Neural Correlates of Stereotype Application
Jason P. Mitchell, Daniel L. Ames, Adrianna C. Jenkins,
and Mahzarin R. Banaji
& Recent research has focused on the disparate mechanisms
that support the human ability to ‘‘mentalize’’ about the
thoughts and feelings of others. One such process may rely on
precompiled, semantic beliefs about the characteristics com-
mon to members of a social group, that is, on stereotypes; for
example, judging that a woman may be more likely than a man
to have certain interests or opinions. In the current study, we
identified a pattern of neural activity associated with the use of
stereotypes to judge another person’s psychological character-
istics. During fMRI scanning, participants mentalized about the
likely responses of a female and male target to a series of
questions, some of which were related to gender stereotypes
(e.g., ‘‘enjoys shopping for new clothes’’). Trials on which
participants applied a stereotype were segregated from those
on which participants avoided stereotype use. The BOLD
response in an extensive region of the right frontal cortex
differentiated stereotype-applied from -unapplied trials. More-
over, this neural difference was correlated with a behavioral
index of gender associations—the Implicit Association Test—
administered after scanning. Results suggest that stereotype
application may draw on cognitive processes that more
generally subserve semantic knowledge about categories. &
Successful human social interaction relies on the ability
to infer the hidden mental states of others (Dennett,
1987), that is, to mentalize about the thoughts, feelings,
goals, desires, and preferences of other people. Recent-
ly, researchers have suggested that when mentalizing
about others’ minds, perceivers frequently use their own
thoughts and feelings as a basis for understanding those
of others, a process known as ‘‘simulation’’ or ‘‘projec-
tion’’ (Gallese, 2007; Davies & Stone, 1995). For exam-
ple, perceivers tend both to assume that others know
the same things they do (Epley, Keysar, Van Boven, &
Gilovich, 2004; Nickerson, 1999) and to judge the emo-
tional states of others in line with their own current
moods (Niedenthal, Brauer, Halberstadt, & Innes-Ker,
2001; Niedenthal, Halberstadt, Margolin, & Innes-Ker,
2000). Moreover, recent neuroimaging research has
suggested that overlapping patterns of neural activation
accompany mentalizing about others and introspecting
about one’s own mental states (Mitchell, Macrae, &
Banaji, 2006; Mitchell, Banaji, & Macrae, 2005).
However, simulation need not be the only route to
understanding the mind of another person (Mitchell,
2005; Saxe, 2005). Perceivers may also base their judg-
ments of others on consensual social knowledge about
the groups to which an individual belongs, that is, on a
stereotype. For example, I might not have sufficient
experience with my friend Becky to know her taste in
movies, but if I believe that, as a group, women generally
dislike car chases and violence, I may rely on that
information to infer that she would not fully appreciate
seeing the latest summer blockbuster. Although stereo-
types may prove an erroneous guide to any particular
person’s mind (perhaps Becky actually loves action
flicks), psychologists have spent decades documenting
the regularity with which perceivers judge others on
the basis of their category membership (Greenwald &
Banaji, 1995; Hamilton, 1981; Allport, 1954; Katz & Braly,
1933). Much of this research has suggested that per-
ceivers frequently use stereotypes as heuristic shortcuts
for understanding others’ behavior or psychological
characteristics, in lieu of the more complex individuating
processes needed to fully consider the idiosyncrasies of
another mind (Macrae, Bodenhausen, & Milne, 1994;
Fiske & Neuberg, 1990).
As such, emerging accounts of the cognitive basis of
mentalizing have produced something of a hybrid view
of stereotyping. On one hand, many stereotypes refer to
the putative mental aspects of groups of other people
(e.g., their personalities and preferences) and likely form
an important part of our cognitive repertoire for mental-
izing about others’ minds. On the other hand, stereo-
types can be thought of as a form of precompiled,
semantic knowledge about the world. Just as one may
know that elephants are more likely to be found in Africa
than in Antarctica, one may likewise ‘‘know’’ that men are
more likely to be found at action movies and football
games than at tearjerkers and shoe stores. What, then, are
the cognitive processes that give rise to stereotype-based
D 2008 Massachusetts Institute of TechnologyJournal of Cognitive Neuroscience 21:3, pp. 594–604
judgments of others? Specifically, do stereotypes about
others’ minds rely on the same kinds of social–cognitive
processes as other routes to mentalizing? Or do they
more closely resemble other forms of general, semanti-
cized knowledge, as consistently suggested by research
in social psychology?
