Upon seeing a young man hoisting a Hitler salute in 2017, most people likely do not think, “there goes a Rhodes Scholar.” Racists stereotype other people, for the most part, but there are also stereotypes about racists. And the stereotype about racists is that, well, they’re kind of dumb.
But a new study complicates the narrative that only unintelligent people are prejudiced. The paper, published recently in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, suggests smart people are actually more at risk of stereotyping others.
The study consisted of a series of experiments, all of which suggested that people who performed better on a test of pattern detection—a measure of cognitive ability—were also quicker to form and apply stereotypes.
First, researchers from New York University showed 271 participants a series of pictures of red, blue, and yellow cartoon aliens with different facial features, paired with a statement of either a nice behavior (“gave another alien a bouquet of flowers”) or a rude one (“spat in another alien’s face”):
Most of the pairings were random, but two were skewed so that keen observers might pick up on a pattern: 80 percent of the blue aliens were paired with unfriendly behaviors, and 80 percent of the yellow aliens were paired with nice ones. The subjects didn’t know if the statements about the aliens were true or false. In this way, the study tried to mimic how people actually form prejudices about certain groups, like through anecdotes in the media or through portrayals in TV shows.