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Social and Personality Psychology Compass 3 (2009): 10.1111/j.1751-9004.2009.00167.x

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Blackwell
Oxford,
Social
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1751-9004
Journal
February
10.1111/j.1751-9004.2009.00167.x
167
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Social Categorization and Stereotyping In vivo:


The VUCA Challenge
Galen V. Bodenhausen* and Destiny Peery
Northwestern University

Abstract

A substantial literature has examined the nature of social categorization, a fundamental


process having important implications for a wide variety of social phenomena.
The great majority of this research has focused on the role of particular, clearly
identified social categories (e.g. race, nationality, etc.) while ignoring or holding
constant other identity dimensions. This approach has afforded considerable
leverage for understanding how salient social identities influence perception,
judgment, and behavior. However, it leaves unaddressed many questions about
how particular social identities become salient and how (and whether) identities
might be inferred when category membership is ambiguous or unknown.
Everyday social perception often occurs under conditions of volatility (dynamic
contexts), uncertainty (missing information), complexity (multiple bases for
categorization), and ambiguity (unclear meaning of available cues). As a consequence,
research must address how these factors might qualify basic processes of social
categorization. Available evidence is reviewed, and directions for future research
are discussed.

The central importance of social categorization in shaping perception,


judgment, and behavior has long been recognized. The writings of seminal
theorists such as Allport (1954), Sherif (1948), and Tajfel (1974) emphasized
the significance of the psychological borderlines that define membership
in particular social groups, and countless studies have examined the
consequences of salient category memberships on social functioning (for
reviews, see Brewer & Brown, 1985; Macrae & Bodenhausen, 2000). In
this article, we focus on research examining the role played by social
categories in basic processes of social perception and cognition. The
dominant research strategy in this domain has been straightforward and
powerful: manipulate the identity of a target in a manner that makes
membership in a given category salient and clear, while holding constant
all else that is known about the target. Goldbergs (1968) classic study of sex
discrimination provides a prototypic example. In this research, participants
evaluated the quality of written essays; essay content was held constant,
but the name of the ostensible author was manipulated in a manner clearly
2009 The Authors
Journal Compilation 2009 Blackwell Publishing Ltd

2 Social Categorization In vivo

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conveying the sex of the author (e.g. John versus Joan). Although the
results of that particular study have been challenged (Swim, Borgida,
Maruyama, & Myers, 1989), the basic methodology has remained popular
and has even been refined. Kasof (1993) pointed out that particular names
can signal other social category memberships besides gender (e.g. age
group or ethnicity), and they may also have personality connotations.
Consequently, he provided pretested sets of names that differed in terms
of gender but no other salient associations, so that researchers could more
cleanly manipulate gender identities and nothing else.
This basic method of using salient cues to manipulate a targets social
category has been widely adopted in studies of stereotyping and discrimination, both in the realm of gender bias and beyond, and it is not difficult
to understand why. The logic is straightforward and the results provide a
compelling picture of just how much ones membership in particular
social categories can modify how one is perceived by others. However, in
everyday life, it is relatively rare that others are encountered in such neatly
pre-packaged ways. The real social environment is much messier, an idea
embodied in the military acronym used to describe the complicated
real-world circumstances in which strategic decisions must be made: VUCA
(e.g. Johansen, 2007). VUCA stands for Volatility (a dynamically changing
social context), Uncertainty (missing information), Complexity (multiple
potentially relevant dimensions), and Ambiguity (multiple possible interpretations of available information). For example, upon encountering an
actual person, rather than a carefully constructed laboratory stimulus
person, there will inevitably be multiple potential bases for categorization,
confronting the social perceiver with the problem of complexity. Recent
research has tackled many aspects of these complicating realities of
real-world social perception, and our goal in the present article is to begin
to outline the richer picture of social categorization and stereotyping that
emerges from this research. We begin our review by summarizing recent
theoretical and empirical approaches to the complexity problem, which
in many respects provides the foundation for each of the subsequently
considered aspects of the VUCA challenge.
The Problem of Complexity
Although scholars have periodically called for research examining the full
multidimensionality of a given individuals social identities, by and large,
researchers have tended to examine social identities one at a time (Frable,
1997). As just noted, prominent research strategies often explicitly attempt
to insure that only one focal identity category is salient to social perceivers.
This approach necessarily involves impoverished, artificial stimulus
persons, because when actual persons are encountered, multiple identities
can be readily detected from visual cues alone. How do perceivers deal
with this complexity? Do they simultaneously categorize the target in all
2009 The Authors
Social and Personality Psychology Compass 3 (2009): 10.1111/j.1751-9004.2009.00167.x
Journal Compilation 2009 Blackwell Publishing Ltd

