Taking ADvantage
Psychology of Consumer Behavior
Part Two of Two Parts--


Richard F. Taflinger, PhD

This page has been accessed since 29 May 1996.

For further readings, I suggest going to the Media and Communications Studies website.


The definition of stereotype is "a fixed form or convention," "something lacking in originality or individuality." It is a model for other things like it. What this means is that people use a set of characteristics, sensory impressions to identify and thus recognize a group of individual items as fitting within a certain category. It is creating a series of templates against which we can compare anything encountered to aid in identifying it. We categorize a large woody plant with branches and leaves within the stereotype of "tree". Thus, we can identify any large woody plant with branches or leaves, no matter what shape or configuration, as a tree.

The human mind gathers information and stores that information in the memory. However, there is so much information coming in that the mind must sort and categorize it. Random storage of masses of information would result in total confusion.

For example, you see a tree. You observe its size, the limb configuration, leaf shape, the color and texture of its bark. You see another tree, and another, and another. They are all different. If you have to think about each tree as a distinct individual with no relationship to any other, your mind would soon become overloaded with all the sensory impressions. Thus, you sort the trees into categories by characteristics they have in common. It might be leaf shape: maple, oak, pine, willow. It might be by limb configuration: spreading, symmetrical. Overall they fit into the category of "tree".

This categorizing I call pigeonholing. A pigeonhole contains all the information you have gathered about any particular item or subject. This information is not only the direct impressions, such as might be gathered by any animal, from a slug to a dog. It also includes anything you've learned that is applicable to the item or subject. Your mind sorts all the information that comes in and puts it in an appropriate pigeonhole. Every time you perceive the characteristics of something, you place those characteristics in a pigeonhole. When you identify something else that has the same, or what you perceive as the same characteristics, it goes in that pigeonhole. Therefore, the pigeonhole "tree" contains the general features of all trees. Thus, the next time you see a tree it opens the appropriate pigeonhole. You can identify it as a tree without having to devote much, if any thought to it.

You create new pigeonholes whenever new information that you consider important comes in. For example, specific information about trees becomes important: evergreen or deciduous, maple, oak, willow, etc. When you then see a tree you observe limb configuration, leaf shape, etc., and the new pigeonhole "maple tree" is called up rather than the general pigeonhole "tree". If, however, you do not consider the new information important, no new pigeonhole is created; the old pigeonhole will suffice.

Something special about a particular tree, such as it being the one you climbed as a child or hit with your car, will create a new pigeonhole.

The above example of a tree is very simple. Most stereotypes are not. They consist of a gestalt of impressions, many of which are stereotypes in and of themselves. Not only are there the sensory impressions but the emotions, collateral impressions, what other people have told you the impressions are and mean, all the learned information about the subject. All go into the pigeonhole.

For example, you meet many people, some new to you and some old, every day. Each is a combination of facial features, coloration, size, shape, behavior, temperament, vocal characteristics, moods, etc. It would be impossible to carry all you know about each individual in your mind. Thus, they are pigeonholed according to characteristics. There are pigeonholes for coloration (black, white, yellow, red), sex (male, female), size (tall, short, fat, thin), age (child, teen-ager, young, middle-aged, elderly). Let us say you have the following pigeonholes based on combinations of characteristics: white male, black female, short Asian, thin Indian, short fat black balding male with a bad temper and a lisp; tall fat white female with short hair, loud voice and a tattoo; tall slender young female with long blond hair; short, skinny, short-haired male with horn-rimmed glasses and a pocket protector.

You label these pigeonholes with stereotypes. The label may be "black man," or "California girl," or "nerd."

Why then does stereotyping have such a negative connotation? People generally perceive that stereotypes mean all things with similar characteristics, whether those characteristics are significant or not, are exactly alike. They are "lacking in originality or individuality." For example, all blacks or whites (women, Asians) think and act alike because they have the same skin color (they are women or Asians). When someone sneezes they must have a cold or allergy, and a sizzling sound in the kitchen means a steak is cooking.

This is the basis of preconception and prejudice. When someone or something triggers a pigeonhole because of many like characteristics, you expect everything in the pigeonhole to be true.

What becomes important is not the stereotype, but the contents of the pigeonhole the stereotype triggers.

Pigeonhole contents come from two basic sources, primary and secondary. The primary source is the information you personally put into pigeonholes, your direct impressions. Secondary is the information you get from other people, indirect impressions.

