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- January 24, 2008

In this study, subjects were randomly assigned to view a picture of a woman or a picture of this same woman wearing a headscarf in the style of some Islamic women. Here are the two pictures:


The headscarf had some dramatic effects:

1) The covered woman was perceived as more “traditional” and, in personality terms, less “warm.” She is also described as living a more insular life. Here are the percentages describing the two women in a variety of ways. (First percentage: uncovered; second percentage: covered.)

Age 36 or older: 15% vs. 30%
Marital status is single: 59% vs. 25%
Assuming woman is married, she is not working outside the home: 12% vs. 47%
A good mother: 33% vs. 45%
A devoted wife: 26% vs. 51%
Lively: 60% vs. 40%
Has a sense of humor: 61% vs. 37%
Always looks on the bright side: 60% vs. 43%
Might be the life of the party: 26% vs. 6%
Sticks to a tight circle of people: 24% vs. 43%
Keeps to herself: 8% vs. 22%
Strict: 2% vs. 23%

2) The covered woman was perceived as wealthier. (People imagine a wife of the “rich sheikh” stereotype, perhaps.) An equal number of subjects considered the two women “stylish.” Slightly more considered the covered woman “beautiful” (27%) than did the uncovered woman (16%).

3) The vast majority of respondents thought the uncovered woman was “an American” (82%). The vast majority of subjects thought the covered woman was “a Middle-Eastern person” (78%) and also Muslim (87%).

4) Subjects displayed considerably more aversion to the covered woman. Specifically, they were less likely to want to live near her. While 89% said that they would like the uncovered woman as their next-door neighbor or in their neighborhood, only 62% said that about the covered woman. One-fifth (19%) actually said they wanted her to live “outside of the US.”

What is the meaning of this hypothetical exercise? These pictures of unfamiliar people encourage subjects to engage in a common cognitive process: categorization. They subconsciously place the woman in a group and then impute to this woman the perceived characteristics of that group. These group characteristics are also known as stereotypes. Obviously, the sense that this woman lives a traditional life, is not lively or warm, and keeps to herself is quite in line with common stereotypes of Muslims.

This kind of experiment, despite its artificiality, actually has a great deal to tell us about the real world. Many Americans will see a woman wearing a headscarf only in passing, without any substantive interaction. Given only a brief “snapshot” of the person, people will probably then engage in the same kind of categorization process that these experimental subjects engaged in.

[Hat tip to a GW student, Joseph Essex.]