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uni'wissen 01-2015

indispensible even in seemingly harmless situa- tions: “Imagine you are waiting at the airport or going shopping,” says Klauer. “If you had to run through every possible social categorization for every person you came across, it would be too much for you.” To avoid breaking down like an overloaded computer, our brains fall back on stereotypes, general assumptions that have proved useful in the past. This economical approach enables us to make quick decisions, identify threats, and fight our way through all the information. “Especially in situations in which we are under pressure, we often fall back on stereo- types without examining them any further.” If we chance upon a dangerous-looking figure in disheveled clothes at night, most of us instinctively cross the street. “In situations like this we have no time to examine whether individual details indicate that it could be a nice person.” Who Says What Thus, individuality is what people ignore when they avail themselves of preconceived opinions: Is a man in disheveled clothes necessarily home- less and dangerous, or would gender perhaps play no role at all in another situation? In order to determine what influences our perception, Klauer uses so-called unobtrusive methods. His test subjects initially are not aware that the are par- ticipating in a study about prejudices. They see a discussion on a screen, for instance between men and women. Each speaker makes a state- ment: “The university library’s opening hours are very convenient for me.” “The administrative bur- den of studying is enormous.” “I’m unhappy with the course offerings.” Is this a study on preju- dices about running a university? Actually the topic of the discussion has nothing to do with the experiment. Klauer uses the “who says what” paradigm to test what the test sub- jects pay attention to. Following the discussion, the team presents the participants several of the statements and asks them to assign them to the person who said them. Not everyone has a photo- graphic memory – and that is what Klauer is counting on. When the test subjects make a false match, they usually still choose someone from the right category, in this case “man” or “woman.” In other words, we evidently take into account a person’s gender when processing a statement, even if the topic of the discussion is not gender differences but the opening hours of a library. The “who says what” paradigm also shows how memory works, explains the researcher. Occasionally his team gives the test subjects statements that weren’t included in the experi- ment. These statements have no match, but the participants of the study still have to assign a speaker to them. “In these instances another function of prejudices comes into effect, namely the reconstructive filling of memory gaps. When people can’t remember something, they fall back White against red: In one experiment, the test subjects saw a discus- sion between two basketball teams with white and black players. The participants didn’t base their decisions on the players’ skin color but rather on the team they played for. Photo: Patrick Seeger People are often susceptible to prejudice when under pressure. If we chance upon a dangerous-looking figure, most of us cross the street – without reflecting on whether the person might really be dangerous. Photo: Baschi Bender 26