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Steven Stroessner
Professor (Barnard College)

General Area of Research

Social cognition; Cognitive, affective & motivational factors in stereotyping and prejudice

Current Research

Stereotypicality and Social Categorization

In our lab, we have been developing an indirect measure of gender categorization. The question of which categories are used to label individuals in intergroup encounters has long been of interest in social psychology. To date, however, experimenters have assumed that social categorization was reflected in stereotype use. More recent research, however, suggests that stereotype activation and application are theoretically and empirically distinguishable (i.e., stereotypes might be made accessible through social categorization that are not used to judge groups or their members) and that categorization effects can occur automatically or implicitly. Because social categorization can occur without awareness or subsequent stereotype use, it is important to develop methods to identify categorization processes that do not rely on self-report or stereotype use.

We have developed a method called the Indirect Category Accessibility Task (I-CAT) that measures gender category activation without reliance on self-report. Moreover, the method has been useful for examining the impact of stereotypicality of behavior on categorization processes. In the I-CAT, participants are exposed to a number of pictures and are told that pictures come from two categories (typically, we call these “Category A” and “Category B”). In our studies, a picture is a member of one category if a woman is present anywhere in the image and is a member of the other category if no woman is present (e.g., if it is an inanimate object or a picture containing only men). After being shown each picture, participants indicate whether the picture comes from Category A or B, and they are given feedback after trial. Eventually, most participants learn the categories (i.e., they respond correctly on 10 consecutive trials) and we ask them to report the feature that distinguished A from B. We have varied the stereotypicality of the women’s behavior across conditions. In one condition, women perform strongly stereotypic behavior (e.g., they engage in helpful, nurturing, or prosocial behavior or occupy traditional female roles). In a second condition, they exhibit behavior irrelevant to gender stereotypes (e.g., they are reading a newspaper or going for a walk). In a third condition, they exhibit strongly counterstereotypic behavior (e.g., they engage in agentic behavior or occupy nontraditional female roles).

In two experiments, we have found that the stereotypicality of behavior affects gender category accessibility as reflected on two measures. First, participants are most likely to learn to criterion (i.e., report 10 sequential correct responses) in the stereotypical and counterstereotypical conditions. When behavior was neutral, significantly fewer participants ever learned that female gender distinguished the categories. Second, for those who learned that gender was the distinguishing feature, it took them fewer trials to do so when behavior was stereotypical or counterstereotypical.

These findings suggest that the I-CAT is a valid measure of gender category accessibility and, presumably, of other categories if modified appropriately. As such, it is a useful tool for identifying considering the conditions under which stereotype-related beliefs about groups are likely to be accessible in memory. The moderation of accessibility by stereotypicality of behavior is also informative about the conditions under which stereotype change is possible. If categories are not accessible during interactions with group members (such as when group members perform stereotype-irrelevant behavior), then stereotype change will be difficult.

This year, we learned that accessibility is moderated by stereotype strength (i.e., belief in the truth of stereotypes) in complex ways. Specifically, we found that implicit gender stereotype strength was positively correlated with the accessibility of gender when individuals viewed females performed gender-neutral behavior. In other words, when women were performing behavior unrelated to gender stereotypes, individuals who believe traditional stereotypes to be true were more quick to learn a rule based on gender. The opposite occurred when the women were performing stereotype-consistent or stereotype-inconsistent behavior. In those cases, individuals with strong stereotypes were slower to learn the gender-based rule. We will be testing our interpretation of this different pattern of findings during the coming year.

Threat, Vigilance, & Stereotyping

A second line of research pertains to the relationship between perceived threat and stereotype endorsement. We have been developing and testing a model of stereotype use under conditions of perceived threat. Following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, there were numerous reports of increased racial profiling of Arab-Americans, violence directed against members of groups miscategorized as Arab (e.g., Sikhs and Indians), and an increased willingness to accept restrictions in civil rights as a means to protect against future attacks. Although numerous psychological variables might be invoked to explain these effects (e.g., research on the relations between anxiety or loss of control on stereotyping), there lacked a general theoretical framework for understanding these multiple affects that might flow from perceived threat.

One framework that seemed appropriate for understanding behavior under threat was Higgin’s (1997, 2000) Regulatory Focus Theory. According to this theory, two systems for self-regulation co-exist within individuals. One system is called the “promotion” system and the other is the “prevention” system. Whereas the promotion system is concerned with gain vs. non-gain, the prevention system is concerned with loss vs. non-loss. Any goal (e.g., passing an exam) can be framed in terms of either promotion or prevention. In terms of a promotion-framed goal, success is experienced as achieving a desired endstate (e.g., “I Aced it!”) and failure is experienced as a failure to achieve a desired goal (e.g., “I failed to do well”). In terms of a prevention-framed goal, success is viewed as the avoidance of an undesired endstate (“Thank goodness I didn’t fail!”) and failure is experienced when does not avoid an undesired endstate (“Oh no, I bombed it!”). Promotion and prevention systems differ in terms of affective responses to success (elation vs. relief, respectively) and failure (dejection vs. anxiety, respectively) and also in terms of the means by which people go about trying to obtain goal (through eagerness and generative strategies vs. thoroughness strategies).