Social Categorization In vivo

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available ways, or do they only activate a subset of the possibilities? The


consequences of focusing on one particular social category, rather than
other equally applicable ones, can be considerable. For example, Mitchell,
Nosek, and Banaji (2003) showed that exposure to the same set of Black
athletes resulted in relatively negative automatic associations when the
individuals were categorized on the basis of their race, but relatively
positive automatic associations when they were categorized by their
(admired) occupation. Of course, in this research, participants were instructed
to focus on a particular category. What happens when perceivers have the
freedom to spontaneously categorize a multifaceted social target?
Bodenhausen and Macrae (1998) proposed a theoretical perspective
on the complexity problem that is built on the assumption that social
categorization is dynamic and involves the activation of some aspects of a
targets identity and the inhibition of other aspects. The central idea is that
in many circumstances, a single basis for categorization will come to
dominate social cognition, organizing perception and guiding inferences.
To the extent that other category cues are noticed, they are likely to be
treated as circumscribed personal attributes rather than identity-defining
social categories (see Bodenhausen, Macrae, & Sherman, 1999); as a result,
the various kinds of stereotypic associations that would normally come to
mind regarding these other identities will tend to be actively inhibited
(Macrae, Bodenhausen, & Milne, 1995). For example, Macrae et al. showed
that when a targets ethnic identity was dominant, stereotypes associated
with her gender were actively inhibited, whereas when a targets gender
identity was dominant, stereotypes associated with her ethnicity were
actively inhibited. Quinn and Macrae (2005) also showed that, upon
seeing a multiply-categorizable target, category activation is limited to
task-relevant dimensions of identity; equally applicable but task-irrelevant
categories were not activated. The functional argument is that particularly
meaningful identities are the ones that get activated, while inhibitory
processes help to keep distracting or competing information out of working
memory, where it could interfere with ongoing functions of the cognitive
system (see Dagenbach & Carr, 1994). In this way, a complicated and
potentially contradictory set of informational cues can be organized into
a coherent, well-structured impression that is guided by the dominant
social categorization framework.
Of course, this perspective immediately invites the question: which
category becomes dominant in any given instance? Properties of the
stimulus, the perceiver, and the setting can all be important in determining
the salience of a potential basis for categorization (for a review, see
Bodenhausen, Todd, & Becker, 2007). For example, on the stimulus side,
several studies have shown that the prototypicality of a given individual
with respect to a particular category strongly moderates the likelihood that
(s)he will become the target of categorical bias (e.g. Eberhardt, Davies,
Purdie-Vaughns, & Johnson, 2006; Maddox, 2004). When a target is not
2009 The Authors
Social and Personality Psychology Compass 3 (2009): 10.1111/j.1751-9004.2009.00167.x
Journal Compilation 2009 Blackwell Publishing Ltd

4 Social Categorization In vivo

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particularly prototypical of a given identity (e.g. race), then alternative


bases for categorization may be pursued for which greater prototypicality
exists (e.g. gender or occupation), or the target may be individuated (Fiske
& Neuberg, 1990). Eberhardt et al. (2006) provided a particularly compelling demonstration of this prototypicality effect, by showing that the
likelihood of a Black defendant receiving a death sentence is an increasing
function of his racial prototypicality. On the perceiver side, the perceivers
goals may direct attention toward goal-relevant bases for categorization
(see Bodenhausen & Hugenberg, forthcoming), and chronic prejudices
held by perceivers may make prejudice-relevant identities more salient
(Allport & Kramer, 1946; Stangor, Lynch, Duan, & Glass, 1992). The main
point of Bodenhausen and Macraes (1998) analysis is that in a variety of
circumstances, a particular social category will come to dominate the
social perception process in a manner that solves the complexity problem
quite efficiently, by activating concepts stereotypically associated with this
dominant identity while simultaneously inhibiting competing organizational
frameworks.
However, it is clearly the case that perceivers also sometimes pay attention
to more than one category at a time. This phenomenon has been extensively
investigated in research on crossed-categorization effects (for a review, see
Crisp & Hewstone, 2007). As emphasized in the common ingroup
identity model (Dovidio, Gaertner, & Saguy, 2009), some categories exist
within a nested structure, such that a member of any subordinate category
is also necessarily a member of more inclusive, superordinate identities
(e.g. a German is necessarily also a European), and it is possible that
categories at more than one level of inclusiveness may be simultaneously
considered by social perceivers. However, many social categories are not
hierarchically nested; rather, they are orthogonal to one another (e.g. sex
and race) or correlated to an unknown degree (e.g. sex and occupation).
Research on crossed-categorizations has focused primarily on the consequences of these kinds of multiple-category memberships. Multiple
categories can become simultaneously activated in the minds of social
perceivers in a variety of circumstances, including (a) when there is no
clear basis for category dominance, (b) when perceivers possess the
motivation to think more deeply about a social target and thus go beyond
the most salient social category, and (c) when the situation explicitly draws
attention to more than one basis for categorization. Research in which
two identity dimensions are made simultaneously salient for participants
has shown that the number of category memberships shared between
perceiver and target (i.e. 0, 1, or 2) typically influences evaluations of and
behavior toward the target in an additive fashion (Crisp & Hewstone,
1999). Particularly noteworthy is the comparison between a case where
only a single diverging categorization is salient (e.g. the perceiver is White
and the target is Black) versus a case where this diverging categorization
is crossed with a different, shared categorization (e.g. the White perceiver
2009 The Authors
Social and Personality Psychology Compass 3 (2009): 10.1111/j.1751-9004.2009.00167.x
Journal Compilation 2009 Blackwell Publishing Ltd

