The Macrae experiment that we read in class this week, (Stereotypes as energy-saving devices: A peek inside the cognitive toolbox) found that the use of stereotypes is actually a cognitive tool our brain uses. In the study, whenever a stereotype label was present (regardless of whether the stereotype label was present consciously or unconsciously) participants remembered more stereotype consistent words and performed better on the additional task than participants who were not provided with a stereotype label. According to these findings, stereotypes are strategic tools used to enhance cognitive performance, so when the the stereotype is present we are able to effectively process other information at the same time. But what happens when these stereotypes take on a negative connotation?
An ABC program set up a social situation to see how people would react to a crime being committed based on the offender’s race. First, 3 white teenage boys were shown destroying and vandalizing a car in a public park. The boys continued spray painting, kicking and jumping on the car for hours, and in all that time only one person called the police. Most of the people who walked by didn’t even pay attention to the boys, 2 women passing even made jokes to the boys about what they were doing. And by the end of the day one man angrily intervened to stop the boys. To the shows surprise, two additional calls were made to the police-but not about the boys vandalizing the car. A man called the police twice reporting a parked car with 3 black teenage boys inside who according to the caller, “looked like they were possibly getting ready to rob somebody.” What were these boys doing? Sleeping. So the group of sleeping black teens raised more alarm to people in the park than the group of white teens creating a scene and destroying a car.
After this happened, ABC decided to recreate the situation but this time they replaced the 3 white teenagers with 3 black teenage boys. Within minutes of beginning to vandalize the car, people began quietly placing 9-1-1 calls from a distance. By the end of the day, a total of 10 phone calls were made to the police reporting the boys and much more people stepped in to intervene on the situation. When ABC interviewed these people many expressed that they were wary of confrontation and the possible dangers of stepping in.
When witnesses in the park were passing by they obviously had very different reactions to the black teenagers than they did when viewing the white teenagers wreck the car. When the bystanders saw the white boys vandalizing the car they most likely stereotyped them as wild teenage boys who were being loud, and rebellious. But when they people in the park saw the black boys, they stereotyped them as criminals who were dangerous and aggressive. Even though the two groups of boys were doing the exact same thing, the stereotypes and stereotype consistent traits lead to very different reactions. And then there is also the example of the call reporting the three black boys sleeping in the car. These boys had nothing to do with the attention grabbing social experiment being conducted yet these boys got accused of being potential robbers. Although the use of labels and categorization are effective tools to enhance cognitive processes, this video directly shows that stereotypes take on a different role when prejudice and discrimination are added to the equation.