Given that the terrorist attacks would likely induce a prevention focus (i.e., a failure to prevent an undesired endstate produced feelings of anxiety and fear), it is interesting to assess how Regulatory Focus Theory would account for the negative consequences of the attack on intergroup perceptions and relations. In fact, the theory in its present form predicts that individuals under prevention should show caution in information processing. Specifically, individuals in prevention should show and have experimentally demonstrated a reluctance to leap to conclusions and a tendency to guard against “errors of commission.” Thus, stereotype use should be low among individuals in a prevention focus.

What the theory currently does not consider is the nature of the information that is processed. Previous demonstrations of a reluctance to leap to conclusions under prevention have involved benign information such as neutral stimuli. We theorized that a prevention focus combined with negative or threat-related information in the environment would change the typical information-processing strategies associated with the regulatory state. The reason it should change information processing from thoroughness to eagerness under threat is that a failure to detect threats would pose a direct challenge to the activated state. In other words, maintaining security when there is a threat in the environment requires an active rather than passive form of vigilant behavior.

We have now conducted three studies with support from the grant showing that the “typical” information processing styles with the regulatory foci are reversed when the available information is negative rather than benign. Specifically, we have shown within a recognition-memory paradigm that judgments under uncertainty by individuals in a prevention focus tend to be more “risky” (i.e., reflect a larger number of errors of commission) when the stimuli are negative than when they are neutral or positive. We are planning to conduct studies to test whether prevention focus i) increases reliance on stereotypes, and particularly stereotypes relevant to threat, ii) leads to a bias to categorize ambiguous stimuli as belonging to threat-related categories, iii) tends to increase the riskiness of decisions when individuals frame their current state as one of loss, and iv) increase willingness of individuals to tolerate restrictions of rights that are associated with preserving safety and security.

This theoretical modification of Regulatory Focus Theory has important implications for the theory itself and for understanding behavior and judgments under perceived threat. In particular, an account of stereotype use that is based in Regulatory Focus Theory holds the promise of accounting for phenomena that currently are difficult to explain and might serve as a basis for numerous novel hypotheses about intergroup relations.

Relevant Publications

Sherman, J. W., Stroessner, S. J., Conrey, F. R., & Azam, O. (in press). Prejudice and Stereotype Maintenance Processes: Attention, Attribution, and Individuation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

Stroessner, S. J., Mackie, D. M., & Michalsen, V. (2005). Positive mood and the perception of variability within and between groups. Group Processes and Intergroup Relations, 8, 5-25.

Plaks, J. E., Levy, S. R., Dweck, C. S., & Stroessner, S. J. (2004). In the eye of the beholder: Implicit theories and the perception of group variability, entitativity, and essence. In V. Yzerbyt, O.Corneille, & C. Judd (Eds.), The Psychology of Group Perception: Contributions to the Study of Homogeneity, Entititavity, and Essentialism (pp. 127-146). New York: Psychology Press.

Plaks, J. E., Stroessner, S. J., Dweck, C. S., & Sherman, J. W. (2001). Person theories and information-seeking: Preferences for stereotypic vs. counterstereotypic information. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 80, 876-893.

Stroessner, S. J., & Plaks, J. E. (2001). Illusory correlation and stereotype formation: Tracing the arc of research over a quarter century. In G. B. Moskovitz (Ed.), Cognitive social psychology: The Princeton Symposium on the legacy and future of social cognition (pp. 247-259). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Wyer, N. A., Sherman, J. W., & Stroessner, S. J. (2000). The roles of motivation and ability in controlling the consequences of stereotype suppression. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 26, 13-25.

Levy, S. R., Stroessner, S. J., & Dweck C. S (1998). Stereotype formation and endorsement: The Role of implicit theories. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 74, 1421-1436.

Stroessner, S. J. (1998). Varieties of inhibition in social stereotyping. In R. S. Wyer, Jr., (Ed.), Advances in social cognition, Vol. 11 (pp. 211-226). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Wyer, N. A., Sherman, J. W., & Stroessner, S. J. (1998). The spontaneous suppression of racial stereotypes. Social Cognition, 16, 340-352.

Sherman, J. W., Stroessner, S. J., Loftus, S. T., & DeGuzman, G. (1997). Stereotype suppression and recognition memory for stereotypical and non-stereotypical information. Social Cognition, 15, 205-215.

Stroessner, S. J. (1996). Social categorization by race or sex: Effects of perceived non-normalcy on response times. Social Cognition, 14, 247-276.

Stroessner, S. J., & Heuer, L. B. (1996). Cognitive bias in procedural justice: Formation and implications of illusory correlations in perceived intergroup fairness. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 71, 717-728.

 Mackie, D. M., Queller, S., Stroessner, S. J., & Hamilton, D. L. (1996). Making stereotypes better or worse: Multiple roles for positive affect in group impressions. In R. M. Sorrentino and E. T. Higgins (Eds.), Handbook of motivation and cognition, Volume 3 (pp. 371-396). New York: Guilford Press.

Queller, S., Mackie, D.M., & Stroessner, S. J. (1996). Ameliorating some negative effects of positive mood: Encouraging happy people to perceive intragroup variability. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 32, 361-386.

Courses Frequently Taught

  • Psychology of Stereotyping and Prejudice
  • Statistics
  • Social Psychology
  • Social Psychology Laboratory
  • The Social Self

Steven Stroessner Photo

Columbia University
Psychology Dept.
415D Milbk
3009 Broadway
New York, NY 10027

Phone: 212-854-8272

Last modified: May 3, 2011 3:43:07 PM EDT