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Class 15: Schemas and Stereotypes

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Author: Jessica Collett
Prof. Jessica Collett, University of Notre Dame. "Introduction to Social Psychology" lecture notes - Schemas and Stereotypes

Class Notes

One of our most basic mental processes is categorization.  We tend to perceive stimuli as members or groups rather than isolated, unique entities.  To categorize things, we compare the object to a prototype, or  an abstraction that represents the "typical" or quintessential instance of that group (Michener, DeLamater and Myers 2004:107).  

A schema is a well-organized structure of cognitions about some social entity such as a person, group, role, or event (Michener, DeLamater and Myers 2004:107).  These schemas help to develop expectations about what to expect from others' behavior.

Person Schema -
cognitive structures that describe personalities of others.  It can apply to specific individuals (Barack Obama, my sister) or types of individuals (extrovert, sociopath). 
Self-Schema -
structures that organize our conception of our own qualities and characteristics.
Role Schema -
indicate which attributes and behaviors are typical of persons occupying a particular role in a group.  These can exist for occupational roles (priest, teacher, nurse) or roles in groups (group leader, recorder).
Event Schema (also called "scripts") -
are schemas about important, recurring social events (weddings, funerals, graduations, job interviews).
Group Schemas (also called stereotypes) -
a fixed set of characteristics that are attributed to the members of a particular social group or social category. 

Whether correct or not, the impressions we form of people influence our behavior.  They can lead us to incorrect conclusions.

Confirmation biases- if an observer uses a stereotype as a central theme around which to organize information, he or she may neglect information that is inconsistent with that stereotype.  For example, if a person thinks that all young people are lazy, they may neglect the news stories about young people who are volunteering and working hard, only focusing on the young people who loiter outside of a local fast-food restaurant.

Self-fulfilling prophecy- when people behave toward another person according to a label (normally based on an impression) and cause the person to respond in a way that confirms the label.  A person who is labeled as a "screw-up" will be treated with disdain by those around them, and will be given few opportunities to overcome that label, and will respond by confirming the label.


In this activity, we attempt to understand the effects of stereotypes.  Everyone gets a label placed on their forehead (without the individual seeing the label).  As people mingle, everyone needs to to treat each other according to their labels.  For example, if I had "dirty" as my label, people may cover their noses or try to wipe dirt off of my shirt.  At the end of the exercise, people discuss what label they think they have, and how the experience made them feel about themselves.  See a full description about the activity at Understanding Prejudice. 

Works Cited

Michener, H. Andrew, John D. DeLamater, and Daniel J. Myers.  2004. Social Psychology. 5th ed. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth/Thompson Learning.

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