A major source of secondary information is family and friends. What they teach you as the way to view people, places and things is the way you do, your a priori assumptions. For example, if your father is a member of the Ku Klux Klan, then you will have a certain set of information about blacks, Jews, Catholics, etc. The pigeonhole may say that blacks are lazy, smelly, ignorant, or that Jews are power-hungry, money-mad, devious, unscrupulous. Thus when you see a black person, or meet a stranger and someone tells you he or she is Jewish, the stereotype label triggers the pigeonhole and all that information is what you think of about that person.

Family and friends produce many other pigeonholes of this type, particularly when you are young: best car to drive, political and religious affiliations, hair length and clothing styles, views about schooling, government, blonds, brunettes and redheads, gender, beer, smoking, bill paying, everything. Again, stereotypes trigger them all.

Primary information is what you gather yourself. The information in each pigeonhole is not only what others have taught you is in them, but what you put there yourself. This information could come from what you read, what you see, what you experience. If a young, long-haired, scruffy-looking man mugged you, then the pigeonhole of young, long-haired, scruffy-looking men will include that they will mug you. This stereotype leads you to fear such a man when you see one.


Difficulties arise from the relative importance an individual places on certain characteristics in a pigeonhole. Each person assigns a rank to each piece of information placed in a pigeonhole. The rank comes from their own preconceptions, prejudices, education and/or experience.

For example, to some people gender or race ranks higher than ability. Thus, seeing a woman apply for a job would trigger the "woman" pigeonhole and ability would be subordinate to gender. To others, ability is more important that gender or race. (Point of interest: when I said "seeing a woman apply for a job would trigger the "woman" pigeonhole and ability would be subordinate to gender," did you automatically assume that it meant she would not get the job, or she would? Either would be a "stereotypical" response according to your own pigeonholing of the information triggered by the sentence. Both possibilities are true.)

The problem is that many times people perceive the information in pigeonholes triggered by stereotypes as negative. They believe the information includes such falsehoods as Jews are money-grubbing, Blacks are lazy, women are emotionally unstable, men are insensitive; Russia is dark and cold and miserable, Detroit is grimy and crime-ridden, Los Angeles is smoggy and glitzy and phony.

Stereotypes are neither positive nor negative simply because they are stereotypes. Many stereotypes are negative or positive depending on the person holding them. For example, a stereotype that women are better child rearers is positive to many people. However, to a father denied custody of his child by a judge who holds that stereotype of women thinks it is negative.


Once the input is stored as a stereotype, the information in the pigeonhole is recalled by the triggering effect of perceiving that stereotype. There are two triggers for each stereotype. The first is a direct sensory stimulus. The second is a word or phrase. These are both labels on the pigeonhole.

Let me give you a brief description, and see what images and concepts the description calls up in your mind:

A woman, wearing a simple dress and carrying a purse, enters a small country store. She stops at a bushel basket of corn on the cob and starts looking for ones to buy. Up comes the grocer, a kindly, grey-haired man in a white apron, wearing wire-rimmed glasses. He identifies the woman by name and suggests that she buy a certain brand of canned corn since it is "just as good as fresh cooked corn." She smiles and agrees to buy the product.

What sort of things came into your mind? Later in this chapter we'll look at this description again and see how stereotyping influences people's perceptions and ideas.

Pigeonholing and stereotyping are intimately related. A stereotype is the label applied to a pigeonhole. The stereotype triggers a pigeonhole, releasing whatever information is in the pigeonhole. When you see a tree, no matter what kind, configuration, leaf shape, color or any other aspect, the stereotype "tree" tells you the word tree and anything else in the pigeonhole. If you consider the species of tree important, a maple tree (any one of the millions in the world) will open the "maple tree" pigeonhole. The stereotype will not open the pigeonholes "pine tree" or "willow tree". If you do not consider the species important then seeing any tree will only tell you that it is a tree.

The use of stereotypes to trigger pigeonholes full of information is important to the process of thinking. It saves much time that would otherwise have to be spent in explanations and/or exposition. For instance, the ad above doesn't need to explain why the woman is in the store; her mere presence and attire tell the audience instantly that she is shopping. Going to the corn immediately shows what she is shopping for. Because it is a woman, she is shopping for her family.1

Stereotypes also provide a shorthand for places, things and emotions. Showing a baby or the flag immediately evokes emotions, the Capitol dome or Mount Rushmore evokes places. This results in instant identification and a shorthand connotation trigger about people, places, things and emotions.

