Character  &  Context

The Science of Who We Are and How We Relate
Editors: Mark Leary, Shira Gabriel, Brett Pelham
Mar 23, 2020

Driving Under the Influence of Stereotypes: Stigma Consciousness

by Elizabeth C. Pinel
illustration of group of students bullying another student

In a memorable stand-up routine, comedienne Wanda Sykes shares how concerns about getting stereotyped changed for African Americans when Barack Obama became U.S. president.   When Wanda was a child,  her mother would not let her dance in the car, admonishing her: “You ain’t dancin’ in my car! White people are looking at you!”  When Barack Obama took office, Wanda exclaimed in her routine: “I can dance; I can buy whole watermelons now!  I no longer have to grow ‘em in my closet under my weed lamp!”

Sykes’s tongue-in-cheek routine highlights three important consequences of stereotypes for the targets of those stereotypes.  First, stereotypes can make the targets of those stereotypes stigma conscious—that is, self-conscious about their group membership and preoccupied with the possibility that they will be stereotyped because of it.  Second, stigma consciousness can make people ultra-cautious with regard to what they say and do in order to avoid being stereotyped.  And, third, feelings of stigma consciousness can go up and down depending on the situation. Sykes describes a world in which African Americans experienced more stigma consciousness before than during Obama’s presidency.  Now, with Donald Trump in office—a president who characterized Mexicans as “rapists,” who declared that women let stars “do it,” and who instructed minority congresswomen to “go back” to their countries—one can only assume that stigma consciousness is back on the rise, and not just for African Americans. 

What is the cost of stigma consciousness?  To find out, our team developed a questionnaire to measure stigma consciousness in any possible stigmatized group.  Importantly, anybody can feel stereotyped because of their membership in a social group, so anybody can feel stigma conscious at least some of the time.  Whether you identify as White, male, elderly, Chinese, a teenager, an athlete, a professor, a Jew, or a Muslim (the list goes on), you can experience stigma consciousness because of your group identification.  Our team has studied stigma consciousness in a wide range of groups, including ethnic and sexual minorities and people in the service industry.  Other researchers have extended this work to several other groups, including women in sports and people living with HIV. 

We have learned several important lessons from this research.  We know, for example, that stigma consciousness is not the same as merely being aware that others hold stereotypes about your group.  People can be highly aware of the stereotypes about their group—as in the examples from Sykes’s standup routine—without necessarily feeling stigma conscious.  Second, people are often high in stigma consciousness for very good reasons.  Groups with a history of discrimination—such as African Americans, gay men, and lesbians—have higher levels of stigma consciousness, on average, than their White or straight counterparts.  Also, people high in stigma consciousness can easily report very vivid examples of times when they experienced stereotyping, prejudice, or discrimination.

Research shows that experiencing a high level of stigma consciousness can have negative implications for people’s thoughts, feelings, behaviors, and interactions with others.  In one study, participants who had a high level of stigma consciousness were more likely to feel discriminated against and had lower self-esteem than participants with low stigma consciousness.  In another study, participants with high as opposed to low levels of stigma consciousness scored lower on a standardized test when they were reminded of stereotypes about their group’s supposedly inferior intelligence. 

Research also highlights real-life consequences of elevated stigma consciousness: academically stigmatized minority students reported elevated levels of stigma consciousness upon arriving at a predominantly White university.  These increased feelings of stigma consciousness predicted lower grade point average and greater academic disengagement for male students and lower self-esteem for female students.  Outside of the college context, research revealed that service workers who were high in stigma consciousness were more likely than those who were low in stigma consciousness to experience burn-out and leave their jobs.

The accumulated research shows that stigma consciousness can have deleterious consequences.  In some ways this is counterintuitive.  After all, people high in stigma consciousness tend to identify strongly with their group, and research shows that strong levels of group identification can have positive consequences.  We suggest that parents, teachers, and researchers with an interest in strengthening people’s resilience in the face of stereotypes work on strategies that allow people to experience the feelings of belonging and comradery that go hand in hand with group identification without simultaneously becoming highly stigma conscious.  That way, everyone can buy whole watermelons and dance in their cars.


For Further Reading

Pinel, E. C. (1999).  Stigma consciousness: The psychological legacy of social stereotypes.  Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 76, 114-128.   

Pinel, E. C., & Bosson, J. B. (2013). Turning our attention to stigma: An objective self-awareness analysis of stigma and its consequences.  Basic and Applied Social Psychology, 35, 55-63.

 

Elizabeth Pinel is a social psychologist who studies stigma, the self, isolation, and connection, which is a lot to be conscious of.  

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Why is this blog called Character & Context?

Everything that people think, feel, and do is affected by some combination of their personal characteristics and features of the social context they are in at the time. Character & Context explores the latest insights about human behavior from research in personality and social psychology, the scientific field that studies the causes of everyday behaviors.  

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