Can Examining Stereotypes Give Us Insight Into Our Biases?


By Catherine A. SandersonAmherst College

The first study within psychology to examine stereotypes was published in the 1930s. But it was the period after World War II that led to an increased effort to understand the factors that contributed to the Holocaust and the psychology of intergroup relations, including stereotypes and aggression. In many cases, biases operate without a person’s conscious awareness, a process known as implicit bias.

Image of a WWII concentration camp
World War II made many researchers interested in examining stereotypes. (Image: Edgar ortiz/Shutterstock)

Blue Privilege

In 1968, Jane Elliott, a teacher in a small, all-white town in Iowa, struggled with how to help her third-grade students understand the dangers of stereotypes and prejudice. She started by passing out fabric collars and asking all of the blue-eyed children to wear one. She said, “The brown-eyed people are the better people in this room. They are cleaner, and they are smarter.” 

Elliott wrote the word “melanin” on the blackboard and then explained how this chemical creates eye color, hair color, and skin color and that the more melanin, the darker the person’s eyes and the smarter the person is. She then went on to say, “Brown-eyed people have more of that chemical in their eyes, so brown-eyed people are better than those with blue eyes. Blue-eyed people sit around and do nothing. You give them something nice, and they just wreck it.”

And Elliott didn’t just describe these differences between people with blue eyes and brown eyes, she also instituted different rules and privileges in her classroom based on eye color. People with brown eyes were given a longer recess period and allowed to be first in the lunch line.

The next class day, Elliott came in and reversed the roles—the blue-eyed children were told they were superior based on a new set of “facts”, like President George Washington had blue eyes, and given special privileges. The brown-eyed children were made to wear special collars.

Two girls’ faces next to each other, one is blue-eyed, and the other is brown-eyed
Teacher Jane Elliott’s experiment with third graders examined stereotypes and how they implicitly affect behavior. (Image: Gaiteal/Shutterstock)

Examining Stereotypes in a Classroom

But what was remarkable was how quickly children learned these stereotypes each time and changed their behavior accordingly. Members of the superior group eagerly embraced their new role and seemed to delight in taunting members of the inferior group. As Elliott herself described, “I watched what had been marvelous, cooperative, wonderful, thoughtful children turn into nasty, vicious, discriminating little third-graders in a space of 15 minutes.”

Most importantly, a couple of days later, Elliott told children why she had created this exercise and made up the supposed facts about people based on eye color. She also asked them to write down what they had learned from the experience. Their responses about how it felt to experience discrimination were so powerful that they were later published in the local newspaper under the headline “How Discrimination Feels”.

This article comes directly from content in the video series Introduction to PsychologyWatch it now, on Wondrium.

Unconscious Biases All Around

Now in the case of the blue-eyed, brown-eyed demonstration, the children were deliberately given false information in order to create explicit stereotypes. People may not even be aware of the biases they hold or how those biases influence their perceptions and behavior. This is why researchers have tried to create implicit association tests in an effort to pick up on implicit biases that people aren’t consciously aware of.

Implicit or explicit, stereotypes exert subtle influences on all types of situations. Uber and Lyft drivers take longer to respond to ride requests from Black travelers than from white travelers. People receive fewer responses and lower offers when selling the exact same item on various online ad sites when it’s held by a Black hand than a white hand. 

Teachers who read about an act of student misbehavior recommend a more severe punishment for students with a Black-sounding name, such as DeShawn or Darnell than students with a white-sounding name, like Greg or Jake.

Gender is another source of stereotypes. A study published in 2012 found that both male and female faculty members consistently rate male job applicants higher on competency than female applicants, even when their resumes are identical. People also evaluate job applicants who have a name cueing older age more poorly than those cueing younger age, preferring Liam or Emily over Donald or Dorothy.

The Benefits of Having Two Moms

Children playing tug of war at a park
Children examine stereotypes and pick them up based on their surroundings. (Image: Robert Kneschke/Shutterstock)

But how do stereotypes emerge? One factor is social learning from our environment—we learn stereotypes just like we learn other attitudes—by observing those around us. My oldest child attended a very progressive preschool in the very liberal state of Massachusetts, and at the time, most of his friends happened to have two moms. 

One morning he asked me why some kids have two moms and other kids, like him, have a mom and a dad. And I answered honestly: Some kids have two moms, some kids have two dads, some kids have a mom and a dad, and what’s nice is that in all of those cases, kids have two people who love them and take care of them.

My son then looked up at me and my husband and said plaintively, “I wish I had two moms.” Because, of course, if you’re three, that seems like a pretty good deal. I was struck at the moment that his comment clearly reflected the community in which he lived in which having two moms was seen as at least as good as having a mom and a dad.

Common Questions about Examining Stereotypes and Our Biases

Q: How did teacher Jane Elliott teach third-graders about stereotypes and prejudice?

She divided the class by eye color into brown eyes and blue and told them “facts” about the people who possess each eye color. Each day she gave one group of privileges over another, such as being first in the lunch line. Finally, she explained to them that the “facts” she gave them were made up and were meant to help them examine stereotypes.

Q: How did the third-graders in Jane Elliott’s class change their behavior throughout her experiment?

As soon as some of the children became members of the privileged group, they would act toward the other group as their inferiors and seemed to enjoy taunting them. Elliott reported that the children who had been cooperative and thoughtful before the experiment became discriminating and vicious in 15 minutes.

Q: What is implicit bias?

Sometimes, people’s bias toward other certain groups isn’t something they’re completely aware of; sometimes, it’s completely unconscious. These cases are called implicit biases.

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