This question can be adjudicated using the well-
established pattern of neural activation associated with
mentalizing. Across a sizeable number of studies, tasks
that have required participants to consider the mental
states of others have consistently been associated with
activation in a set of brain regions that includes the
medial prefrontal cortex, the temporo-parietal junction,
and the precuneus/posterior cingulate cortex (Buckner,
Andrews-Hanna, & Schacter, 2008; Gallagher & Frith,
2003; Saxe & Kanwisher, 2003; Fletcher et al., 1995;
Goel, Grafman, Sadato, & Hallett, 1995), as well as the
superior temporal sulcus and the temporal poles. In
contrast, tasks that orient perceivers to the nonsocial
aspects of a situation typically fail to engage these
regions, instead activating those more closely associated
with perception, attention, and working memory. For
example, in a study of social versus nonsocial semantic
knowledge, Mitchell, Heatherton, and Macrae (2002)
compared the pattern of brain activity associated with
judgments of people (specifically, words that could
potentially describe the mental states of another person)
with that associated with judgments of inanimate objects
(fruit and clothing). Whereas judgments regarding the
mental states of other people modulated both the
medial prefrontal cortex and the temporo-parietal junc-
tion, judgments of inanimate objects were associated
with activations in regions typically observed during
semantic memory tasks, including lateral prefrontal
(Maril, Wagner, & Schacter, 2001; Cabeza & Nyberg,
2000; Gabrieli, Poldrack, & Desmond, 1998; Wagner
et al., 1998) and inferotemporal (Haxby et al., 2001;
Chao, Haxby, & Martin, 1999; Ishai, Ungerleider, Martin,
Schouten, & Haxby, 1999) cortices.
In the current study, we follow up on this observation
by examining whether stereotypes function more simi-
larly to other forms of mentalizing or to other forms of
semantic knowledge. During fMRI scanning, participants
considered the preferences and opinions of two targets:
one man and one woman. On each trial, participants
were asked to judge how likely the target would be to
agree with a series of opinion questions, each of which
was pretested to be either gender-stereotypical (e.g.,
‘‘likes scented candles?’’; ‘‘enjoys watching football?’’)
or equally applicable to both sexes (e.g., ‘‘likes going to
concerts?’’). Importantly, this design allowed us to
examine not merely those situations in which perceivers
could judge another person on the basis of a stereotype,
but those situations in which they actually did apply
such a stereotype. Specifically, participants’ behavioral
responses were used to segregate trials on which they
applied a stereotype (e.g., judging that a male target
would enjoy a stereotypically masculine activity or that
he would dislike stereotypically feminine one) from
those on which they judged the target in a manner in-
consistent with gender stereotypes (e.g., judging that a
female target would enjoy a stereotypically masculine
activity, such as watching an action movie).
Lastly, because perceivers vary in the strength of their
stereotypic associations, we included a series of post-
scanning behavioral measures to index how strongly
each participant naturally associated men and women
with distinct skills and proclivities (career vs. home;
science vs. the humanities). We reasoned that those par-
ticipants with especially strong gender-stereotypical as-
sociations would be those most likely to reveal neural
differences associated with the application of stereo-
types. Just as experts in nonsocial domains such as
entomology or sports maintain especially rich semantic
systems dedicated to their specialized knowledge, we
hypothesized that perceivers who naturally use gender
to divide the social world would have especially pro-
nounced differences associated with stereotype-consistent
vs. -inconsistent responses. Results demonstrated that,
consistent with the viewofstereotypes assemanticknowl-
edge about social categories, activity in an extensive area
of the right lateral frontal cortex not only distinguished
the application of stereotypes from stereotype-inconsistent
responses but also correlated with the strength of partic-
ipants’ gender associations, as measured postscanning.
Participants were 17 (11 women) right-handed, native
English speakers with no history of neurological prob-
lems (mean age = 20.1 years, range = 18–23 years).
