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By Kevin M.

The year is 2013, and we are living in a day and age in which the media influences just about every aspect of our lives. Usually when one intakes and processes content presented by any form or source of media, we consciously and unconsciously look for specific details regarding specific people to be the basis of an opinion being formed on that group of people. The reality of the situation is that due to the nature of the influences produced by our environments, we are constantly (automatically) seeking for ways to distinguish these influences apart from each other in hopes of fully forming an opinion that we see as rational (based on automaticity). These rational opinions, in our eyes, are the basis for us buying in to preexisting stereotypes that lead to the general portrayal of a group of people. The majority of the time that this happens, people are reading, watching, or listening to misinformed and usually biased perceptions of a group that has yet to be fully understood due to the already distorted and misconceived nature of the portrayal of that group.

Due to preexisting stereotypes from past decades of sheer ignorance among the American population (minorities included since they are a part of the population), it has become quite hard for people to attempt to distinguish characteristics other than the ones that the majority from each group will see as being “true” about other groups from past sentimental attitudes. The truth is often blinded by un/intentional ignorance, and lack of education and information on the people they are depicting in their own minds. Past and current generations still partake in the idea of identifying traits of others that are socially significant in their roles in our society. Most of this identifying is of course done through a biased and through both an unintentional and intentional ignorant lens (automaticity at play) because people seem to look for specific traits based off of preexisting generalizations in determining the roles of those groups rather than looking at the big picture as to who these people are and what it is that makes them who they are. Details become unimportant here.

The modern American likes to judge. If this was any different, then this country wouldn’t be as divided as it is on practically every issue that we face, which of course includes the issues of the attitudes towards minorities (this being a social issue) and vice versa. This brings up the issue of why this is the case, and why ignorance seems to be a seamlessly automated behavior amongst those who “chose” to be ignorant. A reasonable explanation of this would have to do with the concept of automatic social behavior, which was introduced by an NYU social psychologist by the name of John Bargh. In his paper regarding the automaticity of social behaviors, Bargh and his colleagues brought up an argument based on their experiments in which they acknowledge the idea of a two-staged model of prejudice. There is a “perceptual phase” of someone recognizing stereotypes, which is a near instant and automatic feature in people which consists of one simply recognizing physical features of a person that in turn activates that stereotype in that persons mind (Bargh 1996; Journal of Personality and Social Psychology P. 231). The second phase is one that consists of conscious decision making that stems from one’s own values (Bargh 1996; Journal of Personality and Social Psychology P. 231) which are instilled in them from their education and environment.    

The fact of the matter is that we buy into preexisting conceptions when dealing with racial and ethnic groups other than our own. We buy into these conceptions, and identify traits  such as a working-class Hispanic would to an (apparently based off of appearance) upper-class (looking) White man in depicting the type of person that he is. The basic depiction of a white person having a decent or nice car with slacks and a button down shirt in turn interferes with them getting an idea of who they really are and what it took for them to be who they are in society. Most will acknowledge that white privilege exists, and to this working-class Hispanic man the upper class looking White man is the product of this privilege and being spoiled. What would most likely be left out of the equation is his upbringing and the rigorous education he had to receive to get to where he is today and whether he is actually a part of the upper-class. Why is this left out? Because it is a lot easier for us to judge and make assumptions of the little that we know and form our fragmented judgment from there because of the sense that it makes to us. In our eyes and in our thoughts, these fragmented pieces are indeed rational, and there is nothing from simply observing that will help us think or say otherwise. Once again the details become unimportant.

Within his paper, Bargh cites another academic source by Susan Fiske, a Princeton University psychologist who argued that a person can overcome stereotypic influences in their line of thinking if given enough motivation to do so, which produces a “hard choice” in that person (Fiske 1989; Journal of Personality and Social Psychology P. 231). The findings and the proceeding arguments presented by these two psychologists directly correlate with how groups perceive each other today. Media is a key source of education and the formation of the conscious and unconscious views that people have toward groups other than the ones that they themselves are a part of. If someone who has already been influenced by stereotypes hears on the news that the job market has less jobs available than before, and that immigration and the presence of a group has increased, then they’ll automatically make the connection that a specific group is to blame for the unemployment rate, which is a result of the automated nature of social behaviors, in which certain characteristics are being identified triggering the stereotype and resulting in the production of that attitude. And that all goes back to the spread of ignorant and misleading information in America in past decades by just about everyone which was the result of people wanting to maintain some form of superiority over minorities and minorities wanting to negate those majority views with their own views.

The use of propaganda lead to people embracing these stereotypes and accepting them to be true, and although propaganda isn’t explicitly used today, the results from past uses are still in effect today in which past portrayals of groups have carried on over to the present, and as a result have given the media the opportunity to inadvertently reinforce stereotypes by how they highlight the characteristics and traits of certain groups when reporting on them as a whole or individually. In a previous paper, Bargh argued that “preconscious influences would play a stronger than usual role in subsequent behavior toward the target person, as the perceiver would not be aware of the interpretive bias and so could not correct for it” (Bargh 1989; Journal of Personality and Social Psychology P. 231). This argument reinforces the idea that the consumption of misinformed sources of media can lead to the preconscious state that in turn leads to the biased and stereotype state of mind at a later time.

The media can be a one-dimensional source of information, because usually, only one side of the “big picture” is portrayed.  With regards to minorities in this country, this has caused a disgusting amount of misinformation to be spread. When this happens, people tend to believe in what they hear the first time, and disregard anything that may follow what they first heard, which has resulted in the stereotypes and prejudices that exist today. If one somehow finds that motivation to want to change their line of thinking and ignore the media’s previous effects on then, this can be done, but unfortunately this rarely happens. The same goes with minority groups and their misconceptions of the majority groups in America in which they label them as greedy, spoiled and privileged. Misinformation and biases are causing negativity on both sides and I feel that it is ultimately up to the education system to fix the issues created by the media in the past and in the present.

Works Cited:

Bargh, John A. "Conditional Automaticity: Varieties of Automatic Influence in Social Perception and Cognition." Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 230-234 71.2 (1996): 3-51. Abstract. Unintended Though (1989): 3-51. Print.

Bargh, John A., Mark Chen, and Lara Burrows. "Automaticity of Social Behavior: Direct Effects of Trait Construct and Stereotype Activation on Action." Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 71.2 (1996): 230-44. Print.

Fiske, Susan T. "Examining the Role of Intent: Toward Understanding Its Role in Stereotyping and Prejudice." Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 230-234 71.2 (1996): 230-42. Abstract. Unintended Thought (1989): 253-83. Print.