Investigating the Cognitive Structure of Stereotypes: Generic Beliefs About Groups Predict Social Judgments Better Than Statistical Beliefs

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Stereotypes are typically defined as beliefs about groups, but this definition is underspecified. Beliefs about groups can be generic or statistical. Generic beliefs attribute features to entire groups (e.g., men are strong), whereas statistical beliefs encode the perceived prevalence of features (e.g., how common it is for men to be strong). In the present research, we sought to determine which beliefs—generic or statistical—are more central to the cognitive structure of stereotypes. Specifically, we tested whether generic or statistical beliefs are more influential in people’s social judgments, on the assumption that greater functional importance indicates greater centrality in stereotype structure. Relative to statistical beliefs, generic beliefs about social groups were significantly stronger predictors of expectations (Studies 1–3) and explanations (Study 4) for unfamiliar individuals’ traits. In addition, consistent with prior evidence that generic beliefs are cognitively simpler than statistical beliefs, generic beliefs were particularly predictive of social judgments for participants with more intuitive (vs. analytic) cognitive styles and for participants higher (vs. lower) in authoritarianism, who tend to view outgroups in simplistic, all-or-none terms. The present studies suggest that generic beliefs about groups are more central than statistical beliefs to the cognitive structure of stereotypes.

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