Informed consent was obtained in a manner approved
by the Human Studies Committee of the Massachusetts
The stimulus set comprised 160 statements describing
common traits, attitudes, and preferences. Stereotypical
items (n = 80) referred to domains in which men and
women are commonly believed to hold disparate opin-
ions from each other (e.g., ‘‘like shopping for clothes’’;
‘‘like action movies’’). Nonstereotypical items (n = 80)
referred to domains in which no such gender differences
are acknowledged (e.g., ‘‘enjoy drinking coffee in the
morning’’; ‘‘like Coke better than Pepsi’’). Stereotypical
and nonstereotypical items were identified through pi-
lot testing, in which a separate group of participants
(n = 20) rated the gender stereotypicality of each
statement on a 7-point scale, anchored by 1 = extremely
masculine, 4 = neutral, and 7 = extremely feminine. For
each item, pilot participants were instructed to indicate
Mitchell et al.595
the extent to which the statement conveyed a widely
held gender stereotype in society at large, rather than
the extent to which they personally believed the state-
ment to be true of men and women. Items with a mean
rating between 1 and 3 were designated stereotypically
masculine (M = 2.12). Items with a mean rating between
3 and 5 were designated nonstereotypical (M = 4.01).
Items with a mean rating between 5 and 7 were desig-
nated stereotypically feminine (M = 5.95). The full set
of items is reproduced as Supplementary Material.
During scanning, participants performed a modified
version of the opinion-judging task used by Mitchell
et al. (2006). Each trial consisted of a photograph of
either a man or a woman, presented above an opinion
question. Photographs were simple black-and-white
headshots of college-aged Caucasian individuals; two
different faces were selected randomly for each partici-
pant from a pool of female and male faces. Participants
were asked to use a 4-point scale (1 = least and 4 =
most) to estimate how likely the target would be to
endorse the opinion. The target and opinion question
remained onscreen together for 3450 msec, during
which time participants were obliged to make their
On an additional half of trials, participants reported
their own opinions on the same set of questions. These
self-referential trials were cued with a chalk outline of a
head with the word ‘‘me’’ written inside used to repre-
sent the participant herself or himself. Such trials served
to minimize the possibility that participants would spon-
taneously realize that the experiment was designed to
examine gender stereotyping, and were not analyzed
further. Participants answered all 160 questions for self
and 80 questions each for the female and male targets
(40 nonstereotypical, 20 stereotypically feminine, 20
stereotypically masculine). To optimize estimation of
the event-related fMRI response, all trial types were
intermixed in a pseudorandom order and separated by
a variable interstimulus interval (450–9550 msec) (Dale,
1999), during which participants passively viewed a
To increase involvement in the task, participants were
told that we knew the targets’ actual responses to each
of the opinion questions and that, following earlier
research on the accuracy of first impressions, we were
interested in examining the neural processes associated
with accurate and inaccurate interpersonal judgments.
In actual fact, all stimulus materials were newly created
for this experiment. At no point before or during scan-
ning did we mention the term stereotype or suggest that
half the opinion questions referred to typically feminine
or masculine preferences.
After scanning, participants completed two versions of
the Implicit Association Test (IAT; Greenwald, McGhee,
& Schwartz, 1998), designed to measure the strength of
each participant’s automatic gender associations. The
IAT assesses the conceptual association between two
classes of stimuli by measuring differences in the speed
with which participants can make the same behavioral
response to exemplars from two categories (e.g., press-
ing the same button for pictures of snakes and positively
valenced words compared to pressing the same button
for snakes and negatively valenced words). On the
career/family IAT, participants categorized an exem-
plar from one of four categories of stimuli: typically fe-
male names (e.g., Emily, Michelle), typically male names
(e.g., Ben, Jeffrey), words that denoted family (e.g.,
home, children), or words that denoted career (e.g.,
office, business). In a block of stereotype-consistent
trials, female names required the same behavioral re-
sponse as family words (‘‘d’’ key), whereas male names
required the same response as career words (‘‘k’’ key).
