Living in a Social World
Psy 324: Advanced Social Psychology
Spring, 1998

Social Misperception

Analysis by
Nathan Brown, Chris Hendricks
John Neal, & Michael Perry

tomto970623.gif (44889 bytes)
This Modern World by Tom Tomorrow,  Salon Magazine , 6/23/97

    This cartoon depicts the "Baby Boomers'" perception of Generation X. This cartoon illustrates three important concepts in social psychology. The first concept is attribution.   Attribution is the perception of a person's character based on factors such as what they say or how they act. The second concept is stereotyping. This is the practice of generalizing about a certain group of people based on perceived characteristics of a few members. The final concept is outgroup homogeneity . This is the false belief that members of a perceived "outgroup" are more similar or alike than they really are. We will focus on the interconnectedness of these three concepts as well as perceptions form the class on such issues as generation X and "us vs. them".    

     A simple definition of out-group homogeneity is the tendency for members of the out-group to be seen as all alike in their opinions, characteristics, and behaviors. This is contrasted with the in-group which typically sees itself as more diversified. Related to this is the concept of stereotypes. Stereotypes are often defined as constructs we create to simplify the social world around us. This guides how we perceive others and process social information. Subsequently, members of another stereotyped group are viewed as group members more than individuals. Next, how we make attributions plays a large role in the formation of stereotypes and how we group others and ourselves. Attributions are how we explain others' behavior, by reference to either internal dispositions or external factors.

    We opened up the discussion by asking if class members could apply any of these concepts to an aspect of our comic. One person brought up an interesting point. He stated that we were all making attributions in our attempts to differentiate and define "Generation X " from previous generations. Furthermore, another student focused on our usage of the words "we" and "they" by stating that he had been trying to get around using these words or phrase them in another way so that they might not represent any in-group/out-group biases, but he could not. This kind of statement relates to some research done by Perdue, Dovidio, Gurtman, & Tyler (1990) where participants responded more quickly to positive words such as "sunshine" when they followed the in-group pronoun "we" than they had if the out-group pronoun "they" was used. This has lead researchers, Dovidio and Gaertner (1993) to suggest that the actual words that designate in-groups/out-groups automatically introduce evaluative intergroup biases that favor the in-group. Therefore, if we have a difficult time describing other groups by not using the words "we" or "they" then we should be aware of the linguistic influences that may help contribute to misperception between groups.

    A large portion of the discussion focused on the attributions that older people have made about Generation X. No one really disputed the assumptions of typical Generation X behavior, but almost everyone found fault with the internal attribution that society makes to explain the behavior. For example, everyone agreed that Gen Xers are politically inactive, but no one agreed with the attribution that Gen Xers are lazy people. Instead, the class preferred to make an external attribution to the times in which we have grown up, "...politically scandal ridden and characterized by partisan gridlock, anyone who grew up in times like this would be politically inert." The class believed that older people were falling victim to the correspondence bias, which is the tendency to attribute someone's behavior to a corresponding disposition, even when influential situational factors are present. Jones and Harris (1967) illustrated this by having subjects read essays that were either in support of or in opposition to Fidel Castro. Some subjects were told that the essay writer chose to write the essay based on his beliefs, while others were told that the writer had been assigned a position on the matter and wrote the essay to defend it. The participants displayed a tendency to believe that the essay truly reflected the beliefs of the writer, whether the writers had a choice or not in deciding which essay to write. While it was seldom stated in these terms of attribution and correspondence bias, the class as a whole seemed to agree that the internal attributions usually made about Generation X were incorrect and that external, situational factors truly explain our behavior.

    Another person made an interesting comment on the fact that we were all focusing on the generation X stereotype while the cartoon also stereotypes another generation in its artwork and its use of language. This prompted another person to state that she believed stereotypes to come from extreme cases of behavior. Darley and Gross (1983) have hypothesized how stereotypes can guide perceptions. "They argue that stereotypes set up hypotheses (i.e. expectancies) that are then tested in a biased fashion" (Tesser, p.478). Their data suggests that stereotypes act as a type of distorted lens through which ambiguous situations are observed. Consequently, stereotypes color our perceptions. They don't necessarily have to be extreme cases to cause or contribute to a stereotype. Yet extreme cases certainly do make the stereotype particularly salient as in our comic. It is ironic that our comic attempts to clear up misconceptions of generation X by using a rather strong stereotype of another generation. It is as if it is satirizing itself in the satire of another.

    Overall we felt that our discussion went well and the class stayed interested. In our attempts to define Generation X we somewhat illustrated the concepts that we were trying to explain; we believed the out-group to be homogenous and ourselves diversified, we used stereotypes and we made attributions. There was remarkably little conflict and a great deal of consensus about the issues surrounding Generation X.


    Darley, J.M., Gross, P.H. (1983). A hypothesis-confirming bias in labeling effects. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 44, 20-33.

    Dovidio, J.F., Gaertner, S. L. (1993). Stereotypes and evaluative intergroup bias. In D. M. Mackie and D. L. Hamilton (Eds.), Affect, cognition, and stereotyping: Interactive processes in intergroup perception (pp. 167-193). San Diego: Academic Press.

    Jones, E. E., & Harris, V. A. (1967). The attribution of attitudes. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 3, 1-24.

    Perdue, C. W., Gurtman, M. B. (1990). Evidence for the automaticity of ageism. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 26, 199-216.

    Tesser, A., (1995). Advanced Social Psychology. McGraw-Hill, Inc., New York.

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Social Psychology / Miami University (Ohio USA). Last revised: Thursday, April 18, 2002 at 15:17:10 . This document has been accessed 403 +  1  times since 1 Jan 1998. Comments & Questions to R. Sherman