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Stereotypes and prejudices

“Women are gentle and motherly, so it's normal for them to stay home to take care of the children.”


We regularly need to form an opinion on the people around us. This opinion is often based on stereotypes, that is, a set of beliefs about the typical characteristics of the members of a social group (e.g. women, Americans, accountants). This belief system is at the same time simplistic, reductive and very widespread in given contexts [1]. When the content of stereotypes is negative - especially when directed at a social group other than one’s own - it is typically accompanied by prejudice. Prejudices are negative attitudes towards members of a social group, and reflect a rigid, generalized, and unjustifiable emotional response: we experience these negative emotions regardless of the situation and the person [2]. These biases are the object of numerous studies, and are present in the general population, even if the content of stereotypes and prejudices vary from one social group to another [3].


These cognitive and affective shortcuts are omnipresent. The comic element of many jokes, such as "Heaven is where the French are the cooks, the Italians are the lovers, the English are the policemen, the Germans are the mechanics, and everything is organized by the Swiss” is based on stereotypes of these social groups. On a darker note, the “isms” that plague our societies (e.g. sexism, racism, anti-Semitism, etc.) are manifestations of prejudice against various social groups.


The world around us is extremely complex. This prompts us to use tools to simplify the excess of information that constantly bombards us, in order to preserve our cognitive resources. Stereotypes are cognitive tools that meet this need and make our social environment simpler, more comprehensible and predictable. In other words, we use stereotypes because it is less mentally tiring to use these tools than it is to deal with all the nuances that distinguish people. This form of "cognitive avarice" [4] is thought to help maintain stereotypes. Thus, stereotypes would push us to interpret an "atypical" case as an exception to the rule and rationalize it for all kinds of external reasons, rather than causing us to alter our stereotypes. Stereotypes and prejudices are also conveyed by the cultural products that surround us, such as the media, advertisements, toys, etc. For example, many children's books propagate gender stereotypes by portraying women as passive, dependent, and generally incapable, and men as active, independent, and generally competent.


Sharing stereotypes during social interactions helps make these interactions more fluid and would help us feel closer to people who share these stereotypes. Apart from this “social glue” effect, stereotypes and prejudices generally have negative effects. They shape and oversimplify our perception of reality, predisposing us to negative behaviours towards members of certain social groups. In other words, stereotypes and prejudices can easily lead to discrimination. These biases also lead us to rationalize the existing social order (e.g. the bias that Indigenous people are violent leads us to believe that it is normal that they are over-represented in the prison population). Taken further, these mechanisms of discrimination and rationalization can lead to the dehumanization of members of certain social groups, a mechanism commonly used to justify genocide. Stereotypes can also lead to a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy, via the "stereotype threat" effect [5]. Members of a stereotypical group are afraid to uphold the stereotype (e.g. girls are bad at math), and the insecurity this generates impairs their performance. This effect could contribute to inequalities observed between certain social groups.

Thoughts on how to act in light of this bias

  • Be aware of our tendency to use stereotypes and prejudices to form an opinion about a person.

  • Come into direct contact with members of the social group towards which we maintain stereotypes and prejudices.

  • When giving information about a person, do not stick to social labels often associated with stereotypes (e.g. he is Chinese); add information unrelated to stereotypes (e.g. has marketing experience).

How is this bias measured?

Researchers often measure prejudices and stereotypes explicitly, through self-report questionnaires. For example, the "Feeling Thermometer" is commonly used to measure prejudice: it measures the extent to which warm and positive or cold and negative feelings are entertained towards members of a social group. In the case of stereotypes, it is common to present a list of traits (e.g. polite, lazy) to participants, who should indicate how well each attribute characterizes a target social group. Implicit measures are another set of tools, including physiological measurements such as facial electromyography or tests such as the "Implicit Association Test". In the latter, we typically infer a person's prejudices from their reaction time to certain tasks (e.g. associating a picture with a word) carried out under different conditions.

This bias is discussed in the scientific literature:


This bias has social or individual repercussions:


This bias is empirically demonstrated:



[1] Tajfel, Henri (2001). Social stereotypes and social groups. In M. A. Hogg & D. Abrams (Eds.), Key readings in social psychology. Intergroup relations: Essential readings (p. 132–145). Psychology Press.

[2] Allport, Gordon (1954). The nature of prejudice. Addison-Wesley.

[3] Fiske, Susan T., Amy J. Cuddy, Peter Glick & Jun Xu (2002). A model of (often mixed) stereotype content: competence and warmth respectively follow from perceived status and competition. Journal of personality and social psychology, 82(6), 878.

[4] Fiske, Susan T. & Shelley E. Taylor (1984) Social cognition. Random House.

[5] Spencer, Steven J., Christine Logel & Paul G. Davies (2016). Stereotype threat. Annual Review of Psychology, 67(1) : 415-437.


Intergroup level, Representativeness heuristic, Need for cognitive closure, Need for social belonging

Related biases


Marina M. Doucerain is Assistant Professor in Social and Cultural Psychology at the Université du Québec à Montréal, QC, Canada, where she directs the Culture Identity and Language research laboratory ( His research focuses on the social mechanisms - social interactions and social networks in particular - that help people function well in a new social or cultural group. She focuses mainly on the changes people with an immigrant background experience when they settle in a new society, with the deep conviction that it will be easier to help people to face these changes if they are better understood.

Translated from French to English by Susan D. Renaud.

How to cite this entry

Doucerain, Marina M. (2020). Stereotypes and prejudices, trans. S. D. Renaud. In E. Gagnon-St-Pierre, C. Gratton & E. Muszynski (Eds). Shortcuts: A handy guide to cognitive biases Vol. 2. Online:

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