Strangers will sometimes look at my family and try to work out the relationships. My mother is Scottish and my father is Chinese. My husband’s heritage is Irish, our three biological sons look Scotch-Irish, and our daughter, who was adopted from China, looks like her Chinese grandfather. We clearly are a family unit, but people wonder how the pieces fit together.  This is a basic human tendency –  trying to make sense of others.

Social Cognition is an area of psychology that focuses on how people judge or make sense of social situations and of others’ behavior. However, the judgments that we make about others are frequently flawed. Human brains are wired for efficiency, for quick, but not necessarily accurate, judgments. In addition, when we first encounter new people, we usually know very little about them. When we make quick judgments based on very little information we often rely on stereotypes. These are beliefs that certain attributes are typical of members of particular groups.

Stereotypes can be positive or negative or true or false. For example, strangers sometimes assume because my daughter is Chinese that she is good at math (she is) and that she is a gifted musician (she is not).  Several years ago a parent at an ice skating event commented to me that my daughter must be a good ice skater because she is Chinese.  But surely 1.4 billion people (the population of China) cannot all be talented ice skaters.

The problem with stereotypes is that they ignore or discount a person’s individuality. The perceiver projects what s/he thinks about a particular group onto an individual. This tendency to stereotype is troublesome, especially in employment situations, because it may result in ineffective and unfair hiring decisions.

Consider the typical resume review situation in which HR personnel or hiring managers have a large number of applications/resumes to review in a short period of time. Quick judgments based on limited information are conditions that increase the likelihood of stereotyping, and these are common conditions under which resume screening occurs.

Below are some steps that may reduce the tendency to stereotype.

  1. Time and Cognitive Resources. The activation of stereotypes is typically an automatic process. Taking a few extra moments to resist stereotyping may result in more accurate, fairer decisions. Set aside enough time for resume screening. In addition, work in a quiet place and avoid distractions and multi-tasking. These can drain one’s cognitive resources.
  2. Sufficient Information. Generally, the more information that we have about a person the less likely we are to stereotype him or her. Obtain as much information as is possible and practical when making selection decisions.
  3. Motivation. People who are motivated to resist stereotyping and to make fair employment decisions are more likely to meet this goal than those who are not. Placing an emphasis on selection decision fairness and holding employees accountable for fair decisions, may increase the motivation to be fair.


Marie Waung

Dr. Marie Waung earned her Ph.D. in Industrial-Organizational Psychology from The Ohio State University. She is currently an associate professor at the University of Michigan – Dearborn where she teaches a variety of courses, including Diversity in the Workplace, Psychology and the Workplace, and Statistics for the Behavioral Sciences.  Professor Waung’s current research focuses on employee recruitment and selection, and employee impression management. She has published in journals such as Personnel Psychology, Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, Journal of Business and Psychology, and Journal of Applied Social Psychology.  Her newest project examines the effects of diversity recruitment messages and early job experiences on new hire expectations, adjustment, and organizational commitment .