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Impact of Categorization on Our perception of Reality

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Psychology
Wordcount: 2293 words Published: 8th Feb 2020

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Categorization stands accused of leading us to perceive something other than reality, or generating efficient but inaccurate interpretations of social life. Discuss

Whenever we see, speak to, or think of someone, we unconsciously place them into groups and categories, making the placement decisions based on what we know about the individual’s characteristics. This process was coined as social categorization; occurring, for example, every time we think of someone as a man or a woman, a young person or an elderly person, amongst many others (Allport, 1954). When speaking to an elderly person, we subconsciously begin to speak slower, we stop using slang and colloquial language. We think of them as a member of the group we have placed them into, rather than as the individual they are, and we activate our knowledge from previous experiences for how we should behave.

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Social categorization can be beneficial, by placing individuals in groups we can adjust our behaviour and process social information faster, for an improved interaction, (Trepte, 2017). Primary school teachers, as an example, automatically categorize a student as a child and a parent as an adult and will use different tone and vocabulary when addressing each one. Speaking to the parent the same way as the child can be patronising and belittling, speaking to the child the same way as an adult can be ineffective and confusing for the child.

However, social categorization automatically implements stereotypical attitudes towards the groups we place individuals into. We create a perception of society and its groups that is inaccurate, and strays from the reality we experience. Devine’s 1989 study, which applied multiple approaches to help understand how stereotype activation occurs in individuals of high and low prejudice, found that stereotypical behaviour evaluation is automatic (Devine, 1989). This essay will discuss evidence supporting the claim that categorization results in a perception of society and social life that is inaccurate and strays from the reality we experience. It will look into why we produce stereotypical prejudice when evidence suggest we are able to inhibit the automatically activated stereotypes and replace with thoughts reflecting equality (Devine, 1989).

Whilst social categorization and stereotypical prejudice are automatic cognitive actions, the information that has created those stereotypical attitudes and views has a source. In modern society, it is most often the media that contributes to our views on social and racial groups. Media holds a key role in producing images and messages that can either positively or negatively reflect a group (Appiah, 2013). Most contemporary issue arising is the media portrayal of African American men as dangerous and criminal (Oliver, 2013). An array of factors contribute to priming thoughts of danger; age, dress and gender are key. However, with the frequency of black men being targeted by police aggression, it is evident that race is at the forefront of falsely assumed danger and crime (Oliver, 2013).

Mistaken identification of individuals as dangerous based on race is not limited to members of the police force, and situations of doubt manifest themselves in day to day circumstances. Shop workers will pay closer attention to African American male customers, targeted as potential shoplifters (Oliver, 2013). Staples (1992) comments on how he was not seen as the individual he was. Studying at a prominent American university, rather than being seen as an individual, a student, he fell victim of social categorization; “I was indistinguishable from the muggers who occasionally seeped into the area from the surrounding ghetto” (Staples, 1992). Entman (1990) in his research of new coverage in Chicago, found 41% of new stories featuring African Americans in one week pertained to crime.  In 1992, Entman’s findings focused on the imagery and portrayal of the suspects. Research showed that news stories featuring white suspects often used a singular headshot, whereas those featuring black suspects showed the individual restrained by police, handcuffed and poorly dressed. In portrayal of individuals, reports often failed to include the name of the defendant, implying a greater criminalization of the African American community, rather than the singular arrested individual. (Entman, 1992).

The way in which media presents a story directly impacts the way we perceive the information. The information we are exposed to is key in cognitive priming of stereotypes, whether we take the story as truth verbatim, or we are aware of the media’s biased presentation. The information we learn is stored, and stereotypes are automatically activated during the categorization process (Devine, 1989). Devine’s 1989 study and results provide key examples and explanations of the process.

Stereotypes have been defined as the cognitive components of prejudiced attitudes (Harding et al, 1969). Allport (1954) suggested prejudice is a consequence that is inevitable when categorization occurs. Prejudice may be inevitable as long as stereotyping exists, however research has shown that it is within our cognitive abilities to halt stereotypical attitudes and replace with views that reflect equality (Devine, 1989).

Devine carried out 3 significant studies looking into stereotype activation in social categorization. Devine’s research included participants of both high and low prejudice, providing results that reflect the differing attitudes individuals possess in society. The research was key in helping to develop understanding of how stereotypes activation is processed, and how, with similar exposure to media and information, beliefs and prejudice levels can vary.

Study 1 showed that individuals of both high and low prejudice are equally knowledgeable of the cultural stereotype. The stereotype is automatically activated in the presence of a member of the stereotyped group. Responses from individuals of low prejudiced showed a requirement for controlled inhibition of automatically activated stereotype (Devine, 1989). When participants saw an image of an African American, the characteristic choice theme appearing across participants was aggressive, hostile, criminal-like. Whilst a photo may not have depicted any suggestive behaviour that would naturally lead to such assumptions, due to the priming and prejudiced nature of participants, the stereotypical labels were activated. These stereotypes are most often not a true reflection of the individual and accepting the stereotypes and applying to all individuals within a category creates an interpretation of society that fits the participants beliefs, not reflective of the reality they are experiencing (Devine, 1989).