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and the Black target are both Christians). The addition of a shared categorical
identity tends to markedly reduce intergroup bias (in this example, racial
bias); by the same token, the addition of a second non-shared categorical
identity (e.g. Christian versus Muslim) tends to exacerbate intergroup bias
(for a review, see Migdal, Hewstone, & Mullen, 1998).
Research has also sometimes revealed more complex evaluative tendencies
toward cross-categorized targets than the additive pattern just described
(Crisp & Hewstone, 2007; Vescio, Judd, & Chua, 2006). For example, a
social-inclusion pattern is said to occur when a target who shares any
categorical identity with the perceiver is viewed equivalently favorably
(irrespective of whether just one or two or more identities are shared).
Research on crossed-categorization effects has shed considerable light on
the evaluative outcomes that emerge when targets identities are more
than one-dimensional, but much less is known about the patterns of
stereotype activation and application that might characterize perceptions
of these complex targets. If a perceiver encounters an Asian woman under
conditions in which both identities are salient, the existing literature
would provide a firm basis for hypothesizing about how this person will
be globally evaluated, depending on the ethnicity and gender of the
perceiver. However, what if the perceiver wants to make a specific inductive
inference about the target, such as whether she will be a good candidate
for graduate training in engineering? Here, descriptive as well as evaluative
considerations are important, and in this case the two categories produce
conflicting stereotypes (i.e. women are stereotypically seen as less well-suited
for engineering than men, whereas Asians are stereotypically seen as more
well-suited for engineering than many other ethnic groups are). Evidence
bearing on this question is limited, but one relevant study was conducted
by Pittinsky, Shih, and Trahan (2006), who showed that subtle situational
cues oriented perceivers to stereotype multiply-categorizable targets either
on the basis of their gender or their ethnicity, but not both; Klauer,
Ehrenberg, and Wegener (2003) provided converging evidence. More
research is required to understand how stereotyping unfolds when perceivers
are confronted with realistically multidimensional social targets.
Certain kinds of categorical conjunctions, or intersectional identities,
may even render a person less likely to be noticed or considered at all.
Purdie-Vaughns and Eibach (2008) argue that when individuals possess
two or more subordinated social identities (e.g. gay African Americans),
they are subject to intersectional invisibility, because they are not prototypic
of either of their respective identity groups (i.e. the prototypical gay
person is not African American, and the prototypical African American
is not gay). This perspective offers an interesting counterpoint to the
notion of double jeopardy, which asserts that each additional subordinated
identity a person possesses is likely to magnify the disadvantage (s)he
experiences (e.g. Berdahl & Moore, 2006; Davis, 1981). Specifically,
members of multiple subordinate groups may be susceptible to an arguably
2009 The Authors
Social and Personality Psychology Compass 3 (2009): 10.1111/j.1751-9004.2009.00167.x
Journal Compilation 2009 Blackwell Publishing Ltd

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even more insidious form of discrimination social invisibility. This


