Slusher, M. P., & Anderson, C. A. (1987).

When reality monitoring fails: The role of imagination in stereotype maintenance.

Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 52, 653-662.


Research on reality monitoring (the process by which people distinguish memories of real events from memories of imagined events) suggests that the occurrence of imagined events can inflate the perceived frequency of corresponding real events. When the availability of real events is assessed, reality monitoring apparently fails to exclude some events that were only imagined. We conducted two experiments to examine how such failures in reality monitoring can contribute to the maintenance of social stereotypes. When subjects imagined members of occupational groups in the initial experiment, they tended to incorporate stereotyped traits into their imaginations, with specific traits determined by the contexts being imagined. This result suggests that imagined events do correspond with stereotype-confirming real events. In the second experiment, subjects read sentences that presented traits (stereotyped and nonstereotyped) in association with occupations with uniform frequency. They also imagined members of each occupation in situations relevant to particular stereotypic traits, but without presentation of the traits. In subsequent judgments of presentation frequency, subjects overestimated their exposure to stereotypic occupation-trait combinations, which replicated earlier studies. More important, subjects further overestimated the presentation frequency of imagined stereotypic combinations, which indicated the failure of subjects to distinguish their self-generated images from actual presentations. These results confirmed that stereotype-based imaginings can lead to inflated association of groups with their stereotypic traits. Such imaginal confirmation of social stereotypes may contribute to the self-perpetuating nature of these beliefs.

1987 by the American Psychological Association.