Sharing Stories, Sharing Bias: How Descriptions of Context Shape Negative Stereotype Use in Response to Accounts of Economic Adversity

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How are negative stereotypes of low-income people transmitted from person to person and what kinds of conditions are likely to help the perpetuation of these stereotypes? A new study published in Social Problems from Mary Beth Fallin Hunzaker (Facebook) and Marcus Mann (Assistant Professor in Sociology, Purdue University), titled “Sharing Stories, Sharing Bias: How Descriptions of Context Shape Negative Stereotype Use in Response to Accounts of Economic Adversity,” builds on research on stereotype transmission and public responses to misfortune to help answer this question. In a study design meant to replicate a game of telephone, Hunzaker and Mann demonstrated how negative stereotypes about a blue-collar worker embedded in a story that was told from participant to participant were more likely to be perpetuated in stories where the blue-collar’s undesirable economic outcome was shared with a large group of people and where the outcome was not directly caused by an identifiable third party. In other words, negative stereotypes became more durable and common when economic misfortune was large-scale (shared with a lot of people) and uncontrollable (it was no one’s fault). These results have a wide range of implications, not the least of which is for those responsible for creating sympathetic portrayals of economic misfortune meant to minimize victim-blaming and encourage help-giving among the public.

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