Cognitive Neuroscience of Language Lab

Lee Osterhout, Director    Dept of Psychology    University of Washington










Social Stereotypes

Gender-role stereotypes exert strong effects on behavior.  For example, gender stereotypes influence mothers' perceptions of their children's abilities and children's self-perceptions.  Gender-role occupational stereotypes play a role in job choice, hiring, promotion, and compensation.  However, research on stereotypes and their effects is beset by a problem of measurement:  Although most researchers rely on introspective self-reports, these reports do not invariably reflect attitudes or beliefs, particularly when expression of the belief is deemed to be socially inappropriate.  It is also conceivable that a person could maintain a belief but not be consciously aware of it. 

We combined ERPs and language-sensitive ERP effects to chart a new course for studying social stereotypes. This approach  was motivated by work in our lab showing that violations of gender agreement between a pronoun and its antecedent (e.g., sentence (2) below) elicit a P600 effect.  To examine the brain response to violations of occupational gender stereotypes, we presented sentences like these:

    (1) The man prepared himself for the operation.

    (2) The man prepared herself for the operation.

    (3) The doctor prepared himself for the operation.

    (4) The doctor prepared herself for the operation.

Participants made aceptability judgments after reading each sentence.  Sentences like (2) were judged to be unacceptable, but all other sentences were usually judged to be acceptable.  Thus, subjects' self-reports gave llittle indication that sentences like (4), in which a presumed gender stereotype has been violated, were perceived to be unacceptable or anomalous.

ERPs to the underlined pronoun in each sentence were of interest and are plotted in the figure below.  The vertical bar indicates onset of the pronoun in each of the four conditions.  Each hashmark represents 100 ms, and negative voltage is plotted up.  As expected, the pronoun in sentence (2), which disagreed with the gender a definitionally male or female antecedent noun, elicited a large P600 effect, relative to the condition in which the pronoun and antecedent noun agreed in gender (sentence 1).  The question was what would happen in sentences like (3) and (4).  Interestingly, pronouns that disagreed with the stereotypical gender of it's antecedent noun also elicited a P600 effect, albeit one with lesser amplitude that that elicited by the outright ungrammatical disagreement.   Clearly, our subjects' brains were classifying the stereotype violations as anomalous.   This continued to be true even when response-contingent ERPs were plotted:   Even on trials on which subjects said the stereotype-violating sentences were acceptable, the pronouns in these sentences elicited a P600 effect.  

We also observed compelling differences between our female and male participants:  Female participants exhibited a much larger-amplitude "anomaly response" to both the definitional and stereotypical gender violations, compared to the male participants.


Osterhout, L., Bersick, M., & McLaughlin, J. (1997). Brain potentials reflect violations of gender stereotypes. Memory and Cognition, 25, 273-285.