Cognitive Psychology and Stereotypes

This, my friends, is a short primer on a single aspect of Cognitive Psychology (in particular – schema theory) and it’s application in understanding how and why ethnic stereotypes exist. For one, please note that this is a simplistic explanation as I do not have the time to delve into this deeply in all of it’s intricacies. Additionally, while I do stress that the concept of schema is still a theory, it is an undoubtedly useful structure upon which for us to understand how individuals organize information, and engage with the world around them.

A simplistic explanation of schemata is that they are essentially structures by which we organize all the information that we have stored in our minds and how we perceive new information that we encounter. Over time, these structures essentially form shortcuts in our information processing. A very clear example of how this works is how we provide instructions for various tasks. If you ask a novice to document their work flow of a particular task it is likely to be greater in detail and more linear than those who have greater expertise. Essentially as we gain proficiency, the steps in order to perform a particular task is chunked into groups which reduces the load on our minds as we execute what we need to do.

Novice: Pumping Gas at a Gas Station
1. Line up the vehicle with the gas pump
2. Turn off engine & exit vehicle
3. Insert credit card & enter zip code
4. Select grade of fuel.
5. Open fuel door and remove gas cap
6. Insert nozzle into gas tank and being pumping gas
7. When fueling complete, replace nozzle
8. Replace gas cap and close fuel door

A. Preparation of Using the Pump
1. Line up the vehicle with the gas pump
2. Turn off engine & exit vehicle
B. Payment
1. Insert credit card
2. Enter zip code
C. Pumping Gas
1. Select grade of fuel.
2. Open fuel door and remove gas cap
3. Insert nozzle into gas tank and being pumping gas
D. Actions after fueling is completed
7. Replace nozzle.
8. Replace gas cap and close fuel door

A. Prep tasks and pay for gas
B. Pump gas
C. Get ready to leave

Such schemata are perfectly natural and absolutely necessary. Otherwise, we would never be able to accomplish anything in life just attempting to deal with the sheer number of stimuli that we are presented with every day. While schemata are helpful, studies have also shown that these schemata are unfortunately extremely difficult to change after they have been well established otherwise known as the self confirmatory bias. As humans we have a tendency of ignoring or failing to seek out knowledge that do not fit in the schemata we have developed over the years.

It is then fairly simple to apply this towards how racism develops and why it is so difficult to address. As segregation of ethnic groups due to various reasons still exists here in the United States, significant interactions between people of different ethnicities does not occur on a regular basis for many individuals. This causes race to continue to be a primary heuristic by which people often categorize others. Initially, the generalizations may be somewhat benign – “All Asians look a certain manner.” However, as negative generalizations become continually reinforced due to self confirmatory bias, this has been shown to have been extremely difficult to change. For example, a waiter may continue to believe that “all Asians do not tip” even after receiving an extremely generous tip from an Asian patron at his restaurant. With the application of schema theory, the waiter would have to had multiple Asian patrons that do not fit his existing schemata before he would even be able to entertain an alternative schema.

It is notable, that racism can also develop with no interaction of the other ethnic group as other forms of reinforcement can come from media and other sources. With this in mind, the only real effective way to address racism is continual engagement between ethnic groups so that developed schemata are continually refuted with alternative examples. As mentioned before, due to the strength of these heuristics this takes a significant amount of exposure and time to adequately even being to change. More on this later.

Author: Richard

I'll be the first to admit that I have no idea what I'm doing.

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