In a block of stereotype-inconsistent trials, female names
required the same response as career words, whereas
male names required the same response as family
words. The science/arts IAT was designed identically,
except that words denoting science (e.g., astronomy,
chemistry) or the humanities (e.g., history, arts) were
used instead of those denoting career/family, and words
denoting males and females (e.g., man, uncle; woman,
daughter) were used instead of proper names. Each IAT
block comprised 60 trials (15 each of the four trial
types), and each participant completed the IAT blocks
in a different random order. For both IATs, the strength
of a participant’s gender associations was indexed as
the mean response latency to trials in the stereotype-
inconsistent block minus the mean response latency to
trials in the stereotype-consistent block. As such, higher
IAT difference scores indicate a stronger association
between female and family/humanities and between
male and career/science. Because of the close concep-
tual similarity between the two IAT tasks, we averaged
each participant’s difference score on both into a single
composite index of gender stereotypicality.
Finally, participants responded to five explicit self-
report questions that asked them to judge how similar
they were to (i) the typical member of their own sex; (ii)
the typical member of the other sex; (iii) the male target
used in the experiment; (iv) the female target used in
the experiment; and one additional question that asked
about (v) the importance of gender to their identity. For
each question, participants indicated their answer on a
5-point scale, on which 1 represented the lowest (e.g.,
least similar) and 5 the highest (e.g., most similar)
fMRI data were collected using a 3-Tesla Siemens Trio
scanner. The task comprised 4 functional runs of 210
volume acquisitions (26 axial slices, 5 mm thick; 1 mm
596Journal of Cognitive NeuroscienceVolume 21, Number 3
skip). Functional imaging used a gradient-echo, echo-
planar pulse sequence (TR = 2 s; TE = 35 msec; 3.75 ?
3.75 in-plane resolution). Following the functional scans,
we collected a high-resolution T1-weighted structural
scan (MP-RAGE). PsyScope software (Cohen, MacWhinney,
Flatt, & Provost, 1993) for Mac OS X (L. Bonatti, Inter-
national School of Advanced Studies, Trieste, Italy) was
used to project stimuli onto a screen at the end of the
magnet bore, which participants viewed via a mirror
mounted on the head coil. A pillow and foam cushions
were placed inside the coil to minimize head movement.
fMRI data were preprocessed and analyzed using
SPM2 (Wellcome Department of Cognitive Neurology,
London, UK). First, functional data were time-corrected
for differences in acquisition time between slices for
each whole-brain volume and realigned to correct for
head movement. Functional data were then transformed
into a standard anatomical space (3-mm isotropic vox-
els) on the basis of the ICBM 152 brain template
(Montreal Neurological Institute). Normalized data were
then spatially smoothed (8 mm FWHM) using a Gaussian
Statistical analyses were performed using the general
linear model in which the event-related design was
modeled using a canonical hemodynamic response
function, its temporal derivative, and additional covari-
ates of no interest (a session mean and a linear trend).
This analysis was performed individually for each partic-
ipant, and contrast images for each participant were
subsequently entered into a second-level analysis treat-
ing participants as a random effect. Peak coordinates
were identified using a statistical criterion of 25 or more
contiguous voxels at a voxelwise threshold of p < .001.
This cluster size was selected on the basis of a Monte
Carlo simulation of our brain volume (S. Slotnick, Boston
College), which indicated that this cluster extent cutoff
provided an experiment-wise threshold of p < .05, cor-
rected for multiple comparisons.
Trials were conditionalized as a function of whether
participants had the opportunity to stereotype another
person and, if so, whether they applied the stereotype.
Specifically, for judgments made about other people,
stereotypical trials were segregated into those trials on
which a participant judged a target to have an opinion
consistent with her or his sex (stereotype-applied trials)
versus an opinion inconsistent with her or his sex
(stereotype-unapplied). For example, a stereotypically
feminine item (e.g., ‘‘enjoys scented candles’’) was con-
sidered stereotype-applied if a participant judged that
the female target was likely to agree (a response of ‘‘3’’
or ‘‘4’’) or that the male target was unlikely to agree with
the question (a response of ‘‘1’’ or ‘‘2’’). In the same
way, a stereotypically masculine item was considered
stereotype-applied if a participant judged that the male
target was likely or that the female target was unlikely to
agree with the question. Conversely, a stereotypically
feminine item was considered stereotype-unapplied if a
participant judged that the female target was unlikely to
agree or that the male target was likely to agree with the
question (and vice versa for stereotypically masculine
items). The conditionalization of trials into stereotype-
applied vs. -unapplied was conducted individually for
each participant on the basis of her or his responses to
the items. Accordingly, the design included three pri-
mary trial types: nonstereotypical, stereotype-applied,
On average, participants applied a stereotype on 76.6%
of stereotypical trials (e.g., judging that a male target
would be very likely to enjoy watching football or would
be very unlikely to enjoy shopping for new clothes).
