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Boys Don’t Cry, But They Can Be Sensitive! Changing Evaluations of Counterstereotypical People

Stereotypes are pretty useful things! We use them to
help us to understand and respond to people from a large and diverse array of social groups. But how do people feel about individuals who buck the trend and contradict stereotypes? For example, how do people feel about a man who is crying or a woman who is smoking a cigar!

Most evidence shows that people react quite negatively towards counterstereotypical individuals. The typical explanation for this negative bias refers to people’s need to protect and maintain their stereotypes: People are biased against counterstereotypical individuals because they disconfirm stereotypes and threaten people’s need to maintain stable and coherent stereotype systems.

However, recent social psychological research has provided some hope for counterstereotypical people. This new evidence shows that, although counterstereotypical individuals are disliked when they are described using behaviours, they are actually liked when they are described using personality traits. So, for example, although people may dislike “a man who is crying”, they like “a sensitive man”. In both cases, the man is counterstereotypical because he contradicts a gender stereotype. However, in the former case he is described using a behavior (“crying”) and in the latter case he is described using a personality trait (“sensitive”). Notably, this linguistic description effect occurs even when the particular valence of the words that are used (positive/negative) is taken into account.

So, why does this linguistic description effect occur? Well, it’s possible that counterstereotypical individuals are evaluated relatively negatively when they are described using behaviours because this linguistic description promotes a deeper, more systematic processing of the person that highlights their stereotype disconfirmation and, as we know, people don’t like individuals who step out of line with their stereotypes! In contrast, counterstereotypical individuals may be evaluated relatively positively when they are described using personality traits because this linguistic description promotes a more superficial type of processing that highlights individuals’ uniqueness, and people tend to value uniqueness.

How is all this relevant to you? Well, if you stop for a minute and consider your own social categories (i.e., your gender, religion, occupation, age group, political orientation, etc), then I’m sure you’ll find at least one in which your own characteristics contradict your group’s stereotype. Now don’t worry – it's often good to be the black sheep! Throughout the ages, counterstereotypical people have been the agents of beneficial social change. For example, independent women (who were counterstereotypical for their time) spearheaded the Feminist movement. In addition, the diversity embodied by counterstereotypical people brings with it a wealth of positive outcomes in work and organisational contexts. So, you should feel proud if you’re different from the rest of your group. The trick is to get other people to appreciate you for your uniqueness, rather than to denigrate you for your deviance. And describing yourself in terms of personality traits rather than behaviours may provide one way to do this.

For further information, please see the following journal article:

Rubin, M., Paolini, S., & Crisp, R. J. (2012). Linguistic description moderates the evaluations of counterstereotypical people. Social Psychology, 44, 289-298 doi: 10.1027/1864-9335/a000114

A self-archived version of this paper is available here.

This research was supported by the Australian Research Council's Discovery Projects funding scheme (Project DP0556908). However, the views expressed above are not necessarily those of the Australian Research Council.