allocation yielded only the predicted interaction between stereo type threat and anxiety measure description, F(1, 77) = 6.41, p = .01. In the stereotype threat condition, when the dot probe task was described as a measure of perceptual focus, women directed more attention toward anxiety-related words (M = 15.68) compared when the task was described as a measure of anxiety (M = �.83), F(1, 77) = 5.16, p < .05 (d = 0.73). This response pattern (displayed in Figure 1 ) suggests that women under stereo type threat were experiencing increased anxiety but attempted suppress their expression of anxiety when they were aware that the dot probe task measured this state. Women in the problem-solving condition did not show differential attention toward anxiety related words when the task was described as a measure of perceptual focus (M = �.28) compared to when the task was described as a measure of anxiety (M = 6.83), F(1, 77) = 1.84, (d = 0.43). Thus, it was not the case that women showed a general tendency to shift attention away from anxiety-related stimuli when they thought that their anxiety was being assessed. Rather, stereo type threat appears to instigate efforts to suppress the expression anxiety.

Means and standard errors for the attention allocation index as a function of the description of the dot probe task and stereotype threat condition in Study 1.

We also examined the correlations between the attention allocation index and working memory separately in each condition When the dot probe task was described in neutral terms, allocation of attention to threat-related stimuli was negatively correlated with working memory when under stereotype threat, r(23) = −.42, p = .05, but uncorrelated with working memory in the control condition, r(16) = .05. This pattern suggests that women under stereo type threat were in fact feeling anxious and that those feelings corresponded to reduced working memory efficiency. However, when the dot probe task was described as a measure of anxiety, working memory was positively correlated with attention allocation to anxiety words for women under stereotype threat, r(21) = .54, p = .01, but uncorrelated for women in the control condition, r(21) = −.13, ns. These results suggest that women under stereotype threat who thought the task measured anxiety directed their attention away from threat-related stimuli to avoid appearing anxious, and the more they tried to regulate their anxiety, the fewer executive resources they had available.

Self-Reported Anxiety

Analysis of the self-reported anxiety measure did not yield any significant effects (Fs < 1.0). The overall average of self-reports (M = 2.96) was significantly lower than the scale midpoint of 4, t(80) = 𢄧.26, p < .001. Also, in the stereotype threat condition, self-reported anxiety did not correlate with responses on the dot probe task when it was described as a measure of perceptual focus (r = .04) or anxiety (r = −.14). Thus, although women under stereotype threat did not report feeling more anxious while expecting to take a math test, the implicit dot probe measure suggests that they were. The lack of differences in self-reported anxiety, along with the lack of correlation between the implicit and explicit measures, is consistent with previous studies showing a dissociation between direct and indirect measures of the psychological experience of stereotype threat (Bosson et al., 2004C. M. Steele et al., 2002 Wheeler & Petty, 2001). Such dissociation would be expected if participants experiencing stereotype threat suppress the expression of anxiety as part of an attempt to regulate their experience of this negative emotion (Gross, 2002 Jackson et al., 2000).

The results of this study offer preliminary support for the hypothesis that regulating anxiety through suppression contributes to the effect of stereotype threat on executive resource depletion. Taken together, the overall pattern of responses in this study indicates that stereotype threat was anxiety provoking but that it also motivated a desire to avoid displaying those anxious feelings. The fact that responses on the reaction time measure corresponded to reductions in working memory efficiency in the stereotype threat condition suggests further that emotion regulation efforts deplete the executive resources of targets. The correlational nature of these data, however, limits our ability to conclude that emotion regulation caused reductions in executive functioning. Consequently, in Study 2 we directly manipulated emotion regulation strategies in order to provide more direct evidence of the causal relationship between emotion regulation and executive resource depletion under threat.

Self-fulfilling stereotypes: Have researchers tried inventing new group stereotypes? - Psychology

"Interpersonal expectations relate to social reality primarily because they reflect rather than cause social reality. This is the case not only for teacher expectations, but also for social stereotypes, both as perceptions of groups, and as the bases of expectations regarding individuals. The time is long overdue to replace cherry-picked and unjustified stories emphasizing error, bias, the power of self-fulfilling prophecies, and the inaccuracy of stereotypes, with conclusions that more closely correspond to the full range of empirical findings."

I'm a layman when it comes to this but Iɽ be very interested in any refutations of this paper.

I doubt there can be refutation in the sense that "its conclusions are obviously wrong". the catch is how you interpret⾬t on those conclusions.

Yes, stereotypes become stereotypes because they are, or at least recently were, "largely true" (in the statistical sense - i.e. not always but "too often to ignore"). E.g., in my country, a lot of the petty criminals are gypsies - it would be foolish to reject that truth. However, the stereotype "gypsy = criminal" is still incredibly harmful (despite being grounded in truth), both at the individual level (producing harm to innocents) and at the group level (doesn't solve the problem, only contributes to making it worse).