Let's take an example of a mental search. When you meet someone for the first time, your mind automatically searches for the appropriate pigeonhole to give you information about him/her. It uses stereotypes to do this search.

The search is like using a book index. You find a keyword that gives you a page number to turn to get the information you need. Often in an index there are sublevels: for example, you may find "France" subdivided by "geography," "population," "imports," "exports," etc. A stereotype is like the keyword that leads you to the pigeonhole containing the information you need to think about something.

The mind does the search very quickly. Let's use some of the above examples. If you see a short fat black balding male, you may go through the stereotypes human, male, black, short, fat, and balding. Since these characteristics are there, the pigeonhole thus triggered will provide the rest of the information that he has a loud voice and a lisp. A tall, slender young female with long blond hair may trigger a pigeonhole labeled "California girl" and give you whatever other information is in it. The sight of a short, skinny, short-haired male with horn-rimmed glasses and a pocket protector may finally trigger "nerd." This is the infamous "first impression." What you think of anything the first time you encounter it is based on what is in the pigeonhole triggered by the stereotype.

Thus it is that stereotypes can recall a gestalt of impressions, both direct and indirect. However, not only sensory inputs trigger stereotypes.

Words can and do trigger stereotypes. Since a word is a symbol for an input, the contents of a pigeonhole are as easily recalled with words as with sensory cues.


Much of the manipulation of the symbols you have in your mind you do unconsciously. For instance, when you are in a conversation, your choice of words to describe, discuss, amend, interrupt, etc., you don't do consciously; you wish to express an idea, and the symbols you know that apply start flowing (sometimes to the amusement, sometimes to the distress, and sometimes to the boredom of the others in the conversation).

Also note how the subject of the conversation jumps from topic to topic. As someone says something, it triggers different pigeonholes in everyone in the group. Any time someone thinks that what their pigeonhole contains would be of interest to the rest of the group, they bring it up, often a propos of absolutely nothing. I have participated in conversations that have started with the best beer to order, and gone through such topics as cleaning beer lines, ordering beer, white water rafting, cross country skiing, sheetrocking, roofing, lead, aluminum, printing plates, printing processes, typesetting, computers, the flight characteristics of a Boeing 747 when the engines die (about that of a thrown brick). Believe it or not, that is the exact order in which the topics took place (I took notes). Granted the group I was in was a bit unusual: 3 construction workers (1 MA, 1 PhD, 1 DVM); one businessman printer cum computer programmer cum computer repairman; two lawyers; two real estate brokers; one beer distributer; two restaurant owners; one television producer; one news anchor; one academic dean; one academic vice-president; one magician; one detective; one entrepreneur; two bartenders; and me. Nonetheless, if you make a log of any extended conversation you are in with a group larger than one, you will see the same sorts of changes in topic. (Make note of the comments made that cause the change of topic and you will see how comments trigger pigeonholes.)

In daily social functioning you also use symbols. They may be the perfunctory "Hello, how are you?" or handshakes or waving bye-bye. All these are social symbols, learned and used unconsciously.


There is also learned manipulation of symbols. When you learn to drive you also learn the applicable symbols, such as road signs (stop, yield, speed limit, curve) and signals. Then, when you see those material symbols, they trigger direct and indirect impressions and stereotypes to tell you what conditions are or what to do.

A major form of learned manipulation of symbols is reading and writing. You learn what the letters are and to recognize them in their many forms: cursive, bold, Gothic, san serif, Old English, etc. Then you learn how letters combine into words and what the words are symbols for.

You also learn other symbols to separate the words into connected symbols. These symbols include punctuation such as commas, periods, colons and semicolons, and question marks, and formats for paragraphs, sections, and chapters.

This book you're reading now is an example of learned manipulation of symbols. I've manipulated the symbols of letters into certain words and placed them in a certain order, separated by punctuation and formatted in such a way to allow you to read in a logical and connected fashion. By manipulating symbols in this way it is possible for me to communicate what is in my mind to yours.



Only humans, so far as we know, create and attach labels to a thing for which there is no concrete or abstract referent. To a dog, the smell of a specific person represents that specific person. It doesn't invent new smells to represent people it hasn't met and then decide how to react to these invented people; if the dog hasn't smelled it, it doesn't have a smell. The dog does not invent symbols for that which it has not experienced.

