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The Negative In Positive Stereotypes

Robert F. Bukaty

In an interview earlier this year, Sen. Harry Reid argued that it's time for a woman to run for president.

"Women have qualities that we've been lacking in America for a long time," he told New York Times reporter Adam Nagourney. For instance, he said, "Women are much more patient."

Reid's remarks reflect a positive stereotype — a belief that attributes a favorable characteristic to a group. In this case, it's that women have patience. Women are also stereotypically thought to be nurturing, Asian-Americans to be good at math, African-Americans to be good athletes, and so on.

These stereotypes are positive in one sense, but they also seem to validate thinking about others in terms of their sex, race or ethnicity, and not as individuals. Harry Reid's comments about the presidency, for example, were offered in reference to Hillary Clinton, but they failed to tell us anything about her as a unique individual. And they implicitly endorsed the view that sex is a meaningful category when it comes to possessing the characteristics of a good leader.

So, might positive stereotypes do more harm than good?

A new paper by Alexander Czopp, Aaron Kay and Sapna Cheryan, just published in the journal Perspectives on Psychological Science, reviews the evidence. They show that positive stereotypes can have some positive effects but when it comes to interpersonal and group interactions, the effects are predominantly negative.

In one study the paper describes, Asian-American participants heard a remark (from someone who wasn't Asian-American) that did or did not include a positive stereotype about Asian-Americans. Those participants who heard the stereotypical remark were more likely to assume that the speaker also held negative stereotypes about Asian-Americans.

In another study, participants watched a friendly interaction between a black actor and a white actor. Half of the participants saw a version in which the white actor endorsed a positive stereotype about blacks (that black people are amazing athletes); the other half did not. Without stereotype, black and white participants found the white actor equally likable. But when the white actor did endorse the positive stereotype, black participants — but not white participants — found the white actor significantly less likable and also more prejudiced. Presumably, because the stereotype was positive, the white participants failed to see the harm.

Unfortunately, the negative effects of positive stereotypes don't stop with our perceptions of others — they can also affect individual and societal decisions. For instance, one study found that participants who endorsed so-called "benevolent" stereotypes about women (e.g., that women are special, pure, communal, etc.) were more likely to endorse restrictions on the foods that pregnant women should be allowed to consume. Interestingly, there was no association between views about food restriction and the endorsement of hostile stereotypes (e.g., "Most women fail to appreciate fully all that men do for them").

Other research has found that exposure to benevolent stereotypes about women can lead women to regard the current system of gender relations as more legitimate and, probably as a result, make them less inclined to take action for social change. In contrast, exposure to negative stereotypes about women can increase motivation for social change.

While negative stereotypes are harmful, what this research shows is that positive stereotypes aren't so great either. In fact, positive stereotypes may be uniquely pernicious and difficult to quash. As Czopp and colleagues write, they "appear to fly under society's constant anti-bias radar."

When we do elect a woman as president, let's hope we do so because of who she is and not because of the stereotypes we hold about her sex — however "positive" they may seem.

Tania Lombrozo is a psychology professor at the University of California, Berkeley. She writes about psychology, cognitive science and philosophy, with occasional forays into parenting and veganism. You can keep up with more of what she is thinking on Twitter: @TaniaLombrozo

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Tania Lombrozo is a contributor to the NPR blog 13.7: Cosmos & Culture. She is a professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, as well as an affiliate of the Department of Philosophy and a member of the Institute for Cognitive and Brain Sciences. Lombrozo directs the Concepts and Cognition Lab, where she and her students study aspects of human cognition at the intersection of philosophy and psychology, including the drive to explain and its relationship to understanding, various aspects of causal and moral reasoning and all kinds of learning.

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