invisibility may possibly result in individuals experiencing less of the
discrimination and oppression targeted at their respective identity groups,
given that non-prototypical members of stigmatized groups are less likely
to be targets of bias (e.g. Eberhardt et al., 2006; Maddox, 2004). However,
invisibility subjects people to different forms of unfair treatment or
non-treatment, as the case may be. Non-prototypical members of groups
are less likely to be noticed, to be heard, or to have influence over other
members of their groups (e.g. Hogg, 2001). Purdie-Vaughns and Eibach
(2008) review a variety of cultural, political, and legal disadvantages that
are likely to be associated with intersectional invisibility of this sort. Thus,
it seems that the multiple-category problem can sometimes be more
problematic for the target than for the perceiver.
Beyond constructing ad hoc, hybrid representations of targets for whom
two (or more) categories are salient, perceivers also develop more enduring
subtypes. When a particular combination of social categories is encountered
with sufficient regularity, perceivers can construct a representation of this
particular conjunction of identities that comes to function much like onedimensional categories do (Brewer, Dull, & Lui, 1981). That is, typical
features become associated with the category conjunction, and these
stereotypic features may be activated automatically once a target is identified
as a member of the subtype. It is clear that the content of such stereotypes
is not necessarily simply inherited from the parent categories (Kunda,
Miller, & Claire, 1990); rather, emergent properties can come to characterize
the conjunction that would not be viewed as typical of either parent
category. The fact that the content of subtypes can be so distinctly different
from that of the separate constituent identities raises the interesting
possibility that the latter categories may compete with the subtype as a
basis for organizing social perception, resulting in their active inhibition
when the deviating subtype becomes dominant (see Macrae, Bodenhausen,
Milne, & Castelli, 1999).
When perceivers encounter a social target who displays a substantial
number of salient category cues, it is also possible that categorical processing
of the target will be abandoned, so long as the identified categories do
not converge in their implications (Hall & Crisp, 2005). This process is
known as decategorization (Crisp & Hewstone, 2007) or personalization
(Brewer, 1988). Any attribute a person possesses is a potential basis for
social categorization (e.g. introverts, opera fans, etc.; see Bodenhausen
et al., 1999). However, when personalization occurs, the individuals
characteristics operate as more circumscribed personal descriptors (rather
than as global organizing frameworks) that serve to differentiate him or
her from other individuals. In order to arrive at an evaluation of the
personalized target, the implications of identified attributes must be
integrated in an impression-formation process that is often assumed to be
effortful and resource-consuming (e.g. Fiske & Neuberg, 1990; but see
2009 The Authors
Social and Personality Psychology Compass 3 (2009): 10.1111/j.1751-9004.2009.00167.x
Journal Compilation 2009 Blackwell Publishing Ltd

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Kunda & Thagard, 1996). In this sense, social perceivers multiple-category


problem is transformed into a multiple-attribute problem (e.g. Edwards &
Newman, 1982) when personalization occurs.
It is thus apparent that the complexity problem facing social perceivers
in everyday life has produced multiple coping strategies, including (a)
focusing attention on a dominant category and neglecting or inhibiting
alternative categories; (b) constructing ad hoc, hybrid representations that
rely on more than one category to define anothers identity; (c) constructing
stable subtype representations that capture the characteristics of frequently
encountered category conjunctions; (d) ignoring or overlooking individuals
who do not fit neatly into preconceived categories (i.e. intersectional
invisibility); and (e) abandoning social categorization in favor of personalized
impressions.
The Problem of Volatility
The inherent complexity of social targets sets the stage for the possibility
of dynamic cross-temporal and cross-situational variations in how a given
individual is categorized, producing the volatility problem. As targets
move into and out of social roles (e.g. Stryker & Serpe, 1982), pursue
goals and enact habits associated with particular environmental cues
(Aarts, 2007), and generally respond to the affordances and constraints
imposed by the social situation (Reis, 2008), perceivers may categorize
them in different ways. The idea that social categorization is responsive to
situational contingencies is a central element of self-categorization theory
(SCT; Turner, Oakes, Haslam, & McGarty, 1994). According to SCT,
situational features often provide strong cues to the relevance of particular
social identities. One type of cue is normative fit, or the extent to which
a targets behavior aligns with the norms and stereotypes associated with
a particular category to which (s)he belongs (Oakes, 1987). In keeping
with this idea, Macrae et al. (1995) found that when a Chinese woman
was seen applying make-up, gender stereotypes were activated but ethnic
stereotypes were inhibited, whereas when the same target was seen eating
rice with chopsticks, ethnic stereotypes were activated but gender stereotypes
were inhibited.
Comparative fit can also cue particular categorical identities, to the
extent that these identities can account for patterns of similarities and
differences observed in a given situation (e.g.,Wegener & Klauer, 2004).
Identities can also pop out simply by virtue of being statistically rare,
either in general or in a given context, such as being the only woman in
a room full of men (e.g. Biernat & Vescio, 1993). All of these findings suggest
that a crucially important property of social situations that influences how
perceivers categorize others is the comparative context that is made salient
in the situation, in addition to the baseline salience or accessibility of the
candidate categories (e.g. Rutland & Cinnirella, 2000).
2009 The Authors
Social and Personality Psychology Compass 3 (2009): 10.1111/j.1751-9004.2009.00167.x
Journal Compilation 2009 Blackwell Publishing Ltd

