In his book, The Social Animal, Eliot Aronson discusses the human tendency to stereotype and how it relates to the phenomenon of Attribution:
When an event occurs, there is a tendency among individuals to try to attribute a
cause to that event. Specifically, if a person performs an action, observers will
make inferences about what caused that behaviour. Such casual inferences are
called attributions (230-231).
Aronson explains that the brain’s need to categorize in order to function effectively can at times devolve to an unintentional use of stereotyping that can be negative and abusive. With regards to behaviour, perception is further skewed by the human need to functionally interpret what they see other people do. Therefore, when an individual observes a person perform a certain action the observer “will make inferences about what caused the behaviour”(Aronson, 231). The human mind infers and adds to the observable raw data an attribution that, in turn, both creates and/or affirms a stereotype.
Consider the optics and the potential inferences for the following common observations:
- A young man standing outside a house party, occasionally looking up at the house and smoking a cigarette
- A young man standing outside a house party, occasionally looking up at the house
In option (a) the observer might simply infer that the young man is having a cigarette break. In option (b) the observer might infer that the young man is waiting for a ride home or, perhaps, was never a guest at the house party at all; the observer may even surmise a negative event having led to his withdrawal or expulsion from the party. The same scenario can be taken inside the establishment and replayed. A young man or woman standing alone smoking a cigarette and viewing a party or dance floor full of participants will create a different inference than a young man or woman standing alone viewing the same scene while not smoking a cigarette.
Consider another scenario that would be likely in any visit to the downtown of a large metropolitan:
- A man is pacing back and forth on a sidewalk talking loudly with no one else around
- A man is pacing back and forth on a sidewalk talking loudly with no one else around and a Bluetooth headset is seen wrapped around his ear.
In option (a) the inference might stereotype the subject as an individual who suffers from a form of mental instability. In option (b) any inference of mental instability would be dispelled upon observing the mobile phone headset in the speaker’s ear.
A further consideration to the above phenomenon is the way our own fear of being negatively perceived regulates and influences our behaviour. For example, a non-smoker standing on the sidelines of a party may take out his cell phone and begin working over it in order to create a different optic for observers to perceive. In the old days, an individual may have closely examined an otherwise uninteresting plant, taken a walk in the garden or, perhaps, even asked someone for a cigarette. Consequently, why we do the things we do is often linked to how we view the things we view.
Aronson, Elliot. The Social Animal. 4th Edition.
: W.H. Freeman & New York