The bigger problem is that people are ill-equipped to handle these thoughts in the brain simultaneously: that a stereotype can be largely true, and yet it's harmful˺ bad idea to act instinctively based on the information it provides. The correct responses to a stereotype are complex/should be based on reason - those based on instincts/reflexes are very often wrong. But it's so hard to resist the instincts, that often it's simpler to just dismiss the stereotype as "false".

Of course if you are able to accurately take probabilities and uncertainty into account when making decisions, you can make good use of observed correlations but most people tend to be better at dealing with deterministic rules (I certainly am) and need to consciously remind themselves not to overestimate the accuracy of a stereotype.

I try to treat everyone as an individual, but when I don’t have the opportunity to do this I have no choice but to fall back on my life’s experience. Sometimes this means I avoid people I wouldn’t if they looked or acted differently, but I have no desire to be a victim to prove a point.

> I have no desire to be a victim to prove a point.

This is not a dig against you. Humans - myself included - are incredibly flawed (while being incredibly awesome at the same time). I just find it helpful to keep this in mind. Personally, applying the stereotype as you say is a very reasonable (even "rational") choice. I do it too. But, at the same time, we should recognize the limitations of it - both you and I have probably treated a gypsy unfairly. That's ok, I'm fine with that, I've given up hope that I can be perfect - but, I still find that it helps to remind me that I'm not. And what I'm doing is not helping them. I don't know how I could _personally_ behave better (without harming myself) - but, that only means that I don't believe a solution can be found at the "personal" level. I believe "more of the same" will only work to reinforce the stereotype - so at a policy level, I believe that policies are needed to actively help them raise above their conditions (yes, maybe even positive discrimination is justified - at least, it's _something_ ), while at the same time working to fight against the symptoms (prevent the formation of "ghettos"/ their isolation in roma-only communities).

But, I digress. This was about our own weaknesses, and how the stereotype, even when grounded in truth, can be harmful, because of the positive feedback loop it creates (which is very hard to break). In particular, a stereotype tells you that e.g. gypsies used to be petty criminals (in large proportions), but it does NOT tell you that they have to be so in the future. It does not tell you the "why" - maybe it's coded in their DNA. But what if (more likely, IMO) it's actually coded in our social norms? Because those, we can change! It takes effort, and time, but it's doable.

I don’t have any useful suggestions other than the observation that when Roma immigrate to countries like the USA or Australia they completely changed their culture and have been absorbed into the general population.

You cannot be a Gypsie/Roma in North America!

Their culture involves roaming in caravans from town to town, possibly doing bits of labour, but mostly running scams. Kids don't go to school, they live their lives as they please.

In France, I saw a Roma Caravan pull up on a local farmers property my French friend indicated that if the farmer complained - he would get a physical threat on his person and property (though I am aware that property rights / routes are different in Europe).

Can you imagine a caravan pulling up on a Farmer's property in rural Alabama? And threatening violence? They would be shot by the owner, or instantly run out of town by the local cop who could give a rats behind about whatever their ɼultural status' might be.

The EU institutionally and systematically enables the 'Roma culture' - which is in and of itself nearly impossible to make civilized in the terms that we understand. (Not necessarily saying anything against the culture other than we don't know how to 'make it work' as the previous commenter observed)

How does the EU provide for the education of Roma children as they roam through Europe? Health care? Taxation? Etc. etc..

I understand the impetus for the EU to protect culture, and also - you know - history Nazism and all that - but the cultural situation may be 'implacable'.

Dissolving their cultural identity and putting them into a suburban school getting accounting degrees might be the only way we know how to ɿix the problem'. Which of course comes at the cost of cultural dissolution.

Moving Beyond Generations: Two Alternative Models

With the preceding ten myths serving as a backdrop, we next introduce two models—the social constructionist perspective and the lifespan development perspective—that serve as alternative and complementary ways of thinking about, and understanding thinking about, generations and generational differences. Indeed, we propose that these are complementary models. Specifically, whereas the social constructionist perspective serves as a way of understanding why people tend to think about age and aging in generational terms, the lifespan development perspective serves as an alternative to thinking about age and aging in generational terms.

The Social Constructionist Perspective

Considering the ten myths reviewed above, it is clear that the evidence for the existence of generations and generational differences is lacking. Moreover, when applying a critical lens, what little evidence does exist does not hold up to theoretical and empirical scrutiny. What, then, are we left to do with the idea of generations? That is to say, how can we rationalize the continued emphasis that is placed on generations in research and practice despite the lack of a solid evidence base upon which these ideas rest? On the surface, this may seem to be a conceptually, rather than a practically, relevant question. However, there is a booming industry of advisors, gurus, and entire management consulting firms based around the idea of generations (e.g., Hughes, 2020). In whatever form it takes, generationally based practice is built upon the rather shaky foundations of this science, putting organizations and their constituents at risk—not only of wasted money, resources, and time, but of propagating misplaced ideas based on a weak, arguably non-existent evidence base (Costanza et al., 2020). As the organizational sciences move toward the ideals of evidence-based practice, generations and assumed differences between them are quickly becoming yet another example of a discredited management fad (see Abrahamson, 1991, 1996 Røvik, 2011).

