The Stigma Process: Part 1

In Movies & Madness, I present the argument that there are some generally functional and adaptive ways in which people think about their social worlds that allow the development and maintenance of negative attitudes about people with mental illness to arise. I ground the argument in basic social psychological theory and research. This social-cognitive-emotional-behavioral (I’m still working on a better name…) stigma process involves:

1. The tendency to categorize. We humans do it all the time. We can’t help it. It’s actually for the most part adaptive. Think about walking into a party full of people you don’t know.  You scan the room.  Without much conscious attention on your part, you put the people you see into groups and choose which ones to approach and avoid based on where they have been categorized.

2. The tendency to create and use stereotypes. We humans do it all the time. We have immense trouble avoiding the automatic use of stereotypes because we rely so heavily on automatic processing. It’s still for the most part adaptive. You’re still at the party.  You’ve chosen to mosey up to some people who seem to look like you or at least look harmless enough to approach.

3. The tendency to base stereotypes on incomplete and/or erroneous information. While it doesn’t feel that way, people build images of all kinds of other people based on a small number of events (sometimes one) and feel very confident that their perceptions are accurate. The events don’t even have to be actual experiences. They can be indirect (e.g., through a television show). Think back to that date you had.  Yeah, that one. I had a blind date once with a civil engineering grad student.  He asked me within the first five minutes of dinner, “If you could be any animal you wanted, what would it be?” I have since then harbored some suspicions about the nature of engineers all because of one blind date.  Was he representative of all engineers? No.  Did I bother to ask that question. No. Most people don’t. It’s just too tiring and, besides, we are very convinced we are right.

4. The tendency to perceive others and interpret their behavior in terms of stereotypes. I am a horse person. (We’re different; just go with it.) I have a long-standing prejudice again certain breeds of horses including Appaloosas (I’m sorry. I really am).  My distaste for Appaloosas is directly tied to the fact that I owned one and he was evil. Even though I know that my attitudes toward Appy horses is based on one incredibly horrible individual who tried to kill me on a regular basis, I still don’t like them.  Let’s say I’m at a horse show and I see a horse acting up.  Said horse happens to be an Appy.  My automatic thought goes like this, “That horse is bucking and rearing because it is an App.”

5. The tendency to notice and remember information consistent with the stereotype and ignore information inconsistent with it. The social world is a very busy, cluttered, information heavy place.  When I go to the mall to shop, there is a certain group of people that alternatively repels and amuses me although I am trying to learn to have more positive thoughts about them: teenage boys in low-slung, giant-sized pants that have to be held up with one hand at all times in order for them to walk.  For the purposes of this discussion, let’s say that I think these are rude, bratty, spoiled boys who want to look like thugs even though they aren’t and that’s not what thugs look like anyway. If I think that, I’m likely to notice and remember only the times when boys who fit the category are rude and bratty.  I may completely miss or discount one of them picking up a stranger’s dropped package or holding open a door. As a result, my negative attitude is preserved and even strengthened.

6. The tendency to make internal, stable attributions about the causes of the behavior of others. Numbers 4 and 5 are tied to a tendency in human social cognition called the fundamental attribution error.  When we look at other people, we take in their behavior and are driven to explain it. With strangers, we don’t tend to put a lot of energy into this process unless given a really good reason to do so. We frequently jump to conclusions related to internal (e.g., personality, natural ability), stable traits. This time, you are at the grocery store.  It’s game day and you need chips, salsa and beer and the game starts in 20 minutes. There is a couple in front of you in line.  The man begins to loudly criticize the woman’s choices for this evening’s meal. What thoughts pop into your head concerning the man’s behavior?  Perhaps you are a nicer person than me and are giving him the benefit of the doubt but I’m saying something like “Yeesh, what a jerk”.  Jerkhood is internal and stable.

7. The tendency to experience emotional reactions that are consistent with the attributions assigned to the behavior. Bernard Weiner, one of my favorite social psychologists, proposed that attribution predicts emotion which itself predicts behavior when people are making judgments with respect to people in potentially stigmatized groups. In the checkout line, my feelings toward the loud mouth jerk (attribution) being mean to his girlfriend (see, I assume that they are in a relationship too) are likely to be some combination of anger and disgust and perhaps a little fear (emotion).

8. The tendency to act in ways that are consistent with the emotions experienced. If I become angry and disgusted with loud mouth jerk guy, my most likely response is to give him the stink eye (my kids say it’s really scary).  If I’m feeling surly and brave, I might intervene. I did that once, but that’s another story.

Those are some of the critical human tendencies underlying the stigma process. Part 2 will explore how this process plays itself out when we are thinking about people with mental illness.

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About Tammy Daily

I am a professor of Psychology and Neuroscience at the University of Mount Union. My training is as a Social Psychologist and I study the impact of negative images of people with mental illness in the mass media. I have been teaching a class since 2004 called Movies and Madness which examines the ways in which people with mental illness and mental health care providers are presented in the mass media.

Posted on October 22, 2011, in Course Posts and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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