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Linguistic biases

Author: Dr Simon Moss

Overview

People sometimes, inadvertently, express words that reveal their stereotypes or prejudices. For example, if someone says "This accountant is not boring", this person most likely assumes that accountants tend to be boring& otherwise, this individual would have said "This accountant is exciting". Words that reflect the stereotypes and prejudices of individuals are, collectively, called linguistic biases.

Examples of linguistic biases

Specificity of language

Occasionally, individuals refer to specific, tangible, and visible details when they describe an event. When they observe someone cry, they might say "The eyes of this person were watering". On other occasions, individuals allude to broad, abstract, and intangible concepts to describe an event. They might say "This person was emotional"& obviously "emotion" is intangible rather than visible.

In general, if someone believes that a person violates a stereotype or expectation, they tend to allude to specific, concrete, and tangible details (e.g., Maass, Milesi, Zabbini, & Stahlberg, 1995, for a discussion, see also Wigboldus, Semin, & Spears, 2000), called the linguistic expectancy bias. The sentence "The eyes of this man were watering" implies the speaker assumes that men do not tend to cry.

That is, when individuals refer to tangible details, they emphasize the immediate context. Therefore, they intimate the context now, instead of the general disposition of the person, has influenced the behavior. They indicate the behavior is not consistent with the usual inclinations of the individual but incited by some feature of the immediate context--a putative explanation of the inconsistency.

In contrast, if someone believes that a person has conformed to a stereotype, they tend to allude to broad, abstract, and intangible details (Maass, Ceccarelli, & Rudin, 1996& Maass, Milesi, Zabbini, & Stahlberg, 1995). The sentence "The woman was emotional" implies the speaker assumes that women often cry. That is, the reference to an intangible experience, such as "emotional", implies that a stereotype had been fulfilled instead of breached.

To clarify, when individuals refrain from references to tangible details, they neglect the immediate context. Therefore, they intimate the general disposition of the person, instead of the context, has influenced the behavior. They indicate the behavior is consistent with the usual inclinations of the individual, reinforcing the stereotype.

As Wigboldus, Semin, and Spears (2000) demonstrated, when individuals demonstrate this bias, listeners do indeed form the intended conclusions. That is, if speakers refer to a concrete detail about a person, the listener will conclude this detail violated expectations.

To illustrate, in Study 1, some participants described events in which a male or female enacted a behavior. Sometimes, they were instructed to described instances in which the person conformed to the stereotype of their gender: They might have, for example, described an instance in which a man behaved aggressively or a woman behaved emotionally. On other occasions, they were instructed to described instances in which the person breached the stereotype of their gender. Next, other participants judged these descriptions. They specified the extent to which they felt the behavior was specific to the situation or reflected the disposition of the people that were described.

As hypothesized, when participants described behaviors that breach stereotypes, they became more likely to allude to concrete, instead of abstract, features. Furthermore, listeners became more inclined to assume the behavior can be ascribed to the situation or context and does not reflect the disposition of this person. The same results were observed when ethnicity, instead of gender, formed the basis of these stereotypes.

Linguistic intergroup bias

A similar inclination is called the linguistic intergroup bias (Arcuri, Maass, & Portelli, 1993& Guerin, 1994& Karpinski & von Hippel, 1996& Maass, Ceccarelli, & Rudin, 1996& Maass, Salvi, Arcuri, & Semin, 1989& Rubini & Semin, 1994). Specifically, in general, as Maass, Salvi, Arcuri, and Semin (1989) showed, individuals tend to utilize broad, abstract, and intangible concepts whenever they describe positive acts committed by members of their social identity and negative acts committed by members of a rival collective. In contrast, they refer to specific, tangible details whenever they describe negative acts committed by members of their social identity and positive acts committed by members of a rival collective.

That is, abstract descriptions tend to imply the behavior applies to other contexts as well. The behavior is not specific to the immediate context. Hence, if they demonstrate this linguistic intergroup bias, individuals imply their own social group tend to behave appropriately and that rival collectives tend to behave inappropriately, intended to reinforce the stereotypes. Concrete descriptions, in contrast, imply the behavior is applicable to this event or setting only.

Negation bias

Individuals will sometimes emphasize the behavior a person did not demonstrate. These remarks imply these individuals assume this behavior--that is, the behavior that was not enacted--is stereotypical or expected. For example, individuals who say "He was not late this morning" indicates the person was expected to be tardy. In contrast, individuals who say "He was punctual this morning" indicates that tardiness was not expected.

Beukeboom, Finkenauer, and Wigboldus (2010) conducted a series of studies that confirm this negation bias. In this study, participants read pairs of sentences. Each pair of sentences described a specific person. The meaning of these sentences were the same& however, only one of the two sentences included the word "not". An example is "The rock musician did leave a neat hotel room" and "The rock musician did not leave a messy hotel room". Participants were asked to specify which of these two sentences felt or seemed more natural.

