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Stereotyping, halo effect and attribution errors

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How do we decide what another person is like? Since this is a question of how we attribute personality traits, motives and abilities to other people, the theories around how we do this are known as attribution theory. As human beings we naturally try to sum people up and often due to this give ourselves the wrong picture of somebody. In this essay I am going to try to explain three of these sources of error, stereotyping, halo effect and attribution errors.

Errors in social perception are a common occurrence, one of these errors is known as the halo effect. We all have a number of general assumptions about what personality traits go together. The likelihood is that we like to see positive characteristics going along with other positive ones, an effect known as the halo effect. A man called Edward Thorndike in 1920 first named the halo effect; he gave people a description of a fictitious person containing one or two positive traits. People then tended to see this fictitious person as having a whole lot more positive characteristics. The reverse holds true as well. The halo effect seems to be particularly powerful when we know relatively little about the person.

Many poor decisions by individuals and companies are compounded by, if not originated by, the halo effect. The halo effect refers to the tendency to rate a person’s skills and talents in many areas based upon an evaluation of a single factor. The perceiver’s general impression of a target distorts his or her perception of the target on specific dimensions. For example, an employee who has made a good overall impression on a supervisor is rated as performing high-quality work and always meeting deadlines even when work is flawed. This can also vary depending on the supervisor, as what impresses one supervisor may carry very little weight with another supervisor, hence the employee may receive different appraisal ratings depending on the supervisor. A possible way to solve this problem may be to have more than one supervisor to rate an employee’s work, thus giving two opinions of the employee.

Another error that occurs in social perception is one called stereotyping. Stereotype means “set image”. The word comes from the process of making metal plates for printing. When applied to people, stereotyping refers to forming an instant or fixed picture of a group of people, usually based on false or incomplete information. It is also the tendency to generalise about people in a social category and ignore variations among them. Some examples of stereotyping are that we consider accountants to be boring, or that blondes have more fun or that Americans are talkative. Stereotyping can project both positive and negative images of a group of people, and although it is does not always provide a correct image of each person studies have shown that it is not a wasteful activity.

Stereotyping also exists within businesses and organisations and can often be harmful to the company, it can exist in companies within departments, functions and hierarchical levels. This will be more often than not negative stereotyping as each group or department want to prove that they are better than another hence reducing the likelihood of cooperation and togetherness within a company. Combating stereotyping in many organisations is now a big thing for management as they try to improve their business. An example of this can be found in some banks, as in many banks years ago the bank manager would not have to wear a uniform in conjunction with the other members of staff, which may have caused the staff to resent the management as it may lead to the staff believing that the management think of themselves as better than the other staff, this policy has now changed within many banks with managers now wearing the same uniform as the other staff and hence reducing the negative stereotyping.

Attribution is the process through which we link behaviour to its causes- the intentions, dispositions and events that explain why people act the way they do. When looking at the behaviour of others, we tend to underestimate the impact of situational forces and overestimate the impact of dispositional forces. Most people ignore the impact of role pressures and other situational constraints on others and see behaviour as caused by people’s intentions, motives, and attitudes. According to Correspondent Inference Theory, we make dispositional inferences about a person’s behaviour when:

1. Actions seem to have been freely chosen.

2. Actions yield non-common effects (that is, other actions would have had different outcomes).

3. Actions are low in social desirability.

Within organisations attribution theory can help to explain why discrimination often occurs, American researchers Susan Averett and Sanders Korenmam found that on average the hourly pay rate for women aged between 23 to 31, was 20 per cent lower on average than that of women of average weight, and indeed even underweight women were paid less than the average. Other factors that may affect the way in which we are perceived within organisations may include attractiveness, sex, sexual orientation, age, appearance and ethnic background. To combat this discrimination within companies, there is now legislation in place to give all people equal opportunities, although often this in harder to enforce than it seems.

These are just three of many errors in social perception, it always has been about and probably always will be, the only way to help to combat these errors are to take more time when making judgements about others, use more information about others, develop self-awareness and to keep an open mind about other people.

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