Stereotypes. A mini guide for the conscious user

Rebellious boys and good girls, or what are stereotypes?

Bogdan Wojciszke, a psychologist who studies social perception, defines stereotypes as “an overly generalised and simplified image of a specific social group, distinguished on the basis of an easily perceived feature (gender, race, nationality, social class, profession), usually shared by a larger group of people”[1]. This understanding of a stereotype indicates its several important properties. First, a key factor is that a person belongs to an easily identifiable social group. Stereotypes describe members of social groups, not individual people. They indicate that blondes are stupid, seniors are slow, boys are rude, girls are bad at maths, etc. So stereotypical attributes are always assigned to all members of a given group. Secondly, this definition also indicates an oversimplification of the image of a group – we can see that a given group is described as having or not having only a selected number of attributes. Third, stereotypes describe all members of a given group as identical, with the same properties. So the stereotype is that all blondes are stupid.

“Either one or the other” – the content of stereotypes

At first glance, it seems that stereotypes are diverse and attribute different properties or traits to people belonging to a given group. However, Polish research conducted by Bogdan Wojciszke and his colleagues[2], as well as foreign reports based on research by Susan Fiske and her international team[3]show that, in fact, stereotypes describe groups only in two dimensions. Wojciszke calls them community and agency, and Fiske – warmth and competence. For example, research conducted in many countries shows that wealthy people are perceived as intelligent and entrepreneurial, but at the same time as rude and unkind. On the other hand, the elderly are perceived as sympathetic, nice, warm, but also as not very intelligent or not very entrepreneurial. It turns out that the following rule works in the perception of others: “Either one or the other”. A group can be perceived by others as either warm or competent, it cannot be both warm and competent at the same time.

Benevolent and hostile sexism

Stereotypes play an important role in how we perceive others. Understanding the fact that stereotypes are based on the above-described two dimensions of social perception makes it possible to predict the consequences of stereotypical opinions. If we look at others through the lens of a stereotype, it is very important whether we perceive members of a given group as cold or as incompetent. Members of groups perceived as warm and incompetent often arouse compassion and pity, but are also treated with disrespect. This is how housewives are perceived. Thus, in the perception of this group, “benevolent sexism” is often involved, which consists in treating women in a condescending or paternalistic way. It's because of this type of sexism that a woman cannot assemble furniture on her own, because it's not a “female job” and “she could break a nail”. “Benevolent sexism” is especially disadvantageous in learning situations, as it limits the ability of women to enter male-dominated activities. A typical manifestation of benevolent sexism is giving women much easier tasks and helping them in dealing with more difficult issues or projects.

“Hostile sexism” is a common attitude towards competent women, for example holding high managerial positions. They are seen as competent but cold. Negative attitudes towards this group are then expressed openly, in the form of unpleasant comments “bitch-boss”, but also sabotaging activities and making work difficult: “No woman is going tell me what I should do”.

Stereotypes can make it difficult for the observer to adequately see the members of a given group. If someone has a negative stereotype of girls as bad at maths, then they will remember the situations in which a girl didn't cope with mathematical problems better. They will not, however, notice her successes in this area. Even if a girl is good at solving a difficult maths problem, they will attribute it to a stroke of luck rather than to her competence. They will rate a girl's chances of success in mathematics competitions lower, they won't encourage her to study mathematics, “because it's such a difficult field and why would you bother your pretty little head with such things” (this is a manifestation of benevolent sexism). They may even openly and maliciously comment on actions, saying that “girls are stupid and only good at cooking” (a manifestation of hostile sexism). The consequence of such actions may be the girl's resignation from dealing with mathematics, despite her abilities in this field.

A vicious circle of stereotypes

Stereotyping in the perception of others is not the only effect of stereotypical opinions. We can also look at ourselves through the lens of stereotypes. “Stereotype threat” consists in the fact that when a person is reminded of a stereotype about a group that is important to them, they begin to behave in accordance with the framework set by this stereotype, e.g. when university students are reminded of the stereotype of a woman as not very talented in science, the effect is that they perform worse in mathematics. When the stereotype is not evoked, female students solve just as many tasks as their male colleagues, because women don't feel afraid that they will confirm the stereotype. A manifestation of the stereotype threat may be automatic thoughts, such as “I'm an idiot”, which appear in the minds of women driving a car in the face of a difficult road situation. Researchers believe that this mechanism perpetuates stereotypical opinions. The observer who sees that a girl has difficulty solving maths problems or reacts nervously on the road, finds confirmation in the opinion that women are bad at science or are poor drivers. The vicious circle of stereotypes closes.