Feminine and masculine stereotypes were equally likely
to be applied to targets (77.1% and 76.0% of trials,
respectively). For nonstereotypical items, participants
were equally likely to judge that female and male targets
would agree with the statement (52.7% vs. 47.3%, re-
spectively), indicating that participants perceived non-
stereotypical items as pertaining equally to females and
males. Although nonstereotypical items were judged
more slowly (M = 2170 msec) than stereotypical items
[M = 2065 msec; t(16) = 8.88, p = 10?7], stereotype-
applied and stereotype-unapplied judgments were made
equally quickly (Ms = 2066 vs. 2064 msec, respectively;
p > .98).
On the composite IAT posttest measure, participants
categorized items more quickly in stereotype-consistent
inconsistent blocks (M diff = 64 msec) [t(16) = 2.77,
p < .01]. This result replicates a sizeable number of
earlier studies demonstrating that, on average, college-
aged American perceivers more strongly associate the
concepts of careers and science with men and the
concepts of home and the humanities with women than
viceversa(Noseketal.,2007; Greenwald, Nosek,& Banaji,
2003; Nosek, Banaji, & Greenwald, 2002). However, we
observed substantial variability in the strength of gender
associations across participants, such that some individ-
uals demonstrated stronger counter-stereotypical asso-
ciations (i.e., responding more quickly to blocks in
which the concepts of careers and science were paired
with women), whereas some individuals demonstrated
especially strong stereotypic associations; indeed, the
range of composite IAT difference scores ranged from
?111 to 304 msec, providing sufficient variability to look
for correlations between the behavioral measure and
patterns of neural activation.
specific associations, the IAT was positively correlated
with explicit self-report questions about the importance
of gender to participants. The IAT composite score was
Mitchell et al.597
most strongly associated with how much more strongly
participants judged themselves to be a typical member of
their own sex than a member of the other sex [r(15) =
correlated with participants’ ratings of how important
gender was to their identity [r(15) = .48, p < .05] and
marginally related to how much more similar they per-
ceived themselves to be to the same-sex versus other-sex
target [r(15) = .39, p < .10].
To identify the neural correlates of stereotype application,
we first examined the contrast of stereotype-applied >
stereotype-unapplied. This comparison produced an ex-
tensive activation in the right frontal cortex (1030 voxels)
that included portions of the middle and inferior fron-
tal gyri (Figure 1 displays representative subregions of
this right frontal area). This right frontal difference re-
sulted from a significant decrease in right frontal ac-
tivity during stereotype-unapplied trials relative to both
stereotype-applied and nonstereotypical items. A simi-
lar, but more circumscribed, pattern of right frontal
activation was obtained from the contrast of stereotype-
applied > (stereotype-unapplied + nonstereotypical).
No brain regions were observed from the contrast of
stereotype-applied + stereotype-unapplied > nonste-
reotypical, even at a relaxed statistical threshold of
p < .005.
Modulation of similar regions was also observed in the
left frontal cortex, although the extent of frontal activa-
tion in the left hemisphere was considerably less than in
the right. In addition, greater activity was observed for
stereotype-applied > stereotype-unapplied in the left
motor cortex, the cingulate, the occipital and parietal
cortex, the right superior temporal sulcus, and the
bilateral insula (see Table 1). No regions were obtained
from the reverse contrast, even at a relaxed statistical
threshold of p < .005, k = 5 voxels.
