Stereotype Threat: From Attitudes and Stereotypes to Sustainable Coexistence

Attitudes are individual, subjective assessments of social issues and are related to certain personal positions, e.g. attitudes towards black individuals performances at school. Attitudes are often associated with stereotypes and perform four essential functions. First, they serve as self-esteem protection while attitudes maintain or defend self-worth against negative emotions. For example, expressing negative attitudes towards black people in order to mentally enhance oneself. Secondly, attitudes act as an expression of the “self” allowing identification with a reference group. For example, one can have a white superiority attitude and therefore identify herself e.g. with the Ku-Klux-Klan. Thirdly, attitudes are based on social adjustment to gain rewards and to avoid punishment. For example, a non-racist individual in a majority racist community would adapt to avoid exclusion by the majority. The fourth function however, the knowledge- or economic function (german: Wissens- oder Ökonomiefunktion) is the most significant. Attitudes and stereotypes come into effect to organize perception and information. They ensure that information is filtered and categorized according to the attitude. In simple terms this means for example, if an individual has a negative attitude towards black people, she/he perceives all the information that corresponds to the attitude and filters out information that could lead to cognitive dissonance resulting in an emotional conflict.

For example, negative emotion towards black people in the United States are associated with fears of some white people (usually from lower social classes) of displacement, loss of income and further social decline, but are cognitively justified by the claim of homogeneity and the belief of being “superior” vis-à-vis their black fellow citizens.

Also, stereotypical attitudes are intensified by the above mentioned cognitive process of filtering out information via the knowledge- or economic function. This means that the complexity that surrounds our existence is simplified, so that the individual no longer has an overall picture in mind, but only a decimated one, which cognitively leads to a better adaptation of one’s own environment.

All of them are Bad, even if proven otherwise

With stereotypical thinking there no more is a just and rational assessment of individuals or groups in accordance with the “warmth principle” by which human characteristics such as kindness, helpfulness, honesty, trustworthiness, and morality are assessed. It is purely assessed on basis of a stereotypical perspective in which rational considerations are not taken into account in order to avoid cognitive dissonances.

Unworthy Political Actors

Discriminatory attitudes through stereotypical thinking by the majority toward minorities also influences government action via a feedback-loop (as it is the case with regards to president Trumps questionable policy-making) and legitimizes discrimination. Staats and Staats (1958) have also been able to prove in their experiment on evaluating conditioning, that people change their attitudes if they are exposed to a certain stimulus over and over again, a method President Trump frequently uses by repeatedly accusing immigrants of being rapists, drug-dealers and terrorists. Immigrants are therefore perceived as a threat to internal security and thus a risk factor.

From crumbling Societies to Sustainable Coexistence

Stereotypes ultimately lead to the division of social subgroups and if not acted against it, to an erosion of the “We-Feeling” within a country as we can currently witness in the USA, where the continuous killing of black citizens by white police officers triggered massive nation-wide protests.

In order for peaceful and respectful coexistence (IMO rather interexistence) in our societies to become a reality, it is important to educate all people to a maximum degree, to assure a minimum guaranteed income level in order to abolish poverty/anxiety and a framework within constitutions which prohibits racist individuals to perform political tasks with hefty prision terms for violators.


Butterwegge, Christoph. 2009. „Zuwanderer im Zerrspiegel der Massenmedien. Migrationsberichterstattung als Stimmungsmache.“ In: Jürgen Scheele (Hg.) Medien – Macht – Demokratie. Neue Perspektiven. Berlin: Karl Dietz Verlag. 175-198.

Festinger, Leon. 2014. A Theory of Social Comparison Processes” Human relations 1954 (7): 117-139.

Katz, Daniel. 1960. „The Functional Approach to the Study of Attitudes.” Public Opinion Quarterly 24 (2): 163-204.

Staats, Arthur. W./ Carolyn. W., Staats. 1958. „Attitudes established by classical conditioning.” Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology 57 (1): 37-40.

Zick, Andreas. 2004. „Soziale Einstellungen.“ in: Gert Sommer (Hg.) Krieg und Frieden. Handbuch der Konflikt- und Friedenspsychologie. 1. Auflage. Marburg: Beltz Verlag: 129-141.

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