In the 1990s, a major theoretical framework for explaining
stereotypes is called the social cognitive approach. According to
this approach, stereotypes are belief systems that guide the way we
process information, including information about gender. In my
presentation at the Southeastern Psychological Association
convention, I focused on two questions: how gender stereotypes
influence cognitive processes and how the media contribute to these
How Do Gender Stereotypes Influence Our Cognitive
Our cognitive processes
perpetuate and exaggerate stereotypes. In addition, stereotypes tend
to encourage inaccurate cognitive processes. Let's examine four
representative examples of these inaccurate thought patterns.
to psychologists such as Sandra Bem (1993), one cognitive process
that seems nearly inevitable in humans is to divide people into
groups. We can partition these groups on the basis of race, age,
religion, and so forth. However, the major way in which we usually
split humanity is on the basis of gender. This process of
categorizing others in terms of gender is both habitual and
automatic. It's nearly impossible to suppress the tendency to split
the world in half, using gender as the great divider. In fact, after
finishing this article, try ignoring the gender of the first person
When we divide the
world into two groups, male and female, we tend to see all males as
being similar, all females as being similar, and the two categories
of "male" and "female" as being very different from each other. In
real life, the characteristics of women and men tend to overlap.
Unfortunately, however, gender polarization often creates an
artificial gap between women and men.
Different Expectations for Males and
way in which gender stereotypes are related to cognitive processes
is that we have different expectations for female and male behavior.
A classic study focused on adults' interpretations of infants'
behavior. Condry and Condry (1976) prepared videotapes of an infant
responding to a variety of stimuli. For example, the infant stared
and then cried in response to a jack-in-the-box that suddenly popped
open. College students had been led to believe that the infant was
either a baby girl or a baby boy. When students watched the
videotape with the jack-in-the-box, those who thought the infant was
a boy tended to judge that "he" was showing anger. When they thought
that the infant was a girl, they decided that "she" was showing
fear. Remember that everyone saw the same videotape of the same
infant. However, the ambiguous negative reaction was given a more
masculine label (anger, rather than fear) when the infant was
perceived to be a boy.
According to a
third principle, we tend to believe the male experience to be
normative. A gender difference is therefore typically explained in
terms of why the female differs from that norm. For example,
research often shows a gender difference in self-confidence.
However, these studies almost always ask about why females are low
in self-confidence, relative to the male norm. They rarely speculate
about whether females are actually on target as far as
self-confidence, and whether males may actually be too high in
example. In recent U.S. Presidential elections, many commentators
remarked about various gender gaps. For example, women are more
likely than men to vote in elections. Interestingly, commentators
typically spoke as if the male turnout rate was standard, the norm.
In contrast, they provided many explanations for why the females
were different. Only rarely did they consider the females to be the
norm, trying to explain why male turnout was low (Miller, Taylor,
& Buck, 1991).
general, people recall gender-consistent information more accurately
than gender-inconsistent information. Selective recall is especially
likely when people are faced with too many simultaneous tasks
(Macrae, Hewstone, & Griffiths,
For example, Arnie
Cann (1993) found that students recalled sentences like "Jane is a
good nurse" better than "Jane is a bad nurse." When someone is
employed in a gender-consistent occupation, we recall this person's
competence. In contrast, students recalled sentences like "John is a
bad nurse" better than "John is a good nurse." When someone is
employed in a gender-inconsistent occupation, we recall this
person's incompetence. Notice that when we combine selective recall
with the other cognitive factors--gender polarization, differential
expectations, and the normative male--we strengthen and perpetuate
our existing stereotypes.
How Do the Media Contribute to Gender
Television, movies, and the
printed media help encourage people to develop and maintain the
gender stereotypes we have been examining. Let's consider four
Women are Underrepresented in the
suggests that women are underrepresented in the media, even during
the 1990s. For example, music videos feature roughly twice as many
males as females (Sommers-Flanagan, Sommers-Flanagan, & Davis,
1993). Women are not seen much, but they are heard even less. For
example, the next time you see a television advertisement, notice
whose voice of authority is extolling the product's virtues. Males
constitute between 85% and 90% of these voice-overs. Furthermore,
only 5% of radio talk-show hosts are female (Flanders, 1997).