Stereotypes as a side effect of a “miserly” mind

Where do stereotypes come from? One hypothesis is that stereotypes are a by-product of the activity of the human mind. Although it was initially believed that humans use logical thinking and draw conclusions, reports from psychologists show a more complex nature of our thinking[4]. Currently, it is said that humans are cognitive misers, and therefore follow the principle of economics in the process of information processing. It should be quick, easy and without unnecessary costs. So, it turns out that logical thinking, careful consideration of various options when making decisions, is rather rare. People use “shortcuts” in thinking much more often: heuristics, i.e. simplified methods of inference that may result in certain inaccuracies in the conclusions drawn. An example of this is the availability heuristic. It shapes our judgements in such a way that events that are better remembered, for example, those publicised in the media, are perceived as more frequent and shape our opinions to a greater extent. It's probably for this reason that a large group of people are afraid to fly, because plane crashes are more pronounced than car accidents.

Categorisation as the first step to stereotyping

So, what mechanisms lead to stereotyping? The first step is categorisation, i.e. assigning a person to a specific group. This process is fast, automatic, and already occurs in infancy. Then information about the attributes of the members of the group must appear in one's mind, indicating, for example, that women are stupider than men. This process is called stereotype activation, and it also happens automatically. If we know a stereotype, we cannot stop this process: when we see a woman behind the wheel, without thinking, the thought will appear in our head: “Oh dear, she drives like a woman”. So, do we have no influence on whether stereotypes will distort our image of other people? How can we deal with stereotypes if they work in an automatic way?

Mindfulness as a tool in the fight against stereotypes

Paradoxically, psychologists show that the most important thing is to pay attention to emerging stereotypical thoughts. Because, if we try not to think about them, they will appear with redoubled force. Anyone who has tried not to think about food when hungry knows this. If we notice that a stereotypical opinion has appeared in our head, we may consciously deny it. Conscious, careful attention to stereotypical content is usually enough to avoid stereotyping others and yourself. Knowledge of this automatic mechanism is an important safeguard against the use of stereotypes.

Researchers show that it's not easy to consciously, intentionally notice stereotypical content in your own mind. Stereotypes can camouflage themselves quite well. Therefore, it's worth looking closely and remembering that each of us has a head full of different stereotypes, because they are passed on in the process of education and through cultural content. Stereotypes can also reveal themselves subtly in behaviour towards people belonging to stereotyped groups. Research has shown that a negative stereotype may also manifest itself in the fact that we stand further away from a person belonging to the negatively stereotyped group or we shake hands slower when greeting them. With the awareness that we are “equipped with” these kinds of clichés we can free ourselves from them.

It's worth remembering that stereotypes are “imprinted” in each of our minds. We learn them so early in our upbringing that they take a permanent place in our mind. What's worse, our mind tends to use them as a convenient and quick tool for judging others. And stereotypes affect us as well. When stereotypical content about our own group appears in our minds, we automatically start behaving in the way that the stereotype indicates, and so we confirm it. So, we should try to carefully observe our minds in order to correct over-generalised and therefore often wrong stereotypical opinions. It takes cognitive effort, but can be of great benefit.


[1] Wojciszke B., Procesy oceniania ludzi (Processes of Assessing People), Nakom Publishing House, Poznań 1991, p. 180.

[2] Wojciszke B., Sprawczość i wspólnotowość. Podstawowe wymiary spostrzegania społecznego (Agency and Communion. Basic Dimensions of Social Perception), GWP Publishing House, Gdańsk 2010.

[3] Fiske S. T., Cuddy A. J., Glick P., & Xu J. A model of (often mixed) stereotype content: Competence and warmth respectively follow from perceived status and competition. Social cognition, Routledge 2002, pp. 171-222.

[4] Kahneman D., Pułapki myślenia. O myśleniu szybkim i wolnym (Thinking, Fast and Slow), trans. P. Szymczak, Media Rodzina, Poznań 2012.


Sylwia Bedyńska

Sylwia Bedyńska, PhD

Psychologist, methodologist and statistician, lecturer at the University of Social Sciences and Humanities in Warsaw. A specialist who studies the importance of stereotypes for the effectiveness of learning and solving difficult cognitive tests, as well as for school burnout and student motivation. For years she has been teaching statistics to humanists. She is also interested in statistical methods and psychological research methodology – she is a co-editor of the three-volume academic textbook “Statistical guideline”, and the author of a series of articles popularising statistical and methodological knowledge.



  • In the course of upbringing each of us learns stereotypes about different groups, including our own groups, i.e. those to which we belong.
  • Stereotypes prevent us from seeing ourselves and others adequately.
  • Denying stereotypes only strengthens them.
  • Knowing and thinking about stereotypes can help us stop using them.
  • If a stereotype pops up in your head, you don't need to use it to judge others or yourself.
  • We should be careful. If we notice that a stereotypical opinion has appeared in our head, we may consciously deny it.