Correlation between Neural and Behavioral
Indices of Stereotyping
We next examined the relation between activation in re-
gions of interest identified from the contrast of stereotype-
applied > stereotype-unapplied and the strength of
participants’ stereotypical associations as indexed behav-
iorally by the IAT. To provide an analysis of potential ana-
tomical differences within the extensive, contiguous set of
voxels obtained from this contrast, a set of more circum-
scribed regions of interest was first identified using an
automated search algorithm (R. A. Poldrack, University of
California Los Angeles) that defined areas around local
maxima separated by at least 8 mm. For each of these
subregions, we then calculated the correlation between
(i) participants’ behavioral index of gender stereotypi-
cally, as indexed by the composite IAT difference score
and (ii) the difference in BOLD response associated with
stereotype-applied versus stereotype-unapplied trials, as
indexed by the SPM parameter estimates associated with
each trial type (Figure 2).
Significant correlations between behavioral and fMRI
indices were observed only in the right frontal cortex.
The average Pearson’s r across subregions in the right
frontal cortex was .39, with a considerable number of loci
exceeding the cutoff for a large effect size (r > .50, fol-
lowing Cohen, 1988), as well as the critical value for a sig-
nificant correlation at p < .05 (r = .48). In contrast, the
average correlation in the left frontal cortex was .14, and
no left frontal region produced a statistically significant
Figure 1. Representative regions of the right frontal cortex obtained from random-effects contrast of stereotype-applied > stereotype-unapplied.
The extent of activation observed from this contrast included areas of both right middle (A) and right inferior (B) frontal gyri. The pattern of
results in these right frontal regions took the form of greater BOLD response to stereotype-applied (leftmost blue bars) and nonstereotypical
(rightmost green bars) items than stereotype-unapplied items (middle red bars). Error bars represent the 95% confidence interval for within-subject
598Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience Volume 21, Number 3
correlation (see Table 2 for values associated with all
frontal subregions). The same lack of a relation between
behavioral and fMRI indices of stereotyping was observed
in all other regions of interest outside of the right frontal
cortex; all rs < .25.
The current study identified a pattern of neural activa-
tion associated with the use of group stereotypes to un-
derstand the mind of another person. Participants judged
the preferences and opinions of an unfamiliar man and
woman, and analyses focused on differences between
inferences that were consistent versus inconsistent with
widely held gender stereotypes. When participants used
a gender stereotype to infer a target’s preference (e.g.,
judging that the female target would enjoy shopping
for new clothes or that the male target would not),
greater activation was observed in an extensive region
of the right frontal cortex, compared to trials when par-
ticipants judged a target in a manner inconsistent with
gender stereotypes. Moreover, the magnitude of this
right frontal difference was significantly related to a well-
characterized behavioral index of gender stereotyping,
the IAT. Specifically, the stronger one’s association of
men with career/science and of women with home/
humanities, the greater the right frontal difference be-
tween stereotype-applied and stereotype-unapplied tri-
als. Given that the behavioral measure tapped fairly
specific stereotypes about gender roles (home vs. career
and science vs. humanities), it is noteworthy that it was
significantly related to brain activation in response to a
wide variety of stereotype-based inferences. Although a
number of additional brain regions distinguished be-
tween application and nonapplication of stereotypes
(see Table 1), only right frontal cortex modulation was
correlated with the behavioral index of stereotyping,
suggesting that this region plays an important functional
role in the application and suppression of stereotypical
inferences about another person’s mind.
What might this role be? Right frontal activation has
been linked to a surprisingly diverse array of cognitive
functions, including semantic retrieval (MacLeod, Buckner,
Table 1. Peak Voxel and Number of Voxels for Regions of
Interest Obtained from the Contrast of Stereotype-applied >
Stereotype-unapplied ( p < .05, corrected)
Anatomical Labelxyz Voxels Maximum t
R Frontal cortex4050610308.30
32 2238 1617.06
30 10 641325.19
L Motor cortex
Cingulate38 221 6.64
L Frontal cortex
R Dorsal STS
t tests reflect the statistical difference between the two conditions, as
computed by SPM2.
Coordinates refer to the Montreal Neurological Institute stereotaxic
R = right; L = left; STS = superior temporal sulcus.
Figure 2. Scatterplots displaying the relation between behavioral and neural measures of gender stereotyping in right middle (A) and right inferior
(B) frontal gyri (the same regions as Figure 1). The x-axes represent the IAT difference score (larger numbers indicate stronger gender stereotypical
associations). The y-axes represent the difference between the BOLD response to stereotype-applied and stereotype-unapplied trials. In both
regions, a significant correlation between these two measures of stereotyping was observed. Regions correspond to those displayed in Figure 1.