8 Social Categorization In vivo

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In the case of hierarchically nested social categories, context can signal


which level of the hierarchy is most relevant to ongoing behavior. For
example, Nicolas Sarkozy might alternately be categorized as Parisian,
French, or European, depending on whether the context makes regional,
national, or continental concerns salient. Shifts to more inclusive types of
categorizations can have noteworthy effects on social evaluation, particularly
when they result in the target being included in a category to which the
perceiver also belongs. A German might evaluate Sarkozy more favorably
when thinking of him as a European (a shared ingroup) rather than as a
Frenchman (an outgroup), as emphasized in the common ingroup identity
model (e.g. Dovidio, Gaertner, & Taguy, forthcoming). However, research
has also shown that shifting comparative contexts can modify the characteristics
that are seen as most prototypic or defining of shared superordinate
categories, in ways that overvalue the assumed characteristics of ones own
subordinate category (e.g. Waldzus, Mummendey, & Wenzel, 2005; Wenzel,
Mummendey, Weber, & Waldzus, 2003). Thus, although the hypothetical
German may categorize Sarkozy as European when the context promotes
that level of abstraction, Sarkozy may nevertheless be seen as a less prototypic
European than, for example, Angela Merkel, and therefore still be subjected
to devaluation. In other words, the basic-level categories that are most
commonly used in construing the social world in particular the ones in
which the perceiver holds membership may continue to exert an
influence on social perception, even when a shared superordinate category
is activated by the comparative context.
Just as some contexts can push perceivers to categorize at a level superordinate to basic-level categories, other contexts can make subtypes salient.
Wittenbrink, Judd, and Park (2001) showed that White participants automatic
reactions to a Black target varied as a function of whether he was depicted
on an urban street corner or inside a church, with more positive automatic
reactions being evident in the latter context. When targets are seen in
particular social roles (churchgoer, prisoner, lawyer; see Barden, Maddux,
Petty, & Brewer, 2004), it is likely that the basic-level categories will be
abandoned in favor of more circumscribed subtypes that vary considerably
in their evaluative connotations (Devine & Baker, 1991). Findings such as these
emphasize the situational malleability of social categorization and document
that even perceivers most automatic responses to the social world shift
according to context. Moreover, even when a given category remains constant,
the stereotypes relevant to that category may shift when category members
are encountered in different contexts. Mendoza-Denton, Park, and OConnor
(2008) demonstrated that gender stereotypes are situationally moderated;
specifically, they showed that men were expected to be more assertive than
women in work and sport situations, but women were expected to be
more assertive than men in hearth and home situations. Thus, like the
categories with which they are associated, stereotypes are dynamic and
context sensitive (Garcia-Marques, Santos, & Mackie, 2006).
2009 The Authors
Social and Personality Psychology Compass 3 (2009): 10.1111/j.1751-9004.2009.00167.x
Journal Compilation 2009 Blackwell Publishing Ltd

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Different social environments can also change the priorities and


momentary biases of the social perceiver in ways that influence how
others are categorized. For instance, situational contexts can influence the
epistemic motives of the perceiver and thereby influence the type of
categorization process that unfolds. Situations that impose time constraints
increase the need for closure (Kruglanski & Webster, 1996), making it less
likely that multiple bases for categorization will be considered; under such
circumstances, impressions may be particularly likely to focus on a single
dominant category. Conversely, situations that increase motivation for
accuracy, such as when ones outcomes depend on the veracity of ones
judgments (Erber & Fiske, 1984) or when one will be held to account for
ones judgments (Tetlock, Skitka, & Boettger, 1989), may increase the
extent to which perceivers attend to multiple possible bases for social
categorization. For example, Pendry and Macrae (1996) showed that,
whereas both accountable and unaccountable participants automatically
categorized a visually presented target at the level of her gender, only
accountable participants also categorized her at the subtype level (i.e.
businesswoman). Additionally, situationally salient motives can direct
perceivers toward particular kinds of social categorizations. When perceivers
self-esteem is momentarily threatened, it may motivate them to perceive
others in terms of relatively devalued social categories, so that ensuing
feelings of superiority can assuage their bruised egos (e.g. Fein & Spencer,
1997; Kunda & Spencer, 2003).
It is thus apparent that social categorization of any given target can be
quite volatile and subject to rapid situational modulation. Situations can
directly influence social categorizations by (a) presenting a pattern of
behavioral cues that can be easily accounted for by a particular category,
as emphasized by self-categorization theory, (b) inviting comparisons that
privilege a particular level of abstraction in the social categorization process,
or (c) signaling the relevance of specific subtypes. Situations can also
indirectly influence social categorization by activating particular goals and
motives within the perceiver that then bear on the process and outcomes
of social categorization. In everyday life, social targets are moving targets.
The Problems of Uncertainty and Ambiguity
Uncertainty and ambiguity are closely related concepts. For our purposes, the
primary distinction concerns the availability versus the clarity of relevant
information. Uncertainty exists when relevant information is unavailable
and thus unknown, whereas ambiguity exists when relevant information
is available, but its meaning is unclear. Because there can be some blurring
between these cases, we will consider both problems together.
Do people engage in social categorization on the basis of unavailable
information? At first blush this seems rather unlikely, but in fact, the
literature suggests that there are indeed certain default categories that tend
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to be assumed in the absence of any clear data to the contrary. Silveira


