By Steve Martin, CMCT

The French word stéréotype, originated in the late 18th century, was used to describe a process of printing or reproduction using a solid plate. It would be another fifty years before the word began appearing in the English language. By then its meaning had evolved somewhat to “an image perpetuated without change”, arguably closer and more familiar to today’s modern use of the word.

Stereotypes are widely used in modern day life and can help to simplify how we formulate ideas and opinions about others. When a person learns that someone they are introduced to is a minister, or a realtor, or a politician, or a charity worker, or an athlete they might make certain assumptions about that person’s likely traits, behaviors and attitudes.

But what if that response is unhelpful or simply wrong? For example you may work in an industry or environment where a number of stereotypical reactions are negative? How might you convince people that rather than viewing you as “an image perpetuated without change” they instead see you as a “shining example of change”?

The results of a new series of studies could provide some useful advice.

Stereotypes can help us to process our perceptions of others quickly and effectively making the world appear more orderly, predictable and manageable (Macrae, Milne & Bodenhausen 1994). In the context of the universal principles of influence stereotypes can help satisfy a basic need for consistency. Given that one of our fundamental desires is to remain consistent with our thoughts, feelings and beliefs (Cialdini 2001) it is likely that the stereotypes we hold will not be easily abandoned.

But sometimes a stereotype that someone holds will be disconfirmed rather than confirmed and that may lead to feelings of discomfort. For example a person may feel disappointment if they hear that a company they hold in high esteem has acted in a way that is inconsistent with their expectations of them.

On the other hand the disconfirmation of a stereotype might represent a pleasant surprise. An example might be having an interaction with someone that we expect to be difficult and stressful that in actual fact turns out to be very pleasant and valuable.

In their wonderfully titled paper ‘When Sweet Hooligans Make You Happy and Honest Salesmen Make You Sad,’ Marret Noordewier and Diederik Stapel from the Behavioural Research Unit at Tilburg University examine some of the factors that amplify a person’s response to the confirmation or disconfirmation of a stereotype they hold.

In one experiment participants were randomly assigned to one of two groups and asked to read a short passage of text about an individual. One group was given text describing an individual that in previous tests had been shown to be associated with positive stereotypes whereas the second group was provided with a description of an individual that was associated with negative stereotypes.

Immediately after reading the descriptions both groups were then provided with additional information that was either consistent or inconsistent with that stereotype. For example a participant who read a description of an individual which would lead them to think that that person was selfish and inconsiderate would then be presented with additional information that was consistent with them being selfish and inconsiderate (confirmation condition) or inconsistent “they are actually very kind and considerate to others” (disconfirmation condition). The researchers then asked participants to rate their feelings towards the individual they had read about.

In an interesting twist the researchers asked certain participants to memorise a 9- digit number during the experiment that clearly made their evaluation of the individual they were reading about more complex because they were more cognitively overloaded than the groups that weren’t asked to remember a 9-digit number.

Noordewier and Stapel’s subsequent analysis of the results showed that those participants who were required to remember the 9-digit number (cognitive load condition) were significantly more likely to base their evaluation of an individual on the extent to which they were consistent with the stereotypes they already held. However the group that weren’t given the additional memory task (no cognitive load condition) were more likely to base their evaluations on the specific attributes of that individual.

Put another way, the busier and more distracted someone was the more likely they were to rely on cues that confirmed the stereotypes they possessed. The less distracted someone was the more they were able to make an evaluation based on the merits of the specific individual in question.

At first glance, the idea that an audience is more likely to pay attention to your message to the extent to which their attention is focussed on you rather than something else appears to be common sense. However, like many things in business, common sense doesn’t always translate to common practice. Of course it is vitally important that a communication or message is optimised in such a way that the target audience will likely be influenced by it. Systematically and ethically employing the principles of influence would be our recommendation for ensuring your messages do just that.

However, as Noordewier and Stapel show in their studies, your message (regardless of how persuasive it is) can easily be diluted if your target audience is distracted or their attention is elsewhere. As a result there is another consideration for the detective of influence – the timing of their message.

Consequently when considering which key messages to employ or which request you wish to make it is also necessary to ask “how distracted and information overloaded is my influence target likely to be at the point when I communicate my key message or request?

If there is a good chance that they will be distracted then it will be vital to take steps to reduce those distractions as much as possible before you deliver your message or make your request. As is often the case, what you do before you do what you do can be as important as what you do.

This extra step, whilst simple and relatively small, could mean that “an image perpetuated without change” is a stereotype left to your competitors to be assigned, while you and your organization is viewed as a “shining example of change.


What examples have you seen that have been effective at reducing the influence of negative stereotypes or enhancing the impact of positive ones?

How have you seen the influence of stereotypes play out in different domains, for example in regular business meetings, sales calls, customer service environments or even online environments?

Looking for more influence training designed specifically for your sales team?

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Macrae, C.N., Milne, A.B., & Bodenhausen, G.V. (1994). Stereotypes as energy saving devices: A peek inside the cognitive toolbox. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 66, 37-47.

Cialdini, R. B. (2009). Influence: Science and Practice (5th ed.). Boston: Allyn & Bacon.

Noordewier, M.K., & Stapel, D.A. (2011). Stereotype Disconfirmation Effect: When Sweet Hooligans Make You Happy and Honest Salesmen Make You Sad. Basic and Applied Social Psychology, Volume 33, pg 1 – 6

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Influence At Work.
All Rights Reserved.

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