Sunday, 16 May 2010

A very significant buttock

We all use psychological 'short cuts' from time to time in order to make sense of the world around us. These short cuts can affect the way we behave and interact with other people. For example, we often rely on stereotypes to to make judgements about other people. These are usually simplistic over-generalisations about members of certain groups.

You might think that suppressing our stereotypes might prevent them from influencing our behaviour. Not so. In a study by psychologists back in the 1990s, participants were shown a picture of a ‘skinhead’ and were asked to spend five minutes writing about a typical day in this man’s life. Participants were randomly assigned to one of two conditions. In the first condition (the control condition) they were simply allowed to write their account with no further instruction. However, in the second, experimental, condition participants were instructed to try to not allow any stereotypical preconceptions they might have to influence their account. That is, they were asked to suppress any stereotypical thoughts.

Not surprisingly, the accounts of the man’s day produced by the control group tended to be more ‘stereotypical’ in content than the accounts produced by the participants who had been asked to suppress their stereotypes. But this wasn’t what the researchers were really interested in…

After the participants had completed their task they were taken into another room to meet the man in the photograph. When they got there, the man had apparently nipped out to go to the toilet, and had left his denim jacket and bag on the end chair of a row of eight chairs. So, the experimenter asked the participant to sit and wait in one of the remaining chairs. The researchers were interested in which chair each participant chose to sit in. And guess what, they found a difference between the two conditions. The people who had been instructed to suppress any stereotypical thoughts tended, on average, to sit almost one chair further away from the man’s chair at the end of the row than did the people who had not been asked to suppress such thoughts!

Macrae, C. N., Bodenhausen, G. V., Milne, A. B. & Jetten, J. (1994). Out of mind but back in sight: Stereotypes on the rebound. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 67, 808–817.


  1. Because suppressing thoughts in this way tends to actually increase the chances that you will experience the thought you are trying to suppress!

    In order to write the account of the man's day without reference to stereotypical ideas, they would have had to think about such stereotypes quite a bit (but not to write about them). By the time they go to the next room, they don't need to suppress these thoughts any more... hence choosing, on average, to sit just that little bit further away from the man's chair!

    To put it another way... Don't think of a white bear. I said _don't_ think of a white bear!

  2. So true ! Very interesting...