The formation of stereotypes through cumulative cultural transmission

Lead Research Organisation: University of Aberdeen
Department Name: Psychology

Abstract

Abstracts are not currently available in GtR for all funded research. This is normally because the abstract was not required at the time of proposal submission, but may be because it included sensitive information such as personal details.

Publications

10 25 50
 
Description The overarching achievement of the grant has been to provide a unique answer to one of the social psychology's most intractable problems - how do cultural stereotypes form? We provide evidence that cultural stereotypes are the unintended but inevitable consequence of sharing social information; stereotypes form as a consequence of cumulative cultural evolution. When people were asked to recall newly learned information (i.e., personality attributes) about novel social targets (i.e., 'alien' individuals), they inadvertently added a categorical structure that was not previously present. When their recollections were passed on to another person to learn (a bit like the children's game often called 'Chinese Whispers') the merest hint of category structure was unconsciously detected and subsequently inadvertently amplified in their recollections. Thus, as it passes from one person to the next, a task that is initially random and requires remembering multiple attributes associated with many different individuals becomes increasingly structured and learnable, with some attributes being used to describe multiple individual aliens who share categorical physical properties (e.g., by the end of one chain all green aliens were agreed to be pushy and arrogant, while red aliens were thought to be shy). Structure continues to accrue over time until a stable, easily learnable relationship exists between category membership and associated information - until a stereotype has formed.

Importantly, our findings can explain both those aspects of real-life stereotypes that contain a "kernel of truth" due to the overrepresentation of certain attributes among category members and those aspects of stereotypes that are seemingly arbitrary and have no basis in reality. We find that where a genuine relationship exists between social categories and attributes, people are very good at detecting this, remembering it and then passing this information on. However, crucially, we also find that where there is no existing relationship between social categories and attributes, we see this association emerging spontaneously over time as the social information evolves.

Another major contribution of the grant has been the development of the linear diffusion chain method for examining stereotype formation (as outlined above). Having adapted a technique originally used in evolutionary linguistics, we refined this across the duration of the grant to produce an experimental method likely to be utilized in future stereotype formation research. We also made a number of significant breakthroughs in the statistical analysis of linear diffusion chain data that can be exploited by researchers interested in cumulative cultural evolution.

In sum, our research suggests a novel theoretical mechanism that can explain how stereotypes form- via cumulative cultural evolution-and a methodology for studying this process in the lab-using linear diffusion chains. Our findings open new avenues for future research to examine how shared social and cognitive biases affect the cumulative cultural evolution of stereotypes in the lab, thereby informing our understanding of the origins of real-world stereotypes. If we can understand how cultural stereotypes form and naturally evolve, then in the long-term we might be able to positively influence stereotype content.

All the objectives of the grant were met.
Exploitation Route It is hoped our novel theoretical proposition - that stereotypes form unintentionally via cumulative cultural evolution - will be further examined and tested by social psychologists interested in stereotypes. To this end, is anticipated that researchers will make use of the innovative linear diffusion chain we developed. However, we also anticipate that further evidence for our theoretical position will be forthcoming from researchers using different methods. Equally, we expect researchers interested in other aspects of cumulative cultural evolution (e.g., evolutionary linguists) to make use of the statistical advances we made for analysing linear diffusion chain data.

There is a clear gap between our current scientific understanding of stereotypes and public perceptions of what they are and the crucial role they play in our everyday lives. The key findings from the grant shed light on the origins of stereotypes, the often arbitrary nature of stereotype content and the crucial role that stereotypes play in organising social information. It is hoped that in the future educators, policy makers and the third sector can use these findings to increase public understanding of the positive and negative influences of stereotypes.
Sectors Communities and Social Services/Policy,Education

 
Description The findings of the research have had considerable academic interest and media coverage (see Publications and Engagement Activities). The findings of the research have also been disseminated directly to high school children through exhibitions at the British Science Festival and Dundee Science Festival. I have also communicated the findings of the research directly to third sector organisations, through my contact with fellow members of the Equality and Diversity Forum (EDF) and major trade unions (i.e., UNISON & UCU). One promising possible source of impact might come from presentations I have given about the research to the University of Aberdeen Athena SWAN team. The Athena SWAN Charter was established in 2005 to encourage and recognise commitment to advancing the careers of women in science, technology, engineering, maths and medicine (STEMM) employment in higher education and research. I impressed upon the Athena SWAN team in Aberdeen the fact that our research suggests that stereotypes can change via cumulative cultural evolution. The team members indicated a willingness to embrace these ideas in its approach to address gender inequality in higher education. I will continue to work with the Athena SWAN team to ensure any potential impact is realised. The ground-level experimental nature of this research means that any larger impacts on policy or society more generally are likely to be much further in the future. I will continue to update the narrative impact as and when such impacts are discernible.
First Year Of Impact 2012
 
