Contrast effects in stereotype formation and change: the role of comparative context

Natalie A. Wyer, Melody S. Sadler, Charles M. Judd

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14 Citations (Scopus)


Two experiments investigated the way in which the presence of a comparative or inter-group context during stereotype formation affects stereotype change, induced by subsequent disconfirming information. Participants learned about a focal group, after learning about one of the two context groups. After reporting their stereotypes about both groups, participants learned additional information about the focal group. This information described new group members who either confirmed or disconfirmed the group stereotype. Consistent with previous research, participants formed more extreme stereotypes about the focal group on dimensions that distinguished it from the context group (i.e., a contrast effect). In response to the subsequently presented disconfirming group members, a greater stereotype change was observed on dimensions that distinguished the focal group from the context group than on dimensions it did not. We argue that these effects are due to differences in perceived typicality of disconfirming group members. 

Attempts by social psychologists to identify ways in which group stereotypes can be effectively changed have met with mixed success. Most of these attempts have explored the conditions under which stereotype-inconsistent information (in the form of behaviors or traits shown by group members) reduces stereotypic views of the group (e.g., Johnston & Hewstone, 1992; Kunda & Oleson, 1995; Rothbart, 1996; Rothbart & John, 1985; Weber & Crocker, 1983). The focus in this literature has largely been on characteristics of the stereotype-inconsistent information that facilitate or hinder stereotype change. 

To gain a better understanding of stereotype change, we argue in this paper that it is important to better understand the factors that affect stereotype formation and content in the first place. That is, we argue that change in response to stereotype-inconsistent information may importantly depend on the nature and content of the stereotype that one is attempting to change. 

Group stereotypes have been shown to be context-dependent. Beliefs about a particular group depend heavily on the comparative context in which those beliefs are salient. Our central thesis is that stereotype change in response to stereotype-inconsistent information also depends in predictable ways upon this comparative context. 

To develop the rationale for this hypothesis, we begin by reviewing what is known about the role of context in stereotype formation. In light of these effects, we then outline some ways in which these context effects may influence responses to stereotype-inconsistent information. Finally, we present the results of two studies designed to test these ideas.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)443-458
Number of pages16
JournalJournal of Experimental Social Psychology
Issue number5
Publication statusPublished - Sep 2002

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