Why Do We Stereotype Others by Sex and Age?

by Oliver Sng, Keelah Williams, & Steven Neuberg


The study of sex and age stereotypes—the general beliefs we hold about others based on their sex and age—has had a long history. In a recent paper, we present a new perspective to thinking about this topic. Specifically, we propose that social perceivers are actually “lay adaptationists”. In other words, although lay perceivers are not aware of formal evolutionary theories (e.g., parental investment, life history), they nonetheless pick up on and generate predictions about how others’ sex and age influence their goals and behaviors.

From this perspective, perceivers categorize and stereotype others by sex and age, because another person’s sex and age are associated with their goals (e.g., learning, mating, parenting), which in turn are associated with distinct opportunities and threats they might pose (e.g., potential mates, potential mate competition). This generates several insights.

First, it is not sufficient for perceivers to be categorizing others in terms of just sex, or just age. This is because goals vary by the interactive combinations of sex and age (e.g., men are more oriented towards short-term mating goals than women are, but especially so at younger ages). To usefully represent distinct social opportunities and threats, perceivers should categorize others in terms of the combination of others’ sex and age.

Indeed, they do so. Using a memory recall paradigm often referred to as “who-said-what”, we find that perceivers are more likely to confuse individuals of the same sex or of the same age group (e.g., confusing women with other women instead of men, confusing 60 year-olds with other 60 year-olds instead of 20 year-olds). More important, they are especially likely to confuse individuals of the same sex and age (e.g., confusing 20-year-old women with other 20-year-old women instead of 60-year-old women or 20- and 60-year-old men). Hence, perceivers mentally group others not by sex or age independently, but by the interaction of both.

The same principle should apply to stereotypes—beliefs about how women and men of different ages are like. Indeed, in another set of studies, we find that too. For example, perceivers believe that men are more oriented towards seeking short-term partners than women are, but this sex stereotype is stronger for stereotypes of younger (e.g., 28-year-olds) than older individuals (60-year-olds). The reverse is observed for stereotypes of long-term mating orientation. Young women (e.g., 28-year-olds) are stereotyped to be more oriented towards seeking and maintaining long-term relationships than young men, but this stereotype disappears for stereotypes of older individuals (e.g., 60-year-olds). Hence, perceivers also hold interactive sex and age stereotypes.

Finally, the current perspective also has implications for thinking about certain widely studied sex stereotypes. A considerable literature has accumulated on sex stereotypes of agency and communion. Agency comprises traits that focus on self-assertion, such as being independent and competitive. Communion comprises traits that maintain harmonious social relationships, such as being caring and understanding.

Why are men typically stereotyped as more agentic than women? One explanation may be because men are stereotyped as more oriented than women towards short-term mating goals (as just mentioned above), and the pursuit of short-term mating goals likely requires more agentic behavior, such as competitiveness and dominance. If the sex stereotype of agency is indeed derived from sex stereotypes of short-term mating goals, then presenting perceivers with direct information that both men and women are similarly oriented towards seeking short-term mates should eliminate the sex stereotype of agency.

“Providing perceivers with direct information about the adaptive goals (e.g., mating, parenting) that male and female targets are engaging in seems to override prominent sex stereotypes of agency and communion.”

Indeed, that is the case. Perceivers presented with a male or female target, without any additional information, stereotype the man as more agentic than the woman. However, when perceivers are given information that a woman and a man are similarly spending time looking for short-term partners, the woman and man are stereotyped as equally and highly agentic.

A similar logic could be applied to thinking about sex stereotypes of communion. Why are women stereotyped to be more communal than men? One explanation is that the sex stereotype of communion may be derived from sex stereotypes of long-term mating goals (of women as being more oriented towards such goals than men), because seeking and maintaining long-term mating relationships requires communal traits such as kindness and care. If this is so, then perceivers presented with men and women who are similarly engaging in long-term mating goals should be viewed as similarly communal.

This prediction is borne out, too. In the absence of additional information, perceivers stereotype a female target as more communal than a male target, consistent with the stereotype. However, when told that both targets have and spend time with a long-term relationship partner, the male and female targets are viewed as equally communal

In general, providing perceivers with direct information about the adaptive goals (e.g., mating, parenting) that male and female targets are engaging in seems to override prominent sex stereotypes of agency and communion. Prominent sex stereotypes appear to emerge from people’s stereotypes about sex and age differences in the relative prominence of adaptive goals.

To summarize, perceivers categorize and stereotype by the interactional combination of others’ sex and age, and these stereotypes suggest that perceivers are lay adaptationists in certain ways. For instance, just as parental investment theory predicts that males in our species are more likely to invest in mating effort than women are, lay perceivers also “predict”, through sex and age stereotypes, that men (and particularly young men) are more oriented than women towards short-term mating goals and behaviors. These adaptive goal stereotypes may in turn underpin other stereotypes, such as sex stereotypes of agency and communion.

The findings outlined above may seem intuitive, and intuitive findings are sometimes devalued. But that the findings seem intuitive to you as a reader is itself something the perspective would predict, simply because you are also a lay adaptationist (and likely also a professional adaptationist!). In other words, you are likely also using the sex and age of others, interactively, to predict their goals and behavior. Hearing that people categorize and stereotype by sex and age in these particular ways should therefore be unsurprising.

The idea that perceivers may be lay adaptationists is useful beyond enhancing our understanding of the social perception of sex and age. In other work, we apply a similar approach for better understanding race stereotyping. Specifically, certain stereotypes of Black and White Americans may not be about race, per se, but instead may reflect what we call ecology stereotypes—beliefs about the traits of individuals who live in more versus less harsh and unpredictable ecologies. Supporting this, we have found that providing perceivers with direct information about a Black or White individual’s home ecology can override race stereotypes of traits such as impulsivity and aggressiveness.

Thinking about perceivers as lay adaptationists lends a new way of thinking about social perception and stereotyping. Stereotyping, in particular, is traditionally presented as an outcome of “lazy” minds trying to simplify the world. The current work presents a more nuanced picture. Social perceivers are sensitive to the interactions of sex and age in thinking about and predicting the traits of others. When making social inferences about agency and communion, perceivers also prioritize information about an individual’s relevant goals, over the general category an individual belongs to. Indeed, our stereotypes may be more strategic than typically thought.




Read the paper: Sex-age stereotyping: Social perceivers as lay adaptationists