Borrowed from sociological theoretical traditions, the social constructionist perspective focuses on understanding the nature of various shared assumptions that people hold about reality, through understanding the ways in which meanings develop in coordination with others, and how such meanings are attached to various lived experiences, social structures, and entities (see Leeds-Hurwitz, 2009)—including generations. Comprehensive treatments of the core ideas and tenets of the sociological notion of social constructionism can be found in Burr (2003) and Lock and Strong (2010). The social constructionist perspective on generations, which is based upon the idea that generations exist as social constructions, has been advanced as a means of understanding why people often think about age and aging in discrete generational, rather than continuous, terms (e.g., Rudolph & Zacher, 2015, 2017 see also Lyons & Kuron, 2014 Lyons & Schweitzer, 2017 Weiss & Perry, 2020). The social constructionist perspective has utility as a model for understanding various processes that give rise to generations and for understanding the ubiquity and persistence of generations and generationally based explanations for human behavior. In an early conceptualization of this perspective, Zacher and Rudolph (2015) proposed that two processes reinforce each other to support the social construction of generations. Specifically, (1) the ubiquity and knowledge of generational stereotypes drive (2) the process of generational stereotyping, which is by-and-large socially sanctioned. These two processes fuel the social construction of generational differences, which have bearing on a variety of work-related processes, not least of which is the development of “generationalized” expectations for work specific attitudes, values, and behaviors. Such generationalized expectations set the stage for various forms of intergenerational conflicts and discrimination (i.e., generationalism Rauvola et al., 2019) at work.

The social constructionist perspective on generations is grounded in three core principles: (1) generations are social constructs that are “willed into being” (2) as social constructs, generations exist because they serve a sensemaking function and (3) the existence and persistence of generations can be explained by various processes of social construction. The social constructionist perspective is gaining traction as a viable alternative to rather rigid, deterministic approaches of conceptualizing and studying generations, even among otherwise staunch proponents of these ideas. For example, Campbell et al. (2017) offer that “…generations might be best conceptualized as fuzzy social constructs” (p. 130) and Lyons et al. (2015) echo similar sentiments about the role and function of generations. To further clarify this perspective, we next expand upon these three core ideas that are advanced by the social constructionist perspective, providing more details and examples of each, and offering supporting evidence from research and theory.

First, the social constructionist perspective advances the idea that generations and generational differences do not exist objectively (see Berger & Luckman, 1966, for a classic treatment of this idea of the “socially constructed” nature of reality). Rather, generations are “willed into being” as a way of giving meaning to the complex, multicausal, multidirectional, and multidimensional process of human development that we observe on a day-to-day basis, especially against the backdrop of rapidly changing societies. Adopting a social constructionist framework motivates an understanding of the various ways in which groups of individuals actively participate in the construction of social reality, including how socially constructed phenomena develop and become known to others, and how they are institutionalized with various norms and traditions. To say that generations are “social constructs,” or that generations reflect a process of “social construction,” implies that our understanding of their meanings (e.g., the “notion” of generations the specific connotations of implying one generation versus another) exists as an artifact of a shared understanding of “what” generations “are,” and that this is accepted and agreed upon by members of a society.

Moreover, and to the second core principle, the social constructionist perspective suggests that generations serve as a powerful, albeit flawed, tool for social sensemaking. Generations provide a heuristic framework that greatly simplify people’s ability to quickly and efficiently make judgments in social situations, at the risk of doing so inaccurately. In other words, generations offer an easy, yet overgeneralized, way to give meaning to observations and perceptions of complex age-related differences that we witness via social interactions. This idea is borrowed from social psychological perspectives on the development, formation, and utility of stereotypes. When faced with uncertainty, humans have a natural tendency to seek out explanations of behavior (i.e., their own, but also others’ see Kramer, 1999). This process reflects an inherent need to makes sense of one’s world through a process of sensemaking. An efficient, albeit often flawed, strategy to facilitate sensemaking is the construction and adoption of stereotypes (Hogg, 2000). Stereotypes are understood in terms of cognitive–attitudinal structures that represent overgeneralizations of others—in the form of broadly applied beliefs about attitudes, ways of thinking, behavioral tendencies, values, beliefs, et cetera (Hilton & Von Hippel, 1996).

Applying these ideas, the adoption of generations, and the accompanying prescriptions that clearly lay out how members of such generations ought to think and behave, helps people to make sense of why relatively older versus younger people “are the way that they are.” Additionally, generational stereotypes can be enacted as an external sensemaking tool, as described, but also for internal sensemaking (i.e., making sense of one’s own behavior). Indeed, there is emerging evidence that people internalize various generational stereotypes and that they enact them in accordance with behavioral expectations (i.e., a so-called Pygmalion effect, see Eschleman, King, Mast, Ornellas, & Hunter, 2016).

