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Eye on Psi Chi: Winter 1999
Bimbos and Rambos:
The Cognitive Basis
of Gender Stereotypes

Margaret W. Matlin, SUNY at Geneseo


In the 1990s, a major theoretical framework for explaining stereotypes is called the social cognitive approach. According to this approach, stereotypes are belief systems that guide the way we process information, including information about gender. In my presentation at the Southeastern Psychological Association convention, I focused on two questions: how gender stereotypes influence cognitive processes and how the media contribute to these stereotypes.

How Do Gender Stereotypes Influence Our Cognitive Processes?
Our cognitive processes perpetuate and exaggerate stereotypes. In addition, stereotypes tend to encourage inaccurate cognitive processes. Let's examine four representative examples of these inaccurate thought patterns.

Gender Polarization
According to psychologists such as Sandra Bem (1993), one cognitive process that seems nearly inevitable in humans is to divide people into groups. We can partition these groups on the basis of race, age, religion, and so forth. However, the major way in which we usually split humanity is on the basis of gender. This process of categorizing others in terms of gender is both habitual and automatic. It's nearly impossible to suppress the tendency to split the world in half, using gender as the great divider. In fact, after finishing this article, try ignoring the gender of the first person you meet!

When we divide the world into two groups, male and female, we tend to see all males as being similar, all females as being similar, and the two categories of "male" and "female" as being very different from each other. In real life, the characteristics of women and men tend to overlap. Unfortunately, however, gender polarization often creates an artificial gap between women and men.

Different Expectations for Males and Females
The second way in which gender stereotypes are related to cognitive processes is that we have different expectations for female and male behavior. A classic study focused on adults' interpretations of infants' behavior. Condry and Condry (1976) prepared videotapes of an infant responding to a variety of stimuli. For example, the infant stared and then cried in response to a jack-in-the-box that suddenly popped open. College students had been led to believe that the infant was either a baby girl or a baby boy. When students watched the videotape with the jack-in-the-box, those who thought the infant was a boy tended to judge that "he" was showing anger. When they thought that the infant was a girl, they decided that "she" was showing fear. Remember that everyone saw the same videotape of the same infant. However, the ambiguous negative reaction was given a more masculine label (anger, rather than fear) when the infant was perceived to be a boy.

The Normative Male
According to a third principle, we tend to believe the male experience to be normative. A gender difference is therefore typically explained in terms of why the female differs from that norm. For example, research often shows a gender difference in self-confidence. However, these studies almost always ask about why females are low in self-confidence, relative to the male norm. They rarely speculate about whether females are actually on target as far as self-confidence, and whether males may actually be too high in self-confidence (Tavris, 1992).

Consider another example. In recent U.S. Presidential elections, many commentators remarked about various gender gaps. For example, women are more likely than men to vote in elections. Interestingly, commentators typically spoke as if the male turnout rate was standard, the norm. In contrast, they provided many explanations for why the females were different. Only rarely did they consider the females to be the norm, trying to explain why male turnout was low (Miller, Taylor, & Buck, 1991).

Remembering Gender-Consistent Information
In general, people recall gender-consistent information more accurately than gender-inconsistent information. Selective recall is especially likely when people are faced with too many simultaneous tasks (Macrae, Hewstone, & Griffiths, 1993).

For example, Arnie Cann (1993) found that students recalled sentences like "Jane is a good nurse" better than "Jane is a bad nurse." When someone is employed in a gender-consistent occupation, we recall this person's competence. In contrast, students recalled sentences like "John is a bad nurse" better than "John is a good nurse." When someone is employed in a gender-inconsistent occupation, we recall this person's incompetence. Notice that when we combine selective recall with the other cognitive factors--gender polarization, differential expectations, and the normative male--we strengthen and perpetuate our existing stereotypes.

How Do the Media Contribute to Gender Stereotypes?
Television, movies, and the printed media help encourage people to develop and maintain the gender stereotypes we have been examining. Let's consider four general trends.

Women are Underrepresented in the Media
Research suggests that women are underrepresented in the media, even during the 1990s. For example, music videos feature roughly twice as many males as females (Sommers-Flanagan, Sommers-Flanagan, & Davis, 1993). Women are not seen much, but they are heard even less. For example, the next time you see a television advertisement, notice whose voice of authority is extolling the product's virtues. Males constitute between 85% and 90% of these voice-overs. Furthermore, only 5% of radio talk-show hosts are female (Flanders, 1997).

