Character  &  Context

Rethinking Race Stereotypes

An abandoned buidling with a faded gas sign, and broken windows. The area around the building has a few borwn plants but is mopstly empty and dusty, like a rural dessert

By Keelah Williams, Oliver Sng, and Steven Neuberg

Since the classic “Princeton trilogy” studies began in 1933, social psychologists have assessed and catalogued White Americans’ stereotypes of Black Americans. The value of this work is clear: if we want to reduce the application of pernicious stereotypes to individuals, it’s useful to know what those stereotypes are likely to be.

But understanding what the stereotypes are will only get us so far. If we want to truly understand the content of stereotypes, we should go beyond what the stereotypes are to also ask why the stereotypes are what they are.

In ongoing work funded by the National Science Foundation, our research group asks: why do White Americans’ stereotypes of Black Americans take the specific forms they do? And what implications might this have for behavior?

In “Ecology-driven stereotypes override race stereotypes,” published earlier this year in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, we suggest that many predominant race stereotypes may not reflect race, per se, but rather beliefs about how people from different environments are likely to think and behave (Williams, Sng, & Neuberg, 2016).

Through a series of studies, we examined whether individuals possess “ecology-driven stereotypes”—i.e., stereotypes about individuals who live in resource-poor and unpredictable (“desperate”) environments as compared to those who live in resource-sufficient and predictable (“hopeful”) environments—and the extent to which these stereotypes can help explain race stereotypes in the United States.

We first established that individuals hold ecology stereotypes:  people stereotype individuals from desperate environments as more impulsive, sexually promiscuous, and likely to engage in opportunistic behavior, as well as less invested in their education and children, than individuals from hopeful ecologies. We argue that these stereotypes exist because the resource availability and unpredictability of the environment shapes people’s behavior (see, for example, Del Giudice, Gangestad, & Kaplan, 2015; Ellis, Figueredo, Brumbach, & Schlomer, 2009). And because individuals’ environments shape their behavior, observers can use information about an individual’s environment to make predictions about that individual’s thoughts and behavior.[1]

How might these ecology stereotypes then influence the application of race stereotypes to individuals?

In the United States, race and ecology are somewhat confounded. That is, Black Americans are more likely to live in relatively desperate ecologies, and White Americans are more likely to live in relatively hopeful ecologies. As a result, American perceivers may associate being Black with living in a desperate ecology and being White with living in a hopeful ecology.

Stereotypes of members of these groups may therefore follow, and in part derive, from beliefs about these groups’ ecologies. In other words, race becomes a heuristic cue to ecology.

To assess the relationship between ecology and race stereotypes, we examined people’s stereotypes of individuals from desperate and hopeful ecologies (with race unspecified) and compared these responses to people’s stereotypes of Blacks and Whites (with ecology unspecified). The patterns were identical—stereotypes of Blacks mirrored stereotypes of individuals from desperate environments, and stereotypes of Whites mirrored stereotypes of individuals from hopeful environments.

However, when people were provided with information about both the race and ecology of another person, their reported stereotypes tracked ecology—not race. Black and White individuals from a desperate ecology were stereotyped as similarly impulsive, physically aggressive, and sexually promiscuous (among other traits), whereas Black and White individuals from a hopeful ecology were stereotyped as similarly planful, sexually restricted, and invested in their education (among other traits).

We argue that because ecology provides more causal information than race about the likely strategies and behaviors of others, the impact of race on social inferences is greatly reduced in the presence of more immediate cues to ecology. In other words, ecology information trumps race information.

It is important to note that not all race stereotypes can be reduced to ecology stereotypes. Ecology stereotypes are specific to characteristics linked to people’s “life history strategies”—characteristics related to present- versus future-focus (e.g., impulsivity versus planfulness, sexual promiscuity versus restrictedness, etc.). For the many race stereotypes less relevant to life history strategies, information about an individual’s home ecology would not be expected to trump those stereotypes. Additionally, because racial prejudices are caused by more than just stereotypes, one wouldn’t expect ecology stereotypes to fully override such prejudices.

This research challenges conventional ways of thinking about race stereotypes, in that many prominent race stereotypes of Black Americans might not actually reflect beliefs about race at all. Just as other research has shown that race is sometimes used by social perceivers as a cue to others’ coalitional commitments (Kurzban, Tooby, & Cosmides, 2001), these findings indicate that race is also sometimes used by social perceivers as a cue to others’ “home” environments. Thus, when actual information about a Black or White person’s home ecology is provided, the application of race stereotypes to individual Blacks and Whites disappears.

Our ongoing research is exploring the behavioral implications of ecology stereotypes for interracial interactions. By better understanding why negative stereotypes—of any group—take the forms they do, researchers will be better equipped to design interventions that reduce the harmful consequences of these stereotypes.  

Keelah Williams is a 6th-year JD/Psychology PhD graduate student at Arizona State University. Her research applies an affordance-management approach to human behavior, exploring how the perception of threats and opportunities in the environment may shape stereotype content, punishment strategies, and legal policy.

Oliver Sng, M.A., is a doctoral student in social psychology at Arizona State University.  Drawing upon a range of theoretical frameworks--including affordance management, life history theory, and behavioral ecology--he examines fundamental questions in the areas of social perception and cultural-societal variation.

Steven Neuberg is Foundation Professor of Psychology at Arizona State University.  His research focuses on stereotyping, stigma and prejudice, the effects of ecology and fundamental motives on social cognition, and the effects of religion on intergroup conflict.



Katz, D., & Braly, K. (1933). Racial stereotypes in one hundred college students, Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 28, 280-290.

Del Giudice, M., Gangestad, S.W., & Kaplan, H.S. (2015). Life history theory and evolutionary psychology. In D.M. Buss (Ed.), The Handbook of Evolutionary Psychology (pp. 88-114). New York, NY: Wiley

Ellis, B.J., Figueredo, A.J., Brumbach, B.H., & Schlomer, G.L. (2009). Fundamental dimensions of environmental risk, Human Nature, 20, 204-268.

Williams, K.E.G., Sng, O., & Neuberg, S.L. (2016). Ecology stereotypes override race stereotypes, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 113, 310-315.

Kurzban, R., Tooby, J., & Cosmides, L. (2001). Can race be erased? Coalitional computation and social categorization, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 98, 15387-15392.

[1] In a series of follow-up studies, we demonstrate that these ecology findings are not derived from race or wealth stereotypes, nor do they reflect a mere “positivity bias” towards individuals living in hopeful environments.


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