Humans are different. They can invent symbols for that which they haven't actually experienced through their senses. Thus, they can recall impressions of things that they have not or cannot experience directly or even that do not exist. They can then mix and match the concrete and the abstract and create whole new symbols.

This conscious manipulation of real and imaginary symbols is called synthesis, and is arguably the most important difference between the mental powers of humans and all other creatures. Synthesis is the conscious recall of input that is in storage and comparing, contrasting, and combining each of those direct and indirect impressions. A simple example: you can't find your keys. You look where they should be -- not there. You then pause and synthesize: you consciously recall where you were when you last saw them. You look there -- no. Then you recall places where you use them -- in the car, in the door. There they are, hanging in the door lock. You then consciously synthesize a variety of things to call yourself for being stupid enough to leave them in the door (even if the mind is always working, it isn't always paying attention).

Through synthesis you not only learn, but learn how to learn, learn what you learn, how to create, and how you understand anything. This awareness of perceptions, input and manipulation allows humans to discover what they have not only not perceived, but cannot perceive. To write this book, I needed to be consciously aware of what I knew about many things. I also needed to be aware there were many things I did not know but could find out.

For synthesis to work you must know two things: 1) what symbols are and represent; and 2) what symbols you know. Let's look at a credit card. It could simply be a thing, a set of direct impressions of sight and touch. It can also be a symbol of money, of purchasing power, of status, of control, of power, of depression (going over your limit can produce that effect). As you can see, a credit card is a symbol of many things. Which direct or indirect impression it means to you is what it is a symbol for to you. If you limit the possible impressions anything is a symbol for, you limit the possible ways you can combine them with other symbols.

In addition, if you don't know what symbols you know, you can't tell if you're missing something and will once again limit your ability to synthesize.

Humans, converting virtually all impressions into words, think in words. In this way they can combine direct and indirect impressions in any way they wish. For example, an artist creates with direct impressions, the colors of paint and their shapes and positions. This is a major form of synthesis. However, a large part of that synthesis is done in words -- "Shall I use red or orange?" is a symbolic way of thinking about direct impressions.

Composers and writers synthesize with symbols. For a composer the symbols are words, notes, and other characters. For a writer the symbols are, of course, words. In both cases, they bring their creations about by recalling various inputs and combining them in new and interesting fashions.

Science fiction writing is a major example of synthesis. The writer gathers information about what the world or even the universe is like. Rhe then extrapolates what the future would be like for a society or technology growing out of that study of the past and present. From that extrapolation the writer then constructs a consistent world of the future and describes events occurring within it. These worlds may or may not exist, and may never exist. Nonetheless, through synthesis it is possible to create a world as "real" as the one we live in.

Thought Models

The construction of thought models is a common and efficient form of synthesis. Many things cannot be directly perceived and may not even exist. It is possible, however, to recall consciously various facets of similar things and add other facets to imagine that which may not exist. In this way, you can project impressions into the future. For example, when you first see a stranger across a room, you create a thought model about what meeting this person might be like. From this model you can decide whether or not you will actually meet the person.

Of course, stereotypes will be your starting point, undoubtedly beginning with the person's appearance. If rhe looks like someone your stereotype says is worth approaching, you may decide to do so. For example, you're a woman, and the stranger is a man. He is attractive, well dressed and groomed, people around him are clearly enjoying his company. Do you approach him? On the other hand, he's sloppily dressed, poorly groomed, rather sour looking. Do you approach him? From the descriptions I just provided, you created thought models, based on your stereotypes, about what this man is like and whether you want to meet him. However, you base your decision on stereotypes; you've never actually met him. Does it change your decision if I say the first description is of Ted Bundy, and the second of Albert Einstein? What new stereotypes did those names recall?

Stereotypes are common in advertising and therefore a good place to find examples of stereotyping and how they work. (To many the stereotyping in advertising is a flaw. However, to advertisers they are a godsend.)

There are some stereotypes that many people hold in common. A country's flag is such a stereotype, triggering a pigeonhole that contains patriotism, love of country, or whatever else is in the pigeonhole. A kindly father figure, a loving mother, a baby, a puppy or kitten, or a Rolls Royce are also stereotypes. Whenever a group of people react the same to the same stereotype, then they are useful to advertising.

