At a time when the subjects of prejudice and discrimination are frequently in the news, Southern will launch a course this fall that explores the psychology behind these phenomena.The course, “Social Psychology of Stereotypes and Prejudice,” will look at such questions as:

  • How prevalent is stereotyping in society?
  • What causes people to do it?
  • What is the difference between stereotyping and discrimination?
  • And while race and gender are perhaps the two easiest ways to categorize people, what are some of the other, less visible, forms of stereotyping in society?

“Studies have shown that stereotyping is prevalent throughout society. It’s part of the way our brain processes information, especially when we are rushed and have to make snap judgments,” said Jessica Suckle-Nelson, SCSU associate professor of psychology, who will be teaching the course. “It really is a cognitive shortcut.”

But she notes that there is a big difference between prejudice and discrimination. Discrimination is a process by which people may be treated differently on the basis of their group memberships, according to Suckle-Nelson. “Prejudice and discrimination are often thought of as connected to each other,” she said. “And in many instances, both occur simultaneously. But in some situations, a person can be prejudiced and not discriminate. They also can be discriminatory and not prejudiced.”

She said stereotypes themselves, though, are hard to eradicate. “Once a person associates certain characteristics or behaviors with certain groups of people, it’s hard to break that way of thinking,” she said. “Even when individual situations are seen in which the reality doesn’t match the perception, it doesn’t usually change the mindset of a person unless many instances of this cognitive dissonance are witnessed. It usually takes time to change. People tend to chalk up individual cases as merely ‘exceptions to the rule.’”

And while racial and gender prejudice are well-documented, other less visible forms of stereotyping also take place, according to Suckle-Nelson. She pointed to prejudice based on socio-economic class, weight, relationship status, religion and able-bodiedness as examples.

“If someone is seriously overweight, they are often stereotyped as lazy or undisciplined, even if we know nothing about their lives,” she said. “And there is a tendency in society to link good people with being good-looking. For example, a bad person is often given the benefit of the doubt – at least initially — if they are physically beautiful.”

Suckle-Nelson said another lesser known prejudice occurs with regard to whether a person is able-bodied or not. While stereotyping a person based on an obvious physical or psychological disability is well-known, she pointed out situations in which those who appear to lack any such disability are stereotyped in certain situations.

“Many of us have seen somebody parking in a handicapped zone, getting out of the car, and then walking to their destination with no signs of a disability,” she said. “Our reaction is to think that this person is pretending to have a disability, which is viewed negatively. And sometimes this happens. But what if that person has a disability that is more difficult, if not impossible, to detect? For example, maybe they have allergy to cold weather. And I know of someone who has multiple sclerosis who has a special parking sticker. On many days, they seem to be fine. But when there are flare-ups, it’s a different story. And you never know when a flare-up is going to occur, so a parking sticker is important for them to have.”

She said that religion is another example. “How many of us have read polls in which atheists and agnostics are lumped together? But in reality, they are quite different in their beliefs.” Atheists believe that God does not exist, while agnostics are unsure.

Suckle-Nelson said she has always been interested in the topic of stereotypes and society, and finally had an opportunity to create a course that specifically looks at the psychology of prejudice.

She earned SCSU’s J. Philip Smith Award for Outstanding Teaching in 2012. She began teaching at the university in 2006 as a visiting professor, before being appointed as an assistant professor in 2008. Three years later, she was promoted to associate professor.

Suckle-Nelson holds a Ph.D. in experimental psychology from the University of Rhode Island.