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A stereotype is defined as a shared belief about a characteristic of a group and its members (Sutton & Douglas, 2013), while prejudice relates to the judgements made in advance of meeting or with little information on the 'other' (Dickerson, 2011).

The 'Princeton trilogy' of studies (Karlins et al., 1969; Gilbert, 1951; Katz & Braly, 1933) each investigated stereotypes of different nationalities at a given time point. Their findings are shown in Table 7.1. Taken together, their findings indicate that stereotypes can shift over time.

Overview of the findings of the Princeton trilogy of research

  1933 1951 1969
Americans Industrious, intelligent Materialistic, intelligent Materialistic, ambitious
Japanese Industrious, intelligent Imitative, sly Ambitious, materialistic
Jews Shrewd, mercenary Shrewd, intelligent Ambitious, materialistic
Black people Lazy, superstitious Musical, superstitious Musical, happy-go-lucky
English Sportsmanlike, intelligent Tradition-loving, reserved Conservative, sophisticated

Stereotypes are informed and shaped by the people around us: the societies, communities and families we are part of and the media we engage with (Walkerdine & Blackman, 2000). It has been suggested that the reason we have stereotypes is because humans are 'cognitive misers' (Fiske & Taylor, 1991). Using stereotypes gives us a 'shortcut' to make decisions about people without having to put much thought or effort into those decisions. While stereotypes can reduce cognitive effort, they can also be inaccurate, so of course E/HF practitioners need to be conscious of any bias that stereotypes might induce and the risk of prejudice that could result.

In 1961, Muzafer Sherif undertook the 'Robbers Cave studies', in which 22 white 11-year-old boys were sent to a special remote summer camp in Robbers Cave State Park. They were split into two groups, and the boys developed an attachment to their groups throughout the first week of the camp by doing various activities together. They chose names for their groups: The Eagles and The Rattlers.

Following the initial group bonding, a four-day series of competitions between the groups was undertaken, and prejudice began to become apparent. After these activities, the boys listed the features of the two groups. It was found that the boys tended to characterise their own group in very favourable terms and the other group in very unfavourable terms.

Sherif subsequently attempted to reduce the prejudice, or intergroup conflict, between the two groups, but he realised that simply increasing the contact between the two groups actually seemed to make things worse. However, when making the groups work together to reach common goals, the tension and prejudice seemed to ease.

Sherif took the experiment to confirm 'realistic conflict theory' - the idea that group conflict can result from competition over resources.

In-group versus out-group

The in-group is a group that an individual identifies with as a member, whereas the out-group is a group that an individual does not identify as belonging to (as with The Eagles and The Rattlers in the Robbers Cave studies).

Groups can be peers, families, communities, sports teams, political parties, genders, religions, nations or specific interest groups. Tajfel (1970) devised the term as part of his work on social identity theory - a person's sense of who they are based on their group memberships.

The central hypothesis of social identity theory is that the members of an in-group will find negative aspects of an out-group in order to enhance their self-image. Tajfel et al. (1971) found that people can form in-groups within minutes and that these groups can be formed on arbitrary and invented discriminatory characteristics.

Those perceived as being within the in-group are preferred, and those perceived as being in the out-group are discriminated against or derogated. In-group vs. out-group bias has been found to be positive for self-esteem (Verkuyten, 2002). This is not without problems, of course. When we put things (and people) into a category, it can distort how we think about those categories and the people within them (known as 'category accentuation') (Tajfel & Wilkes, 1963).

In Zimbardo et al.'s (1971) famous Stanford prison experiment, 24 male college students (all deemed mature and physically and mentally stable) from all over the USA and Canada were arbitrarily divided into two subgroups by a flip of the coin. Half were randomly assigned to be guards, the others to be prisoners. At any one time, there were three guards and nine prisoners within the constructed 'prison' in the basement of Stanford University. Within hours of the experiment starting, some guards began to harass prisoners. They behaved in a brutal and sadistic manner, apparently enjoying it.

Other guards joined in, and other prisoners were also tormented. The prisoners were taunted with insults and petty orders, given pointless and boring tasks to accomplish, and generally dehumanised. The prisoners talked about prison issues frequently, they 'told tales' on each other to the guards and they started taking the prison rules very seriously.

Over the following days, the relationships between the guards and the prisoners changed, and as the prisoners became more dependent, the guards became more derisive towards them, and the prisoners became more submissive. The increase in submission led to the guards becoming more aggressive and assertive. One prisoner had to be released as after just 36 hours, his thinking had become disorganised and he was showing signs of emotional distress.

The experiment was designed to run for a fortnight but was stopped after six days, by which time other participants had been removed after showing signs of emotional disorders.

The study has been widely cited as a case study in conformity to social roles (either prisoner or guard). Zimbardo et al. (1971) argued for a situational hypothesis: that behaviour is not determined by innate characteristics but by the social context. However, it has been shown that the guards were actually given considerable guidance in how they should behave towards the prisoners: abuse of prisoners was often suggested and was not condemned by the prison superintendent (Zimbardo himself).

Le Texier (2019) further evaluated the raw data and information available from the Stanford archives and found that a similar experiment had previously been conducted during one of Zimbardo's classes. The guards were given precise instructions on how to treat prisoners, and participants were almost never fully immersed in the situation.