Description ESRC Research Grants Scheme
Amount £294,894 (GBP)
Funding ID ES/N019121/1 
Organisation Economic and Social Research Council 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom of Great Britain & Northern Ireland (UK)
Start 11/2017 
End 06/2020
 
Description Could stereotypes come from word of mouth 
Form Of Engagement Activity A press release, press conference or response to a media enquiry/interview
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Media (as a channel to the public)
Results and Impact Press release accompanying press conference describing core findings

Section not completed
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2012
URL http://www.abdn.ac.uk/news/4471/
 
Description Did stereotypes evolve like language? 
Form Of Engagement Activity A press release, press conference or response to a media enquiry/interview
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Article and interview with the Daily Mail newspaper

Section not completed
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2012
URL http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-2198764/Did-stereotypes-evolve-like-language-Research...
 
Description I heard it on the grapevine: the social evolution of information. 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Schools
Results and Impact In November 2013, we took a scaled down version of our British Science Festival Exhibition ("I heard it on the grapevine: the social evolution of information") to Dundee Science festival. This event allowed members of the public of all ages and backgrounds to learn more about the recent findings from my ESRC grant. Specifically, they were able to take part in fun experiments that helped demonstrate how stereotypes can form unintentionally as information passes from person to person.

Section not completed
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2013
 
Description I heard it on the grapevine: the social evolution of information. 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? Yes
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact In September 2012, I led a multidisciplinary team of researchers from Universities across Scotland, as we hosted an interactive exhibition at the British Science Festival ("I heard it on the grapevine: the social evolution of information"). This event allowed members of the public of all ages and backgrounds to learn more about the recent findings from my ESRC grant. Specifically, they were able to take part in fun experiments that helped demonstrate how stereotypes can form unintentionally as information passes from person to person.

The findings of the grant received international media attention
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2012
 
Description Pink is for boys...how stereotypes evolve 
Form Of Engagement Activity A press release, press conference or response to a media enquiry/interview
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Newspaper article and interview with the Irish Times

Section not completed
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2012
 
Description Press release - Scientists reveal the origins of stereotypes 
Form Of Engagement Activity A press release, press conference or response to a media enquiry/interview
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Media (as a channel to the public)
Results and Impact The press release received considerable interest from national and international media. Below is a list of print and online sources that published articles based on the press release:

Online sources: The Huffington Post; Pacific Standard; Science Daily; Webnewswire.com; Science Codex; Medical Xpress; Bright Surf; Health Canal; Health News Digest; Herald Scotland; Science Newsline; Aberdeen and Grampian Chamber of Commerce.

Print sources: The Times; The Sun; The Daily Mail; The Scotsman; The Herald; The Press and Journal

Greater public understanding of the origins and evolution of stereotypes.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2014
URL http://www.abdn.ac.uk/psychology/news/6543/
 
Description Stereotype evolution 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Interview and discussion as part of the British Science Festival's 'x-change' live stage show and podcast.

Section not completed
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2012
 
Description Stereotypes 'evolve like language', say researchers 
Form Of Engagement Activity A press release, press conference or response to a media enquiry/interview
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact BBC news online article covering the core findings of the grant (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-19487021).

Section not completed
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2012
URL http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-19487021
 
Description Stereotypes form via 'Chinese Whispers' 
Form Of Engagement Activity A press release, press conference or response to a media enquiry/interview
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Article on British Science Association website describing core findings of the research.

Section not completed
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2012
URL http://www.britishscienceassociation.org/british-science-festival/news/stereotypes-form-chinese-whis...
 
Description Talk to the Aberdeen Sceptics in the Pub Group on "The formation of cultural stereotypes" 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact I gave a talk on stereotype formation to the Aberdeen Sceptics in the Pub Group and chaired a subsequent discussion among their members. The event was attend by members of the general public who attend regular Sceptics in the Pub meetings. The session challenged people's understanding of the origins and function of stereotypes.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
 
Description Talk to the Aberdeenshire Philosophy Cafe on "The formation of cultural stereotypes" 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact I gave a talk on stereotype formation to the Aberdeenshire Philosophy Cafe and chaired a subsequent discussion among their members. The event was attend by members of the general public who attend regular Philosophy Cafe meetings. The session challenged people's understanding of the origins and function of stereotypes.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
 
Description The formation of stereotypes 
Form Of Engagement Activity A press release, press conference or response to a media enquiry/interview
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact An article and interview for ABC radio (Australia).

Section not completed
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2012
URL http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/scienceshow/the-formation-of-stereotypes/4261382