Women's and Men's Bodies are Represented Differently
If you glance through magazine advertisements, you'll notice that women are much more likely than men to serve a decorative function. Women recline in seductive clothing, caressing a liquor bottle, or they drape themselves coyly on the nearest male. They bend their bodies at a ludicrous angle, or they look as helpless as 6-year-olds. They also may be painfully thin. In contrast, men stand up, they look competent, and they look purposeful (Jones, 1991).

Women and Men are Shown Doing Different Activities
In magazine advertisements, men are rarely portrayed doing housework. Instead, men are more likely than women to be shown working outside the home. The world of paid employment is not emphasized for women. For example, an analysis of the articles in Seventeen magazine demonstrated that only 7% of the contents concerned career planning, independence, and other self-development topics. In contrast, 46% of the contents concerned appearance (Peirce, 1990). In the magazine advertisements, men are rarely portrayed doing housework. Basically, the media world often represents men and women as living in separate spheres.

Women of Color Are Represented in an Especially Biased Way
When Black women are shown at all, they are likely to appear in stereotypical roles. They are portrayed in an exaggerated way, with body positions even more exaggerated than those of European American women. Other women of color--Hispanics, Asians, and Native Americans--are virtually invisible (Andersen, 1993).

Fortunately, however, we are finally beginning to see some progress in the representation of men and women in advertisements and other visual media. One of my favorites is a poster for the graduate program in cognitive psychology at Indiana University. Instead of the traditional European American male head--complete with gears and other mechanical devices in the brain to illustrate thinking--this poster features the head of an African American woman. This example leads us to wonder whether our gender stereotypes would be more flexible if we were exposed to more positive images of this nature. With less rigid stereotypes, we might indeed find an important impact on the accuracy of our cognitive processes.

Andersen, M. L. (1993). Thinking about women: Sociological perspectives on sex and gender. New York: Macmillan.

Bem, S. L. (1993). The lenses of gender: Transforming the debate on sexual inequality. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Cann, A. (1993). Evaluative expectations and the gender schema: Is failed inconsistency better? Sex Roles, 28, 667-678.

Condry, J. C., & Condry, S. (1976). Sex differences: A study in the eye of the beholder. Child Development, 47, 812-819.

Flanders, L. (1997). Real majority, media minority: The cost of sidelining women in reporting. Monroe, ME: Common Courage Press.

Jones, M. (1991). Gender stereotyping in advertisements. Teaching of Psychology 18, 231-233.

Macrae, C. N., Hewstone, M., & Griffiths, R. J. (1993). Processing load and memory for stereotype-based information. European Journal of Social Psychology 23, 77-87.

Miller, D. T., Taylor, B., & Buck, M. L. (1991). Gender gaps: Who needs to be explained? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 61, 5-12.

Peirce, K. (1990). A feminist theoretical perspective on the socialization of teenage girls through Seventeen magazine. Sex Roles, 23, 491-500.

Sommers-Flanagan, R., Sommers-Flanagan, J., & Davis, B. (1993). What's happening on music television? A gender role content analysis. Sex Roles, 28, 745-753.

Tavris, C. (1992). The mismeasure of woman. New York: Simon & Schuster.

[This article was originally presented by Dr. Matlin as the Psi Chi Distinguished Lecture at the annual meeting of the Southeastern Psychological Association in Mobile, AL, March 27, 1998.]


Margaret W. Matlin, PhD, received her BA in psychology from Stanford University and her MA and PhD in experimental psychology from the University of Michigan. She holds the title of Distinguished Teaching Professor at State University of New York, College at Geneseo, where she has taught courses since 1971 in introductory psychology, experimental psychology, statistics, sensation and perception, cognitive psychology, human memory, human development, conflict resolution, issues in feminism, and psychology of women. In 1977, she received the State University of New York Chancellor's Award for Excellence in Teaching, and in 1985 she was awarded the American Psychological Association Teaching of Psychology Award in the 4-year college and university division. Her published work includes the books The Pollyanna Principle: Selectivity in Language, Memory and Thought; Human Experimental Psychology, Sensation, and Perception; Cognition; Psychology of Women; and Psychology.

Copyright 1999 (Volume 3, Issue 2) by Psi Chi, the International Honor Society in Psychology



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