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Study 2 examined situations where the subject’s ability to consciously monitor stereotype activation is impossible. Results showed that in these situations, both high and low prejudice individuals produced stereotypes congruent evaluations of observed ambiguous behaviour by individuals of the stereotyped group (Devine, 1989). This suggests that stereotypes can be automatically primed with procedures using attentionless prime processing. When individuals are primed and given little control of the process, both high and low prejudice individuals present a prejudice response. Stereotype activation is an automatic cognitive process, but for individuals where the stereotype may not fully fall in line with their views, and in individuals who are aware of the prejudiced views, with available control and processing time, it is possible to inhibit stereotype activation.

Study 3 showed that only low prejudiced subjects inhibited the automatically activated stereotype congruent thoughts and replaced them with thoughts reflecting equality (Devine, 1989). Whilst 60% of high prejudice subjects included negative themes in their protocols, only 9% of low prejudice subjects included hostility in their protocol. The study shows the reluctance of low prejudice subjects to prescribe traits and behavioural characteristics to a group as a single unit, instead engaging in a controlled process inhibiting stereotypes, censoring negative and inappropriate thoughts that came to mind. Whilst stereotypes are automatically activated, if we are aware that stereotypes do not reflect on the entire group, we are able to inhibit these thoughts. Instead, we are able to activate thoughts that are inclusive, representative of equality, and reflective of the reality we experience in social life (Devine, 1989).

There is a conceptual distinction of cognitive structure between automatically activated stereotypes and personal beliefs. The methods in the above studies (1 & 2) were manipulated as to not allow the possibility of a nonprejudiced response (Devine, 1989). Knowledge of stereotypes is possessed by individuals of both high and low prejudice, and automatic stereotype activation is unavoidable regardless of high or low prejudice. This can be interpreted to suggest that all individuals are victims of a limited capacity processor, not allowing for the control over stereotype activation (Devine, 1989).

Key findings are those from Study 3, which show the ability of inhibition of stereotype congruent responses. Taking control of the automatic activation and replacing the prejudiced responses with nonprejudiced views may be compared to breaking a bad habit. Low prejudice individuals may find the consequences of the activation undesirable and not reflective of their true beliefs, creating a conflict between their ideals and the expression of racial prejudice. However, some argue that, taking the above situation as example, all White Americans are prejudiced, and with the supporting evidence of inconsistency between the attitudes expressed and behaviours that are not consciously mediated, any activation control is simply an attempt to cover up what an individual will truly believe but find to be a socially undesirable attitude (Devine, 1989).

When we see, speak to or think of someone, we process their attributes and characteristics and categorize them into identifiable groups. With each category we place individuals into, we possess information from different sources that have related to the categories. The information we possess directly influences our views and ideas on the groups, and we automatically process cognitive stereotypes about each group. Rather than seeing someone for the individual they are, we will view them as a member of a category, priming those stereotype attributes we have stored. In many instances, this can be beneficial to us and them; it allows us to access information pertaining to the specific group, so we can carry out a positive and successful interaction. However, more often than not, we are exposed to information that is manipulated in its presentation.

Information manipulation begins the process of perception of an inaccurate reality. Per the example mentioned above, many share in the perception of African American males as dangerous and criminal. The reality, however, is not the same. Regardless of age, race, or gender, there will always be individuals who commit crime. One individuals’ action, however, do not reflect on the behaviour of an entire race. It takes an aware individual to inhibit the stereotype activation and replace it with information that reflects truth and equality. Categorizing leads us to perceive a situation where we hold only a proportion of the information, and we choose to only interpret society and events in a way that supports our beliefs, rather than a way that is an accurate reflection of reality.


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  • Devine, P. G. (1989). Stereotypes and prejudice: Their automatic and controlled components.  Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 56, 5-18
  • Appiah, O. , Knobloch‐Westerwick, S. and Alter, S. (2013), Ingroup Favoritism and Outgroup Derogation: Effects of News Valence, Character Race, and Recipient Race on Selective News Reading. J Commun, 63: 517-534. doi:10.1111/jcom.12032
  • Oliver, M. B. (2003). African American men as “criminal and dangerous”: Implications of media portrayals of crime on the “criminalization” of African American men. Journal of African American Studies, 7(2), 3-18. doi: 10.1007/s12111-003-1006-5
  • Staples, B. (1992). Black men and public space. In D. Cavitch (Ed.), Life studies (pp. 29–32). Boston: Bedford Books.
  • Robert M. Entman (1990) Modern racism and the images of blacks in local television news, Critical Studies in Mass Communication, 7:4, 332-345, DOI:10.1080/15295039009360183
  • Entman, R. M. (1992). Blacks in the news: Television, modern racism and cultural change. Journalism Quarterly, 69, 341–361.
  • Harding, J., Proshansky, H., Kutner, B., & Chein, I. (1969). Prejudice and ethnic relations. In G. Lindzey (Ed.), Handbook of social psychology (Vol. 5). Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.
  • Allport, G. W. (1954). The nature of prejudice. Reading, MA: Addison- Wesley.


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