Clemson University Feature Stories

Stereotypes, Cognition and Popular Psychology

Dr. Paul Merritt presents at the 23rd Annual Association for Psychological Science Convention.

“The way stereotypes work is that they essentially drive our cognitive functioning, our top-down processing,” observes assistant psychology professor Paul Merritt.

Merritt believes stereotypes affect an individual’s mental processes including memory recall, attention span and decision making. He provides a great illustration of this phenomenon through a simple mental exercise.

“If I ask you to identify whether or not a letter is present, and I give you a string of incoherent letters, it will take you longer than if that same letter was imbedded in a word since that word is ultimately driving your perception,” states Merritt.

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According to Merritt, stereotypes function the same way. If our perception of a person is based on our view of what that person should be like, it is possible that our stereotype could help or harm that person.

“We are looking at basic issues of gender, masculinity and stereotypes. And then we take this research into different occupations,” states Merritt. “Everything from how would it affect your decision to hire a photographer at your wedding if you knew they were gay or straight to drafting an NFL football player.”

Merritt recently published an article in Psychology of Popular Media Culture that examined this stereotype issue.

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“We launched this research in response to columns in Newsweek and The Daily Beast arguing that knowing an actor is gay makes it difficult to perceive him as heterosexual in a role,” says Merritt.

The research found that if an individual was perceived as being “out,” it may reduce perceptions of masculinity; however, this may not translate into reductions in performance appraisal. “Having a better understanding of sexual minorities is an important issue from both a health perspective and a quality perspective,” states Merritt.

Stereotypes are not the only things that influence cognition.

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Merritt’s research also includes the area of cognitive psychology, the study of mental processes, and psychopharmacology, the study of how drugs affect cognition and behavior. “Through research we have found that tobacco abstinence affects cognition since neurotransmitters get ‘out-of-whack’ from nicotine,” states Merritt. “The effects of nicotine have been known to benefit cognitive functions. For example, some students will chew nicotine gum during exam week to enhance cognition.”

Merritt’s research discusses how nicotine actually inhibits certain neurotransmitters, increasing cognition, but when you take away that nicotine the neurotransmitter actually takes over brain functions, which greatly decreases cognition.

“In my Drugs and Human Behavior course, I teach how drugs are handled in the body and what effects drugs have on the brain and cognition,” states Merritt. “Students will be able to look at any drug and think about how taking it will affect them and be able to make an informed decision.”

Merritt’s course is very popular among students due to his practical approach to a difficult topic and his passion for the subject.

“I have a goal of getting people to smoke less and understand how drugs really affect their body,” says Merritt. “I am also against stereotypes and believe we all deserve to be treated fairly and equally.”

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