Third, the social constructionist perspective offers that generations are constructed and supported through different mechanisms. The construction of generations can take various forms, for example, in media accounts of “new” generations that form as a result of major events (e.g., pandemics Rudolph & Zacher, 2020a, 2020b), political epochs (e.g., “Generation Merkel” Mailliet & Saltz, 2017 “Generation Obama,” Thompson, 2012), economic instability (e.g., “Generation Recession,” Sharf, 2014), and even rather benign phenomena, such as growing up in a particular time and place (e.g., “Generation Golf,” Illies, 2003).

A major source of generational construction can be traced to various “think tank”-type groups that purport to study generations. From time to time, such groups proclaim the end of one generation and the emergence of new generational groups (e.g., Dimock, 2019). These organizations legitimize the idea of generations in that they are often otherwise trusted and respected sources of information and their messaging conveys an associated air of scientific rigor. Relatedly, authors of popular press books likewise tout the emergence of new generations. For example, Twenge has identified “iGen” (Twenge, 2017) as the group that follows “Generation Me” (Twenge, 2006), although neither label has found widespread acceptance outside of these two texts. Importantly, all generational labels, including these, exist only in a descriptive sense, and it is not always clear if the emergence of the generation precedes their label, or vice versa. For example, consider that Twenge has suggested that the term “iGen” was inspired by taking a drive through Silicon Valley, during which she concluded that “…iGen would be a great name for a generation…” (Twenge, as quoted in Horovitz, 2012), a coining mechanism far from Mannheim’s original conceptualization of what constitutes a generation.

The contemporary practice of naming new generations has its own fascinating history (see Raphelson, 2014). Indeed, the social constructionist perspective recognizes that the idea of generations is not a contemporary phenomenon there is a remarkable historical periodicity or “cycle” to their formation and to the narratives that emerge to describe members of older versus younger generations. As discussed earlier, members of older generations have tended to pan members of younger generations for being brash, egocentric, and lazy throughout history, whereas members of younger generations disparage members of older generations for being out of touch, rigid, and resource-draining (e.g., Protzko & Schooler, 2019 Rauvola et al., 2019). Likewise, the social constructionist perspective underlines that generations are supported through both the ubiquity of generational stereotypes and the socially accepted nature of applying such labels to describe people of different ages.

In summary, the social constructionist perspective offers a number of explanations for the continued existence of generations, especially in light of evidence which speaks to the contrary. Specifically, by recognizing that generations exist as social constructions, this perspective helps to clarify the continued emphasis that is placed on generations in research and practice, despite the lack of evidence that support their objective existence. Moreover, the social constructionist perspective offers a framework for guiding research into various processes that give rise to the construction of generations and for understanding the ubiquity and persistence of generations and generationally based explanations for human behavior. Next, we shift our attention to a complementary framework—the lifespan perspective—which likewise supports alternative theorizing about the role of age and the process of aging at work that does not require the adoption of generations and generational thinking. Then, we will focus on drawing lines of integration between these two perspectives.

The Lifespan Development Perspective

The lifespan development perspective is a meta-theoretical framework with a rich history of being applied for understanding age-related differences and changes in the work context (Baltes et al., 2019 Baltes & Dickson, 2001 Rudolph, 2016). More recently, the lifespan perspective has also been advanced as an alternative to generational explanations for work-related experiences and behaviors (see Rudolph et al., 2018 Rudolph & Zacher, 2017 Zacher, 2015b). Contrary to generational thinking and traditional life stage models of human development (e.g., Erikson, 1950 Levinson, Darrow, Klein, Levinson, & McKee, 1978), the lifespan perspective focuses on continuous developmental trajectories in multiple domains (Baltes, Lindenberger, & Staudinger, 1998). For instance, over time, an individual’s abilities may increase (i.e., “gains,” such as accumulated job knowledge), remain stable, or decrease (i.e., “losses,” such as reduced psychomotor abilities).

Baltes (1987) outlined seven organizing tenets to guide thinking about individual development (ontogenesis) from a lifespan perspective. Specifically, human development is (1) a lifelong process that involves (2) stability or multidirectional changes, as well as (3) both gains and losses in experience and functioning. Moreover, development is (4) modifiable at any point in life (i.e., plasticity) (5) socially, culturally, and historically embedded (i.e., contextualism) and (6) determined by normative age- and history-graded influences and non-normative influences. Regarding the final tenet, normative age-graded influences include person and contextual determinants that most people encounter as they age (e.g., decline in physical strength, retirement), normative history-graded influences include person and contextual determinants that most people living during a certain historical period and place experience (e.g., malnutrition, recessions), and non-normative influences include determinants that are idiosyncratic and less “standard” to the aging process (e.g., accidents, natural disasters). Finally, Baltes (1987) argued that (7) understanding lifespan development requires a multidisciplinary (i.e., one that goes beyond psychological science) approach. In summary, the lifespan perspective recognizes that individuals’ development is continuous, malleable, and jointly influenced by both normative and non-normative internal (i.e., those that are genetically determined specific decisions and behaviors that one engages in) and external factors (i.e., the sociocultural and historical context).