(1980) proposed that, by default, people = male, an assertion that has
subsequently been supported empirically (e.g. Hamilton, 1991; Merritt &
Harrison, 2006). That is, when a persons gender is not known, the
individual is assumed to be male. One argument about why this may be
the case is that in a traditionally sexist culture, the category male is
regarded as the central and important one; deviations from this valued
identity are thus psychologically marked and will tend to be explicitly
noted. Unless membership in the relatively devalued category is explicitly
noted, then membership in the culturally dominant category is assumed.
A similar argument could be made regarding ethnicity, and at least among
White people, there is indeed a tendency for a people = White default
assumption (Merritt & Harrison, 2006). Research looking at the amount
of time taken to categorize multiply categorizable targets has also pointed
toward a white male default representation of persons (e.g. Richeson &
Trawalter, 2005; Zrate & Sandoval, 1995).
Pratto, Korchmaros, and Hegarty (2007) further postulated the
existence of more fine-tuned default assumptions based on stereotypic
genderoccupation and raceoccupation combinations. For example,
professional basketball player = Black, while professional golf player = White.
Pratto et al. showed that gender and race tend to be explicitly mentioned
only when people deviate from what is typical for their occupation. Other
kinds of categories also carry racial and gender connotations. For example,
Wirth and Bodenhausen (forthcoming) showed that different types of
mental illnesses carry gender-based expectations that have a systematic
influence on the stigmatizing reactions elicited by persons experiencing
mental health problems (e.g. depression is associated with women, while
alcoholism is associated with men). In this sense, even when information
about race or gender is not explicitly available, default assumptions
nevertheless can provide an unspoken background on which more focal
qualities of the target are evaluated. It is thus apparent that many social
categories have racial and gender elements folded into them, sometimes in
a quite implicit way and these elements carry status-related connotations
that can be quite consequential.
Another context in which categorization can proceed in the absence of
explicit information is the case of concealable identities. Sexual orientation
provides one example. Unless a person discloses his or her sexual orientation
or engages in relevant public displays of affection, there is uncertainty about
category membership. Undoubtedly, there is a people = heterosexual
default assumption, but there is also an implicit lay inversion theory of
homosexuality that holds that gay men have feminine qualities and
lesbians have masculine qualities (Kite & Deaux, 1987). As a consequence,
feminine men may often be categorized as gay, and masculine women
categorized as lesbians, in the absence of any definitive information about
the targets sexual orientation (e.g. Deaux & Lewis, 1984; McCreary, 1994).
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Such categorizations can happen rapidly and on the basis of very limited
samples of behavior (Ambady, Hallahan, & Conner, 1999; Johnson, Gill,
Reichman, & Tassinary, 2007). Moreover, these categorizations can have
noteworthy effects on subsequent information processing, regardless of
whether they are accurate or erroneous (Rule, Ambady, Adams, & Macrae,
2007). Collectively, this research suggests that social perceivers readily
categorize targets in ways that are not supported by definitive explicit
evidence, suggesting that the problem of uncertainty is not particularly
troubling to perceivers in many circumstances.
The ambiguity problem arises when perceivers are uncertain which of
two (or more) ostensibly mutually exclusive categories applies to a target.
For example, we may occasionally encounter people who are sufficiently
androgynous to make it difficult to ascertain their gender, and at least one
study suggests that with brief exposure, androgynous individuals can
sometimes be miscategorized on the basis of gender-atypical features
(very long hair, for a man, or very short hair, for a woman; see Macrae
& Martin, 2007).
In contrast to gender ambiguity, ethnic ambiguity may be a much more
common phenomenon, and one for which more relevant research is available. Ethnic ambiguity, in terms of visual appearance, can exist simply
because of phenotypic variability within ethnic groups. In one of the
earliest studies on the categorization of racially ambiguous faces, Pettigrew,
Allport, and Barnett (1958) had South African subjects categorize facial
pictures as European or African. Included in the stimulus set were racially
mixed faces, and the results showed that White participants were quite
unlikely to categorize these faces as Europeans, a finding consistent with
the ingroup overexclusion effect (Leyens & Yzerbyt, 1992), the tendency
to be quite careful and conservative regarding who is admitted to
membership in ones ingroup categories. More recent evidence also supports
the operation of this phenomenon in the domain of racial categorization
and links it especially to individuals who have a strong allegiance to the
ingroup. For example, Blascovich, Wyer, Swart, and Kibler (1997) showed
that high-prejudice White participants took significantly longer to categorize
racially ambiguous faces, apparently out of a more acute concern to get
it right. Castano, Yzerbyt, Bourguignon, and Seron (2002) also showed
that highly identified northern Italians were generally more likely to
categorize ambiguous the faces as southern rather than northern Italians,
