Stigma Research Paper

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Although the term originally described a mark made through branding to designate a person of undesirable moral character, stigma was introduced into the psychological literature by Erving Goffman in 1963 to refer more broadly to any attribute or characteristic that makes its bearer tainted or devalued by others. Jennifer Crocker, Brenda Major, and Claude M. Steele (1998) refined the definition, noting that stigmatized characteristics convey “a social identity that is devalued in a particular social context” (p. 505). This definition highlights two important properties of stigma. The first is that the stigmatized characteristic is attributed meaning beyond the characteristic itself—it is often assumed to be broadly reflective of the person or his or her identity. The second property is that personal characteristics lead to stigma through their context-specific symbolic value, rather than through inherent properties of their own. Wrinkles and white hair, for example, may be revered as a sign of wisdom and experience when it comes to relationship advice, but may lead to undeserved assumptions of incompetence when it comes to navigating computers.

Goffman distinguished among three types of stigmas: tribal stigmas (e.g., racial, ethnic stigmas), blemishes of individual character (e.g., drug addict, criminal offender), and abominations of the body (e.g., weight, body scars). Despite enjoying wide recognition, Goffman’s typological approach has given way to a more dimensional approach to stigma, one relying more on general principles that help understand the underlying differences and commonalities among stigmas. In 1984 Edward E. Jones and colleagues proposed six such dimensions: degree of concealability, degree of change over time, degree of disruptiveness, how aesthetic others find the attribute, how the stigma originates, and degree of peril the stigma poses.

Impact Of Stigma On Its Targets

The psychological impact of these dimensions, particularly concealability and responsibility, has been a topic of intense study. Research on the dimension of responsibility in particular has shed light on the internalization hypothesis——the notion that people internalize society’s negative ascriptions about their group, with negative consequences for their self-concept. Early studies included Kenneth B. and Mamie P. Clark’s 1947 doll study, which found that young African American children preferred to play with white dolls rather than black dolls. Although the children’s responses may have stemmed from their efforts to please the researchers or an unfamiliarity with black dolls, the findings were widely interpreted as evidence for the deleterious effects of stigma on the self-concept.

This interpretation remains popular despite empirical evidence to the contrary. Research consistently shows that the self-esteem of African Americans is, on average, higher than the self-esteem of U.S. whites. In 1989 Crocker and Major proposed that stigmatization may actually protect self-esteem, such that when people know they are the targets of stigma, negative outcomes can be attributed to the prejudice of others rather than to one’s talents or efforts (thereby protecting self-esteem). Nevertheless, attributions to prejudice are protective only to the extent that people believe that they are not to blame or that the prejudice is undeserved. For example, overweight women, when rejected on the basis of their weight, nevertheless show a drop in self-esteem, presumably because they endorse the notion that weight is controllable and a matter of willpower. Thus perceptions of responsibility/controllability may influence the impact of stigma on the self. A thus-far unresolved puzzle is whether and how stigma affects the self-esteem of Asian Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans in the United States, who show lower self-esteem than U.S. whites.

Importantly, one does not need to believe or internalize relevant stereotypes in order for them to have adverse consequences. This is evident from research on stereotype threat, which shows that performance (e.g., on tests) is affected following the mere awareness that one might be viewed or judged according to a stereotype. For example, whereas women underperform relative to men in a math task when reminded about gender differences, performance differences disappear when the same task is framed as gender-neutral—that is, when the threat is removed. These data, also replicated among stigmatized minorities in the academic domain, are powerful demonstrations against nativist views of performance differences. Subsequent research shows that the cognitive and emotional disruption of having to contend with stereotypes plays a critical role in explaining group-based performance differences where stereotypes are involved.

Individuals may use a variety of strategies to cope with the threat of stigmatization. Behaviorally, people may avoid situations or contexts in which a particular identity is devalued. Psychologically, individuals may disengage, and ultimately disidentify, from the domain in which their group is stigmatized. Proactive strategies may include efforts to disprove the stereotype, as well as social activism. Thus, people are not merely passive recipients of social judgments and evaluations, but rather they psychologically construe and physically shape their social worlds to actively cope with the problem of stigma.