A generational researcher may ask research questions like (a) “How does generational membership influence employee attitudes, values, and behaviors?” or (b) “What differences exist between members of different generations in terms of their work attitudes, values, or behaviors?” Then, likely based on the results of a cross-sectional research design that collects information on age or birth year and work-related outcomes, a generational researcher would likely categorize employees into two or more generational groups and take mean-level differences in outcomes between these groups as evidence for the existence of generations and differences between them. Contrary to this, a lifespan researcher would be more apt to ask research questions like (a) “Are there age-related differences or changes in work attitudes, values, and behaviors?” or (b) “What factors serve to differentially modify employees’ continuous developmental trajectories?” They would seek out cross-sectional or longitudinal evidence for age-related differences or changes in attitudes, values, and behaviors, as well as evidence for multiple, co-occurring factors, including person characteristics (e.g., abilities, personality), idiosyncratic factors (e.g., job loss, health problems), and contextual factors (e.g., economic factors, organizational climate) that may predict these differences or changes.

The lifespan perspective generally does not operate with the generations concept, but does distinguish between chronological age, birth cohort, and contemporaneous period effects. As described earlier, generational groups are inevitably linked to group members’ chronological ages, as they are based on a range of adjacent birth years and typically examined at one point in time. Accordingly, tests of generational differences involve comparisons between two or more age groups (e.g., younger vs. older employees). In contrast to tenets #1, #2, and #3 of the lifespan perspective, generational thinking is static in that differences between generations are assumed to be stable over time. The possibility that members of younger generations may change with increasing age, or whether members of older generations have always shown certain attitudes, values, and behavior, are rarely investigated. Moreover, generational thinking typically adopts a simplistic view of differences between generational groups (e.g., “Generation A” has a lower work ethic than “Generation B”) as compared to the more nuanced lifespan perspective with its focus on stability or multidirectional changes, as well as the joint occurrence of both gains and losses across time.

With regard to the lifespan perspective’s tenet #4 (i.e., plasticity), generational researchers tend to treat generational groups as immutable (i.e., as they are a function of one’s birth year) and their influences as deterministic (i.e., all members of a certain generation are expected to think and act in a certain way so-called cohort determinism). In contrast, the lifespan perspective recognizes that there is plasticity, or within-person modifiability, in individual development at any age. Changes to the developmental trajectory for a given outcome can be caused by person factors (e.g., knowledge gained by long-term practice), contextual factors (e.g., organizational change), or both. For instance, lifespan researchers assume that humans enact agency over their environment and the course of their development. Development is not only a product of the context in which it takes place (e.g., culture, historical period) but also a product of individuals’ decisions and actions. This notion underlies the principle of developmental contextualism (Lerner & Busch-Rossnagel, 1981), embodied within the idea that humans are both the products and the producers of their own developmental course.

Research on generations and intergenerational exchanges originated and still is considered an important topic in the field of sociology (Mayer, 2009), which emphasizes the role of the social, institutional, cultural, and historical contexts for human development (Settersten, 2017 Tomlinson, Baird, Berg, & Cooper, 2018). In contrast, the lifespan perspective, which originated in the field of psychology, places a stronger focus on individual differences and within-person variability. Nevertheless, the lifespan perspective’s tenet #5 (i.e., contextualism) suggests that individual development is not only influenced by biological factors but also embedded within the broader sociocultural and historical context. This context includes the historical period, economic conditions, as well as education and medical systems in which development unfolds. Even critics have acknowledged that these external factors are rather well-integrated within the lifespan perspective (Dannefer, 1984). That said, most empirical lifespan research has not distinguished between birth cohort and contemporaneous period effects.

For example, studies in the lifespan tradition have suggested that there are birth cohort effects on cognitive abilities and personality characteristics (Elder & Liker, 1982 Gerstorf, Ram, Hoppmann, Willis, & Schaie, 2011 Nesselroade & Baltes, 1974 Schaie, 2013). Possible explanations for these effects may be improvements in education, health and medical care, and the increasing complexity of work and home environments (Baltes, 1987). An important difference to generational research is that these analyses focus on individual development and outcomes and not on group-based differences.

