Schemas, Stereotypes and in-group/out-group thinking by @psycho_claire

This is the third post in a 6 part series on feminism and disablism written by The Psychology Supercomputer for A Room of our Own. (Part One. Part Two)


Continuing the theme of how Psychology can inform issues within mainstream feminism (posts 1 and 2 here) this post will explore the concepts of in-group/out-group thinking and how this can account for blind spots in relation to diversity within mainstream feminism. I want to make clear, that my desire here is not to make excuses, but to provide explanations that will help all of us understand ourselves and others better. I hope that an increase in understanding of these concepts will inform how mainstream feminism relates to the issues faced by women with disability/chronic illness, Women of colour, working class women, etc. Although this post will use disability/chronic illness as the example, the same points made here apply to race, class, etc.

In order to understand how in-group/out-group thinking can influence our interactions with one another, it is necessary to explore how our brains categorise and understand the events and people around us. Human brains receive massive amounts of data every moment of life. In order to be able to deal with this, they have built in “short cuts” in their processing of this information. Without these short-cuts, our brains would be constantly overwhelmed trying to process each new piece of information they received; and we would be paralysed in a state of constant inaction whilst this processing occurred.

One of the ways that our brains create these short-cuts is through the creation of Schemas and Stereotypes. Through repeated exposure to a particular event or group of people, the brain creates a “prototype” map of expectations for that event or group. A prototype map for an event is called a Schema; we have these for things like weddings, funerals, going to the supermarket, going for coffee, etc. They are a list of expected behaviours and occurrences that will happen at that particular event. The schema allows us to plan our behaviour for the event and to predict how other people there will behave too. This is why, once you’ve been to a wedding, you pretty much know what the next one will be like. And why unfamiliar situations can be so stressful, because we lack the schema to deal with it and predict it.

Similarly, stereotypes are schemas for groups of people. As feminists, I’m pretty sure we’re all familiar with the concept of stereotypes; at least in relation to gender. A stereotype provides a set of expected behaviours, attitudes and desires for a particular “type” of person. I know that we all HATE the idea of stereotypes, because each of us is a precious snowflake; an individual and so we deserve to be treated as such. However, your subconscious brain doesn’t really care about that. All it cares about is processing information quickly and efficiently. It needs to be able to fairly accurately predict and anticipate the behaviour of the person you are interacting with; so it uses sweeping generalisations and puts people into “categories” based on what we want to think of as “arbitrary” characteristics such as skin colour, body shape, ability, class etc.

Again, I want to point out that this is UNCONCIOUS. No matter how much we try to resist this, we cannot. Our brains do this ALL THE TIME. No matter how open-minded and liberal we may like to think we are; we still show similar stereotyped thinking and biases at the unconscious level. (And I use “we” here to wholeheartedly include myself).

Once your brain has created its stereotypes, it then does another short-cut operation: it splits those stereotypes into two groups – “like me” and “not like me”. And this is where the thinking gets REALLY hinky. Those people who fall into the “like me” category form your “in-group”. These are the people that your brain sees as the most trustworthy. All of the stereotyped biases about these people are positive. They are your crowd. You find their company more pleasurable, you find them easier to relate to, you trust what they say, are more likely to be persuaded by them. According to your subconscious brain your in-group is THE MOST AWESOME EVER.

In contrast, those in the “not like me” category form your “out-group”. These are the “others”. They are a foreign group, they are strange to you. You find it more difficult to relate to them. You don’t trust them as much, are more likely to disbelieve them, less likely to be persuaded by their arguments, you find their company to be disconcerting/challenging. According to your subconscious brain the out-group are “other”.

For mainstream feminism, disabled and chronically ill women form that foreign, “other” out group. We are not “like you” and so we can be overlooked and dismissed. Our challenges and issues are not your issues and so are not important. And our stories, our testimonies are not trust worthy. Likewise to disabled/chronically ill feminists mainstream feminism is “other” and we don’t trust you. And so, we talk at cross purposes. We ignore the messages coming from the out-group, spending ever more time with our in-group peers and becoming more and more polarised. Ableist language becomes part of mainstream feminism and CI/disabled women dismiss mainstream feminism as ableist.

So, this is a pretty disheartening picture. I get that. But I want to point out that it is possible to break down this type of thinking; through repeated exposure to your out-group. Whether this be through spending time with a particular individual or reading about the experiences of those in your out-group. Repeated exposure allows your brain to create a new category, and to start to move members from the out-group into the in-group through seeing the similarities between you. This is an ongoing process; but it is one I believe we should all pursue. At the heart of it all, we are all WOMEN and we have common ground there. That should be the building block of our stereotype. That should be our in-group.


The Psychology Supercomputer: I write about Psychology, Science Communication, Women in Science and feminist issues. I also tweet as@psycho_claire.


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