What Leads People To Stigmatize Others?

Approaches to stigmatization from the perceiver’s perspective have a longer history and fall into two broad approaches: motivational and cognitive. They both encompass stereotypes, prejudice, and discrimination, terms that roughly correspond respectively to beliefs, attitudes, and behavior. The cognitive approach conceptualizes stigmatization as a by-product of human information-processing biases. The basis for this approach is that people naturally use schemas, or mental categories, to reduce the potentially limitless number of stimuli in the world into more manageable groupings. Schemas provide not only an organizing principle to help individuals navigate the world, but also a way for people to “fill in the blanks” as needed: A person assumes a new chair will have the properties to support his or her weight, even though the person has never sat on it. According to the cognitive approach, similar processes apply when a person stigmatizes others: A person may assume, for example, that a new female acquaintance cannot read a map though the former has no experience or information on this woman’s map skills. Despite being unfair or even harmful to the perceived (by eliciting stereotype threat, for example), these cognitive processes perpetuate stigma because they confer to the perceiver the benefit of having to use relatively few mental resources. Further, some mental associations may be relatively automatic, that is, outside of awareness, so that even people who are motivated to be egalitarian and sincerely believe they are not prejudiced can stigmatize others unwittingly.

By contrast, the central idea behind the motivational approach is that people stigmatize others to feel better about themselves. Research shows that individuals receiving negative feedback about themselves are more likely to discriminate against stigmatizable others, and that this restores self-esteem. Existentially oriented work proposes that people use symbolic means, including a deep investment in cultural or societal ideals, to transcend death. Thus, when reminded of their mortality, people are more likely to be less tolerant of others who subscribe to different worldviews (e.g., religion, political orientations). Newer views suggest that specific intergroup attitudes and behavior depend on the amount of intergroup competition as well as the group’s perceived status. A high-status group that one competes for resources with, for example, tends to be viewed as competent and cold, eliciting envy. By contrast, a low-status group that does not represent a competitive threat tends to be seen as incompetent and warm, eliciting pity. Thus the field is moving toward identifying specific emotions and attitudes associated with different manifestations of stigma. Together with an increasing volume of research identifying processes related to being the target of stigma, the field is moving toward a more precise, balanced science.


  1. Clark, Kenneth B., and Mamie P. Clark. 1947. Racial Identification and Preference in Negro Children. In Readings in Social Psychology, eds. Theodore M. Newcomb and Eugene L. Hartley, 169–178. New York: Holt.
  2. Crocker, Jennifer, and Brenda Major. 1989. Social Stigma and Self-Esteem: The Self-Protective Properties of Stigma. Psychological Review 96 (4): 608–630.
  3. Crocker, Jennifer, Brenda Major, and Claude M. Steele. 1998. Social Stigma. In The Handbook of Social Psychology, 4th ed., eds. Daniel T. Gilbert and Susan T. Fiske, 504–553. Boston: McGraw-Hill.
  4. Goffman, Erving. 1963. Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.
  5. Jones, Edward E., Amerigo Farina, Albert H. Hastorf, et al. 1984. Social Stigma: The Psychology of Marked Relationships. New York: Freeman.
  6. Kunda, Ziva. 1999. Social Cognition: Making Sense of People. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
  7. Steele, Claude M. 1997. A Threat in the Air: How Stereotypes Shape Intellectual Identity and Performance. American Psychologist 52 (6): 613–629.
  8. Twenge, Jean M., and Jennifer Crocker. 2002. Race and Self-Esteem: Meta-analyses Comparing Whites, Blacks, Hispanics, Asians, and American Indians and Comment on Gray-Little and Hafdahl (2000). Psychological Bulletin 128 (3): 371–408.

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