In contrast to research in the field of sociology, the lifespan perspective generally does not make use of the generations concept and associated generational labels. Instead, in addition to people’s age, lifespan research sometimes focuses on birth year cohorts (Baltes, 1968). However, the lifespan perspective does not assume that all individuals born in the same birth year automatically share certain life experiences or have similar perceptions of historical events (Kosloski, 1986). According to Baltes, Cornelius, and Nesselroade (1979), researchers interested in basic developmental processes (e.g., child developmental psychologists) that were established during humans’ genetic and cultural evolution may treat potential cohort effects as error or as transitory, historical irregularities. In contrast, other researchers (e.g., social psychologists, sociologists) may focus less on developmental regularities and treat cohort effects as systematic differences in the levels of an outcome, with or without explicitly proposing a substantive theoretical mechanism or process variable that explains these cohort differences (e.g., poverty, access to high-quality education). Empirical research on generations is typically vague with regard to concrete theoretical mechanisms of assumed generational differences (i.e., beyond the notion of “shared life events and experiences,” such as the Vietnam war, 9/11, or the COVID-19 pandemic) and typically does not operationalize and test these mechanisms.

In proposing the general developmental model, Schaie (1986) suggested decoupling the “empty variables” of birth cohort and time period from chronological age and re-conceptualizing them as more meaningful variables. Specifically, he re-defined cohort as “the total population of individuals entering the specified environment at the same point in time” and period as “historical event time,” thereby uncoupling period effects from calendar time by identifying the timing and duration of the greatest influence of important historical events (Schaie & Hertzog, 1985, p. 92). Thus, the time of entry for a cohort does not have to be birth year and can include biocultural time markers (e.g., puberty, parenthood) or societal markers (e.g., workforce entry, retirement Schaie, 1986). Similarly, the more recent motivational theory of lifespan development has discussed cohort-defining events as age-graded opportunity structures (Heckhausen, Wrosch, & Schulz, 2010). Thus, from a lifespan perspective, cohorts are re-defined as an interindividual difference variable, whereas period is re-defined as an intraindividual change variable (Schaie, 1986).

Tenet #6 of the lifespan perspective suggests that individuals have to process, react to, and act upon normative age-graded, normative history-graded, and non-normative influences that co-determine developmental outcomes (Baltes, 1987). The interplay of these three influences leads to stability and change, as well as multidimensionality and multidirectionality in individual development (Baltes, 1987). Importantly, the use of the term “normative” is understood in a statistical–descriptive sense here, not in a value-based prescriptive sense it is assumed that there are individual differences (e.g., due to gender, socioeconomic status) in the experience and effects of these influences (Baltes & Nesselroade, 1984). Moreover, the relative importance of these three influences can be assumed to change across the lifespan (Baltes, Reese, & Lipsitt, 1980). Specifically, normative age-graded influences are assumed to be more important in childhood and later adulthood than in adolescence and early adulthood (i.e., due to biological and evolutionary reasons). In contrast, normative history-graded determinants are assumed to be more important in adolescence and early adulthood than in childhood and old age (i.e., when biological and evolutionary factors are less important). Finally, non-normative influences are assumed to increase linearly in importance across the lifespan (Baltes et al., 1980 see also Rudolph & Zacher, 2017). Indeed, the assumed differential importance of these influences across the lifespan differs markedly from the cohort deterministic approach implied in generational theory and research.

According to Baltes et al. (1980), idiosyncratic life events become more important predictors of developmental outcomes with increasing age due to declines in biological and evolutionary-based genetic control over development and the increased heterogeneity and plasticity in developmental outcomes at higher ages. Despite the assumed relative strengths of these normative and non-normative influences across the lifespan, they are at no point completely irrelevant to individual development. For example, in the work context, the theoretical relevance of history-graded influences on work-related outcomes may be a factor that determines the strength of potential effects (Zacher, 2015b). For instance, experiencing a global pandemic is more likely to influence the development of individuals’ attitudes—not an entire generations’ collective attitudes—toward universal health care than it is to influence their job satisfaction. Moreover, individuals’ level of job security may not only be influenced by the pandemic but also by their profession and levels of risk tolerance.

In summary, the lifespan development perspective offers a number of alternative explanations for the role of age and the process of aging at work that do not rely in generational explanations. Specifically, by recognizing that development is a lifelong process that is affected by multiple influences, this perspective helps to clarify the complexities of development, particularly the processes that lead to inter- and intraindividual changes over time. With a clearer sense of these two alternative perspectives, we next shift our attention to outlining various points of integration between them.

How a Rebellious Scientist Uncovered the Surprising Truth About Stereotypes

At the back of a small room at Coogee Beach, Sydney, I sat watching as a psychologist I had never heard of paced the room gesticulating. His voice was loud. Over six feet tall, his presence was imposing. It was Lee Jussim. He had come to the Sydney Symposium of Social Psychology to talk about left-wing bias in social psychology.

Left-wing bias, he said, was undermining his field. Graduate students were entering the field in order to change the world rather than discover truths. 1 Because of this, he said, the field was riddled with flaky research and questionable theories.

Jussim’s talk began with one of the most egregious examples of bias in recent years. He drew the audience’s attention to the paper: “NASA faked the moon landing – therefore (climate) science is a hoax.” The study was led by Stephan Lewandowsky, and published in Psychological Science in 2013. The paper argued that those who believed that the moon landing was a hoax also believed that climate science was a fraud. The abstract stated:

We…show that endorsement of a cluster of conspiracy theories (e.g., that the CIA killed Martin-Luther King or that NASA faked the moon landing) predicts rejection of climate science as well as the rejection of other scientific findings above and beyond commitment to laissez-faire free markets. This provides confirmation of previous suggestions that conspiracist ideation contributes to the rejection of science.