Half of the sentences breached a stereotype, such as "The rock musician did not leave a messy hotel room". The remaining sentences conformed to a stereotype, such as "The cleaner did not leave a messy hotel room". As predicted, if the sentences breached a stereotype, participants were more inclined to specify the alternative that had included the word "not". They often felt, for example, "The rock musician did not leave a messy hotel room" is more natural than is "The rock musician did leave a neat hotel room".

The second study was similar, although the procedure was modified slightly. In particular, on each trial, participants received as description. Some of the descriptions conformed to stereotypes, like "The professor scored high on the IQ test". Other descriptions did not conform to stereotypes, such as "The garbage man scored high on the IQ test". After this description, two conclusions were presented, such as "He is not stupid" or "He is smart", equivalent in meaning, but only one of which includes the word "not".

The task of participants was to specify the extent to which each conclusion was applicable, on a seven point scale. In addition, participants were asked to indicate the degree to which the description was expected or unexpected, reflecting whether or not the behavior conformed to a stereotype. If behaviors were perceived as inconsistent with stereotypes, the conclusion that included the word "not" was perceived as more applicable.

Rather than assess the perceived applicability of sentence, Study 3 examined whether or not people spontaneously use the word "not" when they describe behaviors that diverge from stereotypes. On each trial, a photograph of a man or woman was presented. Next, a person, in which the gender was obscured, was depicted undertaking some activity or sport, like jazz ballet or rugby. Participants were told this activity was undertaken by the person in the photograph.

Some of the activities were consistent with gender stereotypes: the woman might be depicted as performing jazz ballet and the man may be depicted as playing rugby. Other activities were inconsistent with gender stereotypes. The woman may be depicted as playing rugby, for example. To evoke the stereotype, participants were also asked to consider the typical person who engages in each activity.

Participants were then asked to type their impression of this person and how they expected this person to behave. If the activity breached a stereotype, participants were more inclined to use the word "not".

The final study showed that use of the word "not" biases the expectations of listeners. That is, if individuals say "The accountant was not boring", listeners are more likely to assume that accountants tend to be boring. That is, this sentence increases the momentary salience of the word "boring".

Specifically, in this study, various descriptions of a person were presented. Some of the descriptions did not include the word "not", such as "He did well. He did the assignment in a smart way". Other descriptions did include a negation, such as "He did not do badly. He did not do the assignment in a stupid way". Each description was supposedly communicated by another person, such as a teacher or coach. Participants were asked to rate their impression of this person--that is, the extent to which they perceive the person as negative or position. They also specified whether they felt the perceptions of the person who communicated this description were positive or negative. Finally, they specified why they felt the person enacted this behavior. That is, they indicated whether the behavior reflected the situation or the disposition of this person.

The results confirmed the hypotheses. If negations were used to describe a person favorably, such as "He did not do badly", people presumed the speaker had formed negative expectations--expectations that had been breached. The participants thus assumed this positive behavior can be ascribed to the situation and not the disposition of the person. If negations were used to describe a person favorably, people presumed the speaker had formed positive expectations instead.

Factors that amplify or inhibit linguistic biases

Social identity threat

As Maass, Ceccarelli, and Rudin (1996) demonstrated, threats to the social identity or collective of individuals (see stereotypes and social identity threats), can amplify some linguistic biases, particularly the linguistic intergroup bias. That is, the qualities of these collectives are threatened. People might be told, for example, this group is incompetent or unpopular. In response to these threats, individuals strive to maintain a positive perception of their group. Hence, they attempt to demonstrate the desirable features are prevalent and the undesirable features are uncommon. Consistent with this possibility, the linguistic intergroup bias does seem to enhance self esteem (Maass, Ceccarelli, & Rudin, 1996).

Need for closure

Need for closure reflects an aversion to ambiguity and uncertainty as well as a preference towards firm, definitive answers to questions. As Webster, Kruglanski, and Pattison (1997) showed, need for closure has been shown to amplify the linguistic intergroup bias. When individuals seek closure, they are especially inclined to utilize broad, abstract, and intangible concepts whenever they describe positive acts committed by members of their social identity and negative acts committed by members of a rival collective. Nevertheless, in general, need for closure correlates with the preference to use abstract language, to highlight that behavior is generally consistent across many situations.

If individuals seek closure, they prefer clarity. They feel uneasy when they uncover inconsistencies. Hence, they become especially motivated to ascribe behavior that violates expectations to specific contexts, increasing the likelihood they will refer to specific details. Conversely, they are motivated to reinforce the likelihood of behaviors that comply with expectations, by alluding to abstract language. Indeed, need for closure magnifies two of the mechanisms that underpin this linguistic intergroup bias: the need to feel that expectations are usually fulfilled and the need to feel their own group is positive.

References

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Beukeboom, C. J., Finkenauer, C., & Wigboldus, D. H. J. (2010). The negation bias: When negations signal stereotypic expectancies. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 99, 978-992.

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Last Update: 7/17/2016