Belief Systems and Stereotype Content

A recent paper by Koch et al was recently published in JPSP. I think it has some nice implications for some of my work.

Belief systems are concerned with hierarchy and traditions, yet the dimensions of social cognition suggest people are primarily concerned about warmth and competence. A new paper resolves this puzzle with a data-drive approach identifying agency/status and conservative-progressive beliefs as primary dimensions of social cognition and warmth/communion as an emergent third.

Navigating group life is a fundamental part of what it means to be human and psychological processes have evolved to effectively navigate our social worlds. One such set of psychological process are belief systems. Belief systems are networks of attitudes and values and tend to be organized around two broad dimensions [1,2]: (a) the appropriate levels of hierarchy and (b) the value of tradition or change in the social system. These belief systems serve as mental models that help people understand and predict their social world and likely evolved to help regulate group life [3].

Political belief systems, in particular, are effective indicators of coalitions [4] and are important predictors of prejudice, social distance, and discrimination towards individuals and groups with different political belief systems [5,6]. Hierarchy-related political beliefs predict prejudice towards groups who are lower in status and are in position to compete for higher status, whereas tradition-related political beliefs predict prejudice towards groups who traverse social norms. That is, research has shown that hierarchy and tradition dimensions help organize belief systems and the groups that face prejudice.

At the same time, the stereotype content model, and related work on the dimensions of person perception, suggests that the primary dimensions of social cognition and societal stereotypes are warmth/communion and competence/agency [7]. Although agency, and associated perceptions of socio-economic status, is largely consistent with the hierarchy dimension of belief systems, the warmth/communion dimension is different. It captures perceived intent, friendliness, and trustworthiness, and is considered to be the primary of the two dimensions. Yet, there does not appear to be a dimension that corresponds with tradition/change. This is a puzzle. Why doesn’t tradition/change – a key dimension of belief systems [1,2], prejudice [5,6], and the “culture war” [8] – have a corresponding dimension in societal stereotypes?

One reason is that the original work on stereotype content was not designed to detect dimensions of social cognition beyond warmth/communion and competence/agency. A new paper [9] highlights two ways that unrepresentative designs in the study of stereotype content influences which domains it identifies. First, stereotype content research does not allow participants to express stereotype content unrelated to the dimensions measured. If participants can only rate groups on warmth and competence, it shouldn’t be a surprise that these two dimensions emerge. Second, research on stereotype content (and intergroup relationships more broadly [5]) use unrepresentative target groups that might not capture the range of important social groups in society. Both of these issues may have pushed research towards identifying warmth and competence as the primary dimensions of social cognition.

To solve these two problems, Koch et al [9] used representative designs and a data-driven approach across seven studies to identify the primary dimensions of stereotype content. Multiple samples from the United States and Germany generated possible target groups, and groups were further identified in the Google Books Corpus, ensuring that the selected target groups were representative of groups in society. Separate samples of participants rated the similarity of pairs of target groups or organized target groups spatially based on their similarity [10]. These ratings were subjected to multidimensional scaling and two dimensions were consistently identified.

Rather than re-identifying warmth/communion and competence/agency, the bottom-up approach identified dimensions that Koch et al [9] labeled agency/socio-economic success and conservatism-progressive beliefs (Figure 1). The dimension of agency/status perceptions are similar to previously identified competence/agency perceptions, albeit with more of an emphasis on agency. The dimension of conservative-progressive belief perceptions, however, is absent from prior theories of stereotype content. Notably, these new dimensions are highly consistent with the hierarchy and tradition dimensions in belief systems research [1,2,6].





Status/agency and conservative-progressive beliefs are the primary, dimensions that participants use to organize groups; however, that does not mean that warmth/communion has no role to play. Instead, in Koch et al’s [9] analysis, warmth/communion emerged as a function of agency/status. Across the same seven studies, groups who were perceived with mid-levels of agency/status were characterized as warm/communal. It appears that groups who have neither too much agency to cheat us nor too little agency to free-ride are perceived as warmer.

The findings of Koch et al solve the empirical puzzle. When using representative designs, the warmth/communion factor is not a primary dimension of stereotype content and a dimension that is at the heart of political conflict and prejudice emerges. The work finds that stereotype content and belief systems both primarily revolve around dimensions related to hierarchy and tradition.

Key questions emerge from this newly recognized theoretical synergy. Most directly, Koch et al [9] did not address the question of individual differences and identities, but the work on belief system provides clear connections. Hierarchy-related belief systems might be especially related to warmth/communion perceptions along the status/agency dimension and tradition-related belief systems might be especially related to warmth/communion perceptions along the conservative-progressive dimension. Some research already suggests such a possibility [5,6]. The generality of the new conservative-progressive stereotype content dimension across cultures is also a noteworthy question. Cultural differences along this dimension might follow cultural differences in the tendency to organize politics and values along a dimension of conservatism and progressivism.

Broader questions about the development of beliefs systems, stereotype content, and their dimensions can also be explored. Did belief systems develop to regulate group life and so evolved as a reflection of the dimensions already present in social life? Or did the dimensions of stereotype content develop in response to belief systems as people expressed prejudice and condemnation towards people with dissimilar beliefs? Regardless of the answer, Koch et al’s work provides an important bridge between social cognition and our understanding of how belief systems help organize our social worlds.


  1. Duckitt, J. and Sibley, C. G. (2010) Personality, ideology, prejudice, and politics: A dual‐process motivational model.  Pers. 78, 1861-1894.
  2. Schwartz, S. H. et al. (2012) Refining the theory of basic individual values.  Pers. Soc. Psychol.103, 663-688.
  3. Graham, J. et al (2013) Moral Foundations Theory: The pragmatic validity of moral pluralism. Adv. Exp. Soc. Psychol. 47, 55-130.
  4. Pietraszewski, D. et al. (2015) Constituents of political cognition: Race, party politics, and the alliance detection system. Cognition. 140, 24-39.
  5. Brandt, M. J. et al. (2014) The ideological-conflict hypothesis intolerance among both liberals and conservatives.  Dir. Psychol.23, 27-34.
  6. Cantal, C. et al. (2015) Differential effects of right‐wing authoritarianism and social dominance orientation on dimensions of generalized prejudice in Brazil.  J. Pers.29, 17-27.
  7. Fiske, S. T. et al. (2007) Universal dimensions of social cognition: Warmth and competence. Trends Cogn. Sci. 11, 77-83.
  8. Hare, C. and Poole, K. T. (2014) The polarization of contemporary American politics. Policy. 46, 411-429.
  9. Koch, A. et al. (2016) The ABC of stereotypes about groups: Agency/socio-economic success, conservative-progressive beliefs, and communion. Pers. Soc. Psychol.
  10. Hout, M. C. et al. (2013) The versatility of SpAM: A fast, efficient, spatial method of data collection for multidimensional scaling. J. Exp. Psychol.-Gen. 142, 256-281.

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