After describing the study and reading the abstract, Jussim paused. Something big was coming.

“But out of 1145 participants, only ten agreed that the moon landing was a hoax!” he said. “Of the study’s participants, 97.8% who thought that climate science was a hoax, did not think that the moon landing also a hoax.”

His fellow psychologists shifted in their seats. Jussim pointed out that the level of obfuscation the authors went to, in order to disguise their actual data, was intense. Statistical techniques appeared to have been chosen that would hide the study’s true results. And it appeared that no peer reviewers, or journal editors, took the time, or went to the effort of scrutinizing the study in a way that was sufficient to identify the bold misrepresentations.

While the authors’ political motivations for publishing the paper were obvious, it was the lax attitude on behalf of peer reviewers – Jussim suggested – that was at the heart of the problems within social psychology. The field had become a community in which political values and moral aims were shared, leading to an asymmetry in which studies that reinforced left-wing narratives had come to be disproportionately represented in the literature. And this was not, to quote Stephen Colbert, because “reality had a liberal bias”. It was because social psychology had a liberal bias.

Jussim explained that within the field, those on the left outnumbered those on the right by a ratio of about 10:1. So it meant that even if left-leaning and right-leaning scientists were equal in their bias, there would be at least ten times more research biased towards validating left-wing narratives than conservative narratives. Adding in the apparent double standards in the peer review process (where studies validating left-wing narratives seemed to be easier to publish) then the bias within the field could vastly exceed the ratio of 10:1. In other words, research was becoming an exercise in groupthink.

Jussim appears to have had an anti-authoritarian streak since day one. Born in Brooklyn 1955, his family moved to Long Island when he was twelve. He lost his mother the following year from illness, and after that, he lost his father as well, although this time not from illness, but from grief. It was at this tender age that Jussim entered into a life of self-reliance. Ferociously independent, Jussim describes having little respect for, or deference to, authority figures. In high school he says he purposely made life miserable for his teachers, and later he would become an anti-war activist.

In 1975, at the age of 20, he was a university dropout. He did not return again to study until four years later, when he began undergraduate psychology, and it was not until 1986, at the age of 30, that Jussim achieved his first publication. By this stage he was already married with a baby.

Jussim may not have known at this point that he was destined to continue living a life of non-conformity. He was a reformed delinquent and anti-Vietnam war activist. He had his PhD and a publication under his belt. He had settled down. His former life of rabble rousing and trouble making was over.

Very early in his career, Jussim faced a crisis of sorts. An early mentor, Jacquelynne Eccles, handed him some large datasets gathered from school children and teachers in educational settings. He tried testing the social psychology theories he had studied, but consistently found that his data contradicted them.

Instead of finding that the teachers’ expectations influenced the students’ performances, he found that the students’ performances influenced the teachers’ expectations. This data “misbehaved”. It did not show that stereotypes created, or even had much influence on the real world. The data did not show that teachers’ expectations strongly limited students’ performances. It did not show that stereotypes became self-fulfilling prophecies. But instead of filing his results away into a desk drawer, Jussim kept investigating – for three more decades.

The Crisis in Social Psychology

Some months after Jussim’s presentation at the 2015 Sydney Symposium, the results of the Reproducibility Project in psychology were announced. This project found that out of 100 psychological studies, only about 30%-50% could be replicated.

The reproducibility project follows in the wake of a crisis that has engulfed social psychology in recent years. A slew of classic studies have never been able to be fully replicated. (Replication is a benchmark of the scientific method. If a study cannot be replicated, it suggests that the results were a fluke, and not an accurate representation of the real world).

For example, Bargh, Chen and Burrows published one of the most famous experiments of the field in 1996 3 . In it, students were divided into two groups: one group received priming with the stereotype of elderly people the other students received no priming (the control group). When the students left the experiment, those who had been primed with the stereotype of the elderly, walked down a corridor significantly more slowly than the students assigned to the control. While it has never been completely replicated, it has been cited over 3400 times. It also features in most social psychology textbooks.

Another classic study by Darley & Gross published in 1983, found that people applied a stereotype about social class when they saw a young girl taking a math test, but did not when they saw a young girl not taking a math test. 5 Two attempts at exact replication have failed. 6 And both replication attempts actually found the opposite pattern – that people apply stereotypes when they have no other information about a person, but switch them off when they do. 6

In the field of psychology, what counts as a “replication” is controversial. Researchers have not yet reached a consensus on whether a replication means that an effect of the same size was found. Or that an effect size was found within the same confidence intervals. Or whether it is an effect in the same direction. How one defines replication will likely impact whether one sees a “replication” as being successful or not. So while some of social psychology’s classic studies have not been fully replicated, there have been partial replications, and a debate still rages around what exactly constitutes one. But here’s the kicker: even in the partial replications of some of these stereotype studies, the research has been found to be riddled with p-hacking. 4 (P-hacking refers to the exploitation of researcher degrees of freedom until a desirable result is found).