compared to low identifiers. These studies collectively suggest that ethnic
ambiguity is typically resolved by placing targets into outgroups rather
than ingroups.
Hugenberg and Bodenhausen (2004) reported studies showing that the
ambiguity and volatility problems can sometimes intersect. In their
research, White participants were asked to categorize racially ambiguous
faces as Black or White. The central hypothesis was that categorizations
would be influenced by momentary features of the faces that either did
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or did not align with stereotypic expectations for a given ethnic category.
A social targets affective state is one volatile situational factor that may
relate to stereotypic expectations. Specifically, because cultural stereotypes
portray African-American men as hostile, it was hypothesized that angry
racially ambiguous faces would be more likely to be categorized as Black,
whereas happy racially ambiguous faces would be more likely to be
categorized as White. This pattern was in fact observed, but only for
individuals who were relatively high in implicit racial prejudice and therefore
more likely to hold a stereotypic view of African Americans. Hutchings
and Haddock (forthcoming) replicated these findings and further showed
that the angry expression evident on the face of a racially ambiguous
target was judged to be more intense among participants who were high
in implicit racial prejudice (see also Hugenberg & Bodenhausen, 2003).
In the bulk of the research on ethnic ambiguity discussed above, faces
were intentionally created or selected by researchers to be ambiguous. In
everyday life, individuals who happen to have ambiguous facial physiognomies have various options for altering their appearance to more closely
approximate a particular racial or ethnic identity prototype. For example,
hairstyles and clothing choices can increase an otherwise ambiguous targets
fit to an ethnic category prototype. MacLin and Malpass (2001) examined
categorizations of faces that were ambiguous as to whether they were
African American or Hispanic. By adding either a Black or Hispanic hair
style to the same face, racial categorizations markedly diverged. Moreover,
associated perceptual distortions were observed, such that the same face
was judged to be darker and to have a wider mouth when it was depicted
with an African American, rather than a Hispanic, hairstyle, a phenomenon
dubbed the ambiguous-race face illusion.
Of course, many individuals appear to be ambiguous with respect to
traditional racial or ethnic groups because they are in fact multiracial. As
such, the expectation that they can or should be categorized in terms of
historically distinct racial categories deserves to be examined. When
perceivers are forced to choose, for example, either Black or White as
the suitable category for a particular ambiguous target, the choice may not
necessarily reflect how they would spontaneously categorize a potentially
multiracial individual. It may be the case that perceivers attempt to pigeonhole
ambiguous targets into one conventional monoracial category or another,
but it may also be the case that they view more than one category is being
applicable to the target (e.g. both Black and White), or they may categorize
the individual in terms of a more novel category conjunction that has its own
characteristics and is not merely the conjunction of the two monoracial
parent categories.
Peery and Bodenhausen (2008) investigated this very question by having
participants categorize racially ambiguous targets who had been identified
as biracial via pictures of a Black/White interracial couple representing
the parents of the target. By using a speeded dual-categorization task,
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which required Black/not Black and White/not White judgments for the
same targets, Peery and Bodenhausen were able to more definitively
determine whether participants tended to apply monoracial or multiple
categories. In the dual-categorization task, there are four possible
categorization patterns: Black (and not White), White (and not Black),
both Black and White (reflecting the conjunction of the parent categories),
or neither Black nor White (reflecting a special subtype). The ingroup
overexclusion effect described above suggests that White participants
would tend to select not White responses for biracial targets, but it does
not provide a firm basis for deciding whether they will select the Black
or not Black category for these targets. Historically in the United States,
racially mixed persons were defined as belonging to the racial group of
their socially subordinate (i.e. minority) parent. This rule, termed the
principle of hypodescent, characterized legal as well as lay definitions of
racial group membership in earlier times. If this rule still influences racial
categorizations, it would lead to the prediction that many perceivers will
categorize biracial targets as Black (and not White). Indeed, in a speeded
categorization task, the racially ambiguous faces were significantly more
likely to be categorized as monoracially Black when the target was explicitly
known to be biracial, compared to when the ancestry of the same person
was unspecified. These results suggest that cultural traditions specifying
the rules of category membership provide another basis for resolving
ambiguity concerning a targets social identity. An important direction for
future research will be to examine how stereotyping unfolds in the case
of biracial targets. Even though they may commonly be categorized as