Women's and Men's Bodies are Represented
glance through magazine advertisements, you'll notice that women are
much more likely than men to serve a decorative function. Women
recline in seductive clothing, caressing a liquor bottle, or they
drape themselves coyly on the nearest male. They bend their bodies
at a ludicrous angle, or they look as helpless as 6-year-olds. They
also may be painfully thin. In contrast, men stand up, they look
competent, and they look purposeful (Jones, 1991).
Women and Men are Shown Doing Different
magazine advertisements, men are rarely portrayed doing housework.
Instead, men are more likely than women to be shown working outside
the home. The world of paid employment is not emphasized for women.
For example, an analysis of the articles in Seventeen magazine
demonstrated that only 7% of the contents concerned career planning,
independence, and other self-development topics. In contrast, 46% of
the contents concerned appearance (Peirce, 1990). In the magazine
advertisements, men are rarely portrayed doing housework. Basically,
the media world often represents men and women as living in separate
Women of Color Are Represented in an Especially Biased
When Black women
are shown at all, they are likely to appear in stereotypical roles.
They are portrayed in an exaggerated way, with body positions even
more exaggerated than those of European American women. Other women
of color--Hispanics, Asians, and Native Americans--are virtually
we are finally beginning to see some progress in the representation
of men and women in advertisements and other visual media. One of my
favorites is a poster for the graduate program in cognitive
psychology at Indiana University. Instead of the traditional
European American male head--complete with gears and other
mechanical devices in the brain to illustrate thinking--this poster
features the head of an African American woman. This example leads
us to wonder whether our gender stereotypes would be more flexible
if we were exposed to more positive images of this nature. With less
rigid stereotypes, we might indeed find an important impact on the
accuracy of our cognitive processes.
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Cann, A. (1993). Evaluative expectations and the gender schema:
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Condry, J. C., & Condry, S. (1976). Sex differences: A study
in the eye of the beholder. Child Development, 47,
Flanders, L. (1997). Real majority, media minority: The cost
of sidelining women in reporting. Monroe, ME: Common Courage
Jones, M. (1991). Gender stereotyping in advertisements.
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Macrae, C. N., Hewstone, M., & Griffiths, R. J. (1993).
Processing load and memory for stereotype-based information.
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Miller, D. T., Taylor, B., & Buck, M. L. (1991). Gender gaps:
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Psychology, 61, 5-12.
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socialization of teenage girls through Seventeen magazine. Sex
Roles, 23, 491-500.
Sommers-Flanagan, R., Sommers-Flanagan, J., & Davis, B.
(1993). What's happening on music television? A gender role content
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[This article was originally presented by Dr. Matlin as
the Psi Chi Distinguished Lecture at the annual meeting of the
Southeastern Psychological Association in Mobile, AL, March 27,
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Margaret W. Matlin, PhD,
received her BA in psychology from Stanford University and her MA
and PhD in experimental psychology from the University of Michigan.
She holds the title of Distinguished Teaching Professor at State
University of New York, College at Geneseo, where she has taught
courses since 1971 in introductory psychology, experimental
psychology, statistics, sensation and perception, cognitive
psychology, human memory, human development, conflict resolution,
issues in feminism, and psychology of women. In 1977, she received
the State University of New York Chancellor's Award for Excellence
in Teaching, and in 1985 she was awarded the American Psychological
Association Teaching of Psychology Award in the 4-year college and
university division. Her published work includes the books The
Pollyanna Principle: Selectivity in Language, Memory and
Thought; Human Experimental Psychology, Sensation, and
Perception; Cognition; Psychology of Women;
Winter 1999 issue of Eye on Psi Chi (Vol. 3,
No. 2, pp. 13-14, 16), published by Psi Chi, The National Honor
Society in Psychology (Chattanooga, TN). Copyright, 1999, Psi Chi,
The National Honor Society in Psychology. All rights