The criticism arises when the stereotype triggers pigeonholes that contain different information or information ranked in a different way from that of the critics. Let's take another look at that description from above and see what the stereotypes may contain:

A woman, wearing a simple dress and carrying a purse, enters a small country store. She stops at a bushel basket of corn on the cob and starts looking for ones to buy. Up comes the grocer, a kindly, grey-haired man in a white apron, wearing wire-rimmed glasses. He identifies the woman by name and suggests that she buy a certain brand of canned corn since it is "just as good as fresh cooked corn." She smiles and agrees to buy the product.


  • Woman is grocery shopping
  • Woman checks corn on the cob
  • Male grocer appears
  • Grocer suggests canned corn
  • Woman buys canned corn

Positive Stereotypes

  • Women are better shoppers
  • Friendly, neighborhood atmosphere
  • Women are selective
  • Men are friendly
  • Men are helpful
  • Women make good decisions

Negative Stereotypes

  • Women must do the shopping
  • Supermarkets are impersonal
  • Women are indecisive
  • Only men are employed
  • Women need male help to make decisions
  • Women are easily led by men

As you can see by the above example, people can take the same commercial different ways according to the information in pigeonholes triggered by different stereotypes.

1. Women, who are better shoppers, go to friendly, neighborhood stores. They are very selective in their purchases of food for their families. The nice thing about these stores is the friendly people who work there: they know you and wish to help you in your purchases. Once the advantages of a product are known, women know to choose the best product.

2. Women, who have to do the shopping because nobody else will, avoid the savings possible at supermarkets and go to small, overpriced neighborhood stores because they don't want to go all the way to the supermarket. Here they must deal with men because only men can get jobs. Men feel that women need help making even simple decisions and condescend to explain things to them in simple terms. Women are easily led by men and agree to do what men tell them.

Obviously, there are contradictions in the above descriptions. Just as obviously, the contradictions are in the stereotypes people use when presented with sounds and images, stimuli that trigger the stereotypes. In advertising, advertisers count on the first set of stereotypes above rather than the second. Criticisms arise when people perceive some or all the second.

In any case, we filter whatever we perceive through our stereotypes. This influences our decisions about what to do and how to behave. This is what politicians, demagogues, and advertisers try to influence, what people actually do in response to a stimulus. It may be to vote, riot or buy, but behavior is the final goal.


The subconscious mind is a major influence on conscious decision making. Created by combining instinct and learned response, the subconscious mind reacts to stimuli, what the senses perceive of the world.

Instinctive reactions are those over which you have no control -- they simply happen. Be it lust when seeing a member of the opposite sex, fear when threatened, anger when opposed, the body involuntarily responds with physical changes. The changes may be in breathing patterns, blood flow, hormone levels, heart rate, but there is no way to prevent the reaction.

Learned responses are those that a person has that mitigate or modify an instinctive reaction. The sources of learned responses are many: the family, friends, peers, churches, government, the media. Each provides a way of ascribing meaning to what a person perceives, and how that person should respond to it.

The brain stores most learned responses as stereotypes, categories that a person uses in sorting through all the sensory impressions and instinctive reactions to stimuli. They give a person a quick way to identify something and make an initial decision on how to react to it. A problem with stereotypes is their strength: they put things into categories based on initial impressions, whether or not those impressions are relevant or even true. Nonetheless, without stereotypes, the human mind would overload trying to comprehend all the impressions it receives.

The subconscious mind is composed of these instincts and learned responses. However, instincts are completely out of the control of the conscious mind, and learned responses are rarely if ever examined and considered by the conscious mind. For most people, what is in the subconscious mind is simply the way things are, requiring no examination or alteration.

Conscious decision making is a special province of human beings. They are the only creatures on earth (so far as we know for sure) that can relate what they experience in the present to what they experienced in the past, and project experiences into the future. On the basis of this type of analysis, humans decide what to do and how to behave. However, since humans filter all they perceive through their subconscious mind, how the subconscious responds to stimuli influences the conscious mind, and therefore how people act and behave.

Advertising takes advantage of the subconscious mind as it creates its messages. By appealing to elements of the subconscious, which is beyond the average person's control, advertising can influence the conscious mind. The effect that advertising is trying to achieve is to influence a person's conscious decision making by appealing to the subconscious. It is trying to get that person to decide to buy.

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You can reach me by e-mail at: richt@turbonet.com

Copyright © 1996, 2011 Richard F. Taflinger.