When I went through university as a psychology undergraduate Jussim’s work was not on the curriculum. His studies were not to be found in my social psychology textbook. Nor was Jussim ever mentioned in the classroom. Yet the area of study Jussim has been a pioneer of – stereotype accuracy – is one of the most robust and replicable areas ever to emerge from the discipline.

To talk about stereotypes, one has to first define what they are. Stereotypes are simply beliefs about a group of people. They can be positive (children are playful) or they can be negative (bankers are selfish), or they can be somewhere in between (librarians are quiet). When stereotypes are defined as beliefs about groups of people (true or untrue), they correlate with real world criteria with effect sizes ranging from .4 to .9, with the average coming in somewhere around .8. (This is close to the highest effect size that a social science researcher can find, an effect size of 1.0 would mean that stereotypes correspond 100% to real world criteria. Many social psychological theories rest on studies which have effect sizes of around .2.)

Jussim and his co-authors have found that stereotypes accurately predict demographic criteria, academic achievement, personality and behaviour. 7 This picture becomes more complex, however, when considering nationality or political affiliation. One area of stereotyping which is consistently found to be inaccurate are the stereotypes concerning political affiliation right-wingers and left wingers tend to caricature each others personalities, most often negatively so. 7

Lest one thinks that these results paint a bleak picture of human nature, Jussim and his colleagues have also found that people tend to switch off some of their stereotypes – especially the descriptive ones – when they interact with individuals. 7 It appears that descriptive stereotypes are a crutch to lean on when we have no other information about a person. When we gain additional insights into people, these stereotypes are no longer useful. And there is now a body of evidence to suggest that stereotypes are not as fixed, unchangeable and inflexible as they’ve historically been portrayed to be. 8

A Cool Reception

Studying the accuracy of stereotypes is risky business. For many, investigation into stereotypes is tantamount to endorsing bigotry. To understand why this is the case, one has to take a long view of the discipline’s history.

Social psychology arose from the ashes of World War 2. An entire generation had to come to terms with the legacy of the war, and the study of prejudice and authoritarianism naturally captured their imaginations. Gordon Allport, a mentor of Stanley Milgram, conceptualised stereotypes in his 1954 book The Nature of Prejudice as inaccurate, pernicious and unshakeable, and influential in shaping the social world 9 . From this point onwards, this conception has largely remained unchallenged.

Reactions to Jussim’s findings about the accuracy of stereotypes have varied on the scale between lukewarm and ice cold. At Stanford this year after giving a talk, an audience member articulated a position reflected by many within his field:

“Social psychologists should not be studying whether people are accurate in perceiving groups! They should be studying how situations create disadvantage.”

Jussim has heard this position over and over again. Not just from students, but also colleagues. One might find it surprising that psychology researchers would become so invested in shutting down research they find politically unbearable. But one shouldn’t be.

It is not uncommon for social psychologists to list “the promotion of social justice” as a research topic on their CVs, or on their university homepages. One academic, John Jost at New York University, who argues that conservatism is a form of motivated cognition, runs what he calls the Social Justice Lab. Within the scientific community, the blending of science with political activism is far from being frowned upon. One only has to take a brief look at Twitter to see that scientists are often in practice of tweeting about “white privilege”, “women in STEM”, “structural disadvantage”, “affirmative action”, and “stereotypes”. For many scientists, the crusade to change the world is seen as part of one’s job description.

Jussim has weathered aloof, and at times openly hostile attitudes to his work for virtually three decades. In an email to me earlier in the year, he wrote that he felt like his work life has been lived in solitary confinement. It is possible that Jussim’s citation count – or impact factor – has been artificially suppressed. And for renegade academics such as Jussim to get published, they often must resort to sugar-coating and camouflaging their results, leaving important findings out of journal titles and abstracts.

Yet he points out that despite the hostility towards stereotype accuracy, he has been well treated by social psychology – having been given an American Psychological Association Early Career Award in 1997 – and being cited by his peers over 6000 times. Jussim also points out that while doing research that breaks taboos and undermines political narratives is hard, it is not impossible. Ultimately the scientific method wins.

It is too early to know how research into stereotypes will unfold in the future. And we do not know yet if social psychology will ever be able to achieve ideological diversity, or realistically address its left-wing bias. What is certain, however, is that despite producing work that has been unwelcome and unpopular, Lee Jussim has remained a faithful servant to the scientific method. Even in the face of great personal costs.

Claire Lehmann is the editor of Quillette. Follow her on Twitter @clairlemon

Watch the video: #2 How a Self-Fulfilling Stereotype Can Drag Down Performance (January 2022).