Why People Have Negative Perceptions of Other People

Asians are number geeks. Gays are sexual predators. Muslims are terrorists. Members of the Church of Scientology are disturbed. Cheerleaders are dumb. Blondes are dumber. These negative stereotypes have been the source of so many hate crimes and why minorities remain disadvantaged. The question is: Why do some people develop negative associations about a certain group of people?

Outgroup homogeneity effect

Many studies on social psychology show that people have the tendency to see groups they are not members of as more homogeneous compared to their own group. This phenomenon is called the "outgroup homogeneity effect."

Psychologist Charles Judd of the University of Colorado (Boulder) explains, "When you meet a person who’s a member of an outgroup, you’re less likely to individuate them, to pay attention to individual characteristics, than when you meet members of your ingroup." He says this is because stereotypes on members of the outgroup are much stronger than members of the ingroup.

Therefore, those in the ingroup are likely to ignore individuating characteristics about members of the outgroup. They are more willing to lump them into single disliked class. The outgroup homogeneity effect will be stronger if you know less about a group.

Ascribing cultural essence

Studies also suggest that when you do not know much about a certain group, you are likely to assign them a "cultural essence," a kind of natural character that many people mistakenly believe as defining the entire culture. In the case of the LGBT culture, gays are seen as propagators of HIV/AIDS.

African Americans, admit it or not, are still generally disadvantaged in the country claiming to be the beacon of diversity. Why do many people fear black people in the US? Is it because statistics show that African Americans are more likely to commit crimes compared to the Whites and other races? Is it because the TV show C.O.P.S. depicts them as the "bad, to be feared men"?

In the case following 9/11, Arabs are generally ascribed as extremists or militants. After the September 11 terrorist attacks in the United States, many Americans became so overly paranoid that seeing an Arab meant alerting the authorities for a suspected terrorist and running for their dear lives.

Automatically activated attitudes

Ohio State University’s Russell Fazio, a social psychologist, has been studying a related phenomenon known as "automatically activated attitudes." He developed an instrument approximating Whites’ positive or negative evaluations of and associations to Blacks, without asking them directly for this information.

In the test, where subjects were exposed to flashes of pictures of black and white faces, Fazio found that many Whites reacted more negatively to black faces than to white faces, although the subjects claimed they did not hold such views consciously.


Avoidance may be one of the effects of the "automatically activated attitudes" phenomena. In another study by Fazio and Indiana University’s Tamara Towles-Schwen, White subjects were asked to respond to various social situations involving Blacks. While they had no negative response in relating with Blacks in highly scripted or non-intimate scenarios like interacting with a waiter in a restaurant, they "found powerful effects" in non-scripted, intimate scenarios like dating a Black or sharing a room.

According to Fazio, "The more negative people’s automatically activated attitudes, the more reluctant they were to even initiate behavior with the person." This kind of brush-off is what many minorities in America have been experiencing from Americans considering the country’s terrorism and immigration policies.


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