The Dark Side of Social Cognition:
The Availability Heuristic, Self-Fulfilling Prophecies, and Expectancy-Congruent Memory in Relation to Social Stereotyping
Throughout history, the topic of how we think about others has been the subject of much attention by psychologists, philosophers, theologians, historians, and laypeople alike. Despite our best efforts in recent decades to create a diverse, egalitarian society, stereotypes still haunt every corner of American life. Though many theories and explanations exist, a common consensus in the realm of psychology is that cognitive processes lie at the root of this ubiquitous conundrum. These processes are often automatic, nonconscious, and even unreflective of our true beliefs (Chen & Bargh, 1997). In this paper, I will discuss three such cognitive processes—the availability heuristic, self-fulfilling prophecies, and expectancy-congruent memory—in terms of how they relate to social stereotyping. By understanding these processes, we may be able to gain more headway in reducing and even overcoming social stigma altogether. The Availability Heuristic
Heuristics, often referred to as “rules of thumb,” are shortcuts used to arrive at a satisfactory, albeit not always accurate, decisions or judgments (Kunda, 1999). One such guide, the availability heuristic, judges the likelihood of certain occurrences or behaviors based on the ease with which we can bring examples to mind (Myers, 2008). If an instance is particularly simple to conjure up a mental representation of, we often assume it to be commonplace. This can serve us well as, many times, we tend to recall information that actually is frequently occurring. For example, when one is told to think about a politician we frequently imagine a man, which is fitting as the proportion of male politicians is significantly higher than that of their female counterparts (Kunda, 1999). Biases and Visual Cues
The availability heuristic, however, yields rather unfortunate consequences. Flipping through television channels, we see endless examples of the media focusing in on things that stick out as unusual in everyday life. For instance, we are much less likely to hear a news report about a ninety-year-old man who has suffered from a heart attack than a twenty-year-old. Likewise, attention is more often paid to negative, stereotype-confirming exemplars, such as the violent African-American drug-dealer. The fact that the media makes examples such as these more salient in the minds of the general populous leads to an extreme availability bias that can become detrimental to the quality of social interaction with individuals of stigmatized groups. Aside from the omnipresent impact of the media on American society, certain other factors encourage utilization of the availability heuristic. For one, we consistently overestimate our abilities to successfully and accurately analyze samples from which data is drawn in everyday circumstances (Kunda, 1999). Our insubstantial statistical skills involve an inability to notice biases in groups or situations. These biases can include such presences as one’s own interests (Kunda, 1999). For example, an avid bicycler is more likely to notice other bicyclers and, thus, overestimate their commonality than an individual who does not share this hobby. Visual cues are also a major determinant of the salience of certain traits and behaviors. Stigmatized groups tend to stick out in many situations for two reasons: they are typically physically different in some way—gender, skin color, etc.—and there are simply a smaller proportion of them, relative to the general population (Kunda, 1999; Snyder, Tanke, & Berscheid, 1977). An only African-American in a room full of Caucasians will surely be the subject of much attention since the eye is literally drawn to them (Kunda, 1999). Therefore, stereotypical traits will be activated by the solo group member’s mere physical...
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