Black, they may nevertheless be seen as relatively non-prototypic of that
category and thus be less prone to stereotyping and discrimination on the
basis of race (e.g., Maddux, 2004).
Thus, categorization of social targets can be complicated by missing or
ambiguous information pertaining to commonly referenced social identities
such as race and gender. This uncertainty or ambiguity may be resolved
by (a) relying on default category assumptions (e.g., people = White) or
theories about cues to category membership (e.g., feminine man = gay
man), (b) avoiding inclusion of ambiguous persons in ones ingroup (i.e.,
ingroup overexclusion), unless it is somehow beneficial to do so, or (c)
looking for alignment with existing stereotypes that might suggest a
particular category membership. Coping with uncertainty or ambiguity may
not always require adherence to strict categories though, as an increasingly
complex and heterogeneous world may lead to the formation of new
categories (e.g., categorizing multiracial people as such rather than relying
on existing monoracial categories).
Conclusion
Remember this: VUCA is where history happens
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This quote, attributed to Col. Will Gunn in Brenner (2007), drives home
the point that in the real world, choices have to be made under informationally complicated conditions that are characterized by volatility, uncertainty,
complexity, and ambiguity. We have argued that we commonly face these
same challenges as we attempt to navigate the everyday social world;
in other words, VUCA is also where social perception happens. Social
categorization has long been viewed as a key cognitive strategy for organizing
social perception in a manner that confers both efficiency (e.g. Macrae,
Milne, & Bodenhausen, 1994) and coherent meaningfulness (e.g. Oakes,
1996). We have argued that in much of the past research on the role of
social categories in cognition and behavior, experimental procedures have
greatly constrained the process of categorization by limiting the category
cues that are available or constructing experimental situations so that they
render one particular basis for categorization highly salient. Such an
approach is certainly illuminating, and it will no doubt continue to be used.
Yet, perceivers routinely encounter others who are richly multifaceted,
dynamically changing, and at least partially ambiguous or unknown. How
social categorization unfolds in such circumstances has increasingly become
the focus of social psychological investigation, and we have attempted to
highlight a number of conceptual and empirical perspectives emerging
from this work.
Upon reflection, it is apparent that the different elements of the VUCA
challenge are often interlocking in nature. Situational volatility directly
bears on how complex, multifaceted targets are categorized, and it modulates
the availability of information about a target, thus creating differing degrees
of uncertainty and ambiguity. To explore these interconnected aspects of
social perception, it is essential to examine categorization and stereotyping
in response to multidimensional targets who are encountered in different
kinds of contexts, and this is exactly the kind of research that is becoming
more common in the recent literature. One theme emerging from the
work we have reviewed is that social categorization processes are quite
robust to the potential perturbations posed by the VUCA challenge.
Perceivers seem to manage to find effective, if not entirely unbiased, ways
of coping with complicated, incomplete, ambiguous, and changing identity
cues. This, of course, makes a good deal of sense, as categorization would
have little value to the social perceiver if it were easily defeated by the
complexities of the actual contexts in which social perception typically
occurs. Still, much remains to be learned about how categories and
stereotypes shape our reactions to the fascinatingly complicated and potentially
enigmatic people we deal with on a daily basis.
Acknowledgment
We are grateful to Jennifer Richeson for helpful comments on a draft of
this article.
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Short Biography
Galen Bodenhausen is the Lawyer Taylor Professor of Psychology and
Marketing at Northwestern University, where he also serves as co-director
of the Center on the Science of Diversity. He earned his PhD in social
psychology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. His
research addresses the cognitive functions of social attitudes and stereotypes, particularly their roles in influencing attention, perception, memory,
judgment, and behavior. A frequent focus of his recent research is on the
relatively automatic and implicit aspects of prejudice and stereotyping.
Bodenhausen is a fellow of the Association for Psychological Science, the
American Psychological Association, the Society for Personality and
Social Psychology, and the Society for the Psychological Study of Social
Issues. He currently serves as editor-in-chief of Personality and Social
Psychology Review.
Destiny Peery is a PhD student in the Department of Psychology at
Northwestern University. Her research interests include the perception
and categorization of ambiguous targets (e.g., racially ambiguous or
multiracial people), as well as other issues of social cognition and stereotyping/
prejudice more broadly. Destiny received her BA in psychology from the
University of Minnesota.
Endnote
* Correspondence address: Galen V. Bodenhausen, Department of Psychology, Northwestern
University, 2029 Sheridan Rd., Evanston, IL 60208-2710, USA. Email: galen@northwestern.edu

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