Mitchell et al. 599
Miezin, Petersen, & Raichle, 1998), categorization (Reber,
& Poldrack, 2004), assessment of emotional facial ex-
pressions (Nakamura et al., 1999), recognition of one’s
own face (Keenan, Wheeler, Gallup, & Pascual-Leone,
2000), humor appreciation (Shammi & Stuss, 1999), per-
ception of vocal prosody (Buchanan et al., 2000), and
thinking about one’s own affective state (Lieberman,
2003). Of these, the current findings may relate most
closely to those of MacLeod et al. (1998), who observed
right frontal activation during a semantic retrieval task in
which participants were asked to consider the category
‘‘animals’’ and monitor for the presentation of the name
of a dangerous one. Interestingly, single-cell recordings
in macaques have identified neurons in the frontal cor-
tex that have distinct response profiles to visual stimuli
that represent different categories of animals (Freedman,
Riesenhuber, Poggio, & Miller, 2001). Consistent with this
role of the frontal cortex in categorization, Reber et al.
(1998) observed right frontal activation when participants
categorized novel visual patterns. Together, these results
suggest that the right frontal cortex may play an impor-
tant role in semantic retrieval of categorical knowledge
(e.g., which of the members of the category ‘‘animal’’ are
dangerous). Here, we observed similar right frontal mod-
ulation when participants made use of a potentially
similar aspect of categorical knowledge—that is, stereo-
types about social groups—suggesting that this form of
social cognition may draw on the same processes as other
forms of category-based semantic retrieval.
In contrast, the current results stand apart from the
well-regarded conceptual framework developed by Aron
et al. (2004), who have suggested that the right frontal
cortex plays a critical role in response inhibition, a pro-
cess important for suppressing or canceling an intended
behavioral response. To the extent that participants
generally eschew making judgments of others based on
their group membership (Vorauer, Hunter, Main, & Roy,
2000; Macrae, Bodenhausen, Milne, & Jetten, 1994; Devine,
Monteith, Zuwerink, & Elliot, 1991), one might have ex-
pected such response inhibition to accompany trials on
which perceivers successfully avoided the use of gender
stereotypes. Indeed, a sizeable cognitive literature has
demonstrated that stereotypes are often activated auto-
matically upon encountering a social group member,
and only prevented from being applied through more
explicit control processes (Greenwald & Banaji, 1995;
Devine, 1989; Brewer, 1988). Thus, this model suggests
that the contrast of stereotype-applied > stereotype-
unapplied would reveal activity associated with the lack
of control. Instead, greater right frontal activation was
observed during those trials on which stereotype appli-
cation was most evident, that is, stereotype-applied trials.
Moreover, this pattern of neural activation was strongest
for those individuals who demonstrated the most strongly
stereotypic associations with gender, that is, among
those participants least likely to hold egalitarian beliefs
about gender. As such, it seems unlikely that the right
frontal activation observed in the current study indexed
attempts to inhibit stereotype-consistent responses, but
rather seems more likely to represent the application
of category knowledge in the service of social judgment
(cf. Mason & Macrae, 2004). These data underscore some
of the complexities regarding stereotype application and
regulation, and suggest the need to revisit existing
models of stereotype application through future work.
Interestingly, some earlier studies of mentalizing also
observed greater right frontal activity during stories that
could be understood only through consideration of the
protagonists’ mental states (Vogeley et al., 2001; Brunet,
Sarfati, Hardy-Bayle, & Decety, 2000; Gallagher et al.,
Table 2. Correlation between Stereotypical Gender
Associations and the Difference in BOLD Response between
Stereotype-applied > Stereotype-unapplied in Frontal
Anatomical Labelxyz Correlation
Right frontal cortex 34 5226.71
3242 22 .58
34 2054 .58
32 5018 .54
42 4230 .46
10 600 .32
32 2238 .22
18 5616 .21
.24Left frontal cortex
30 48 .24
32 42 .17
600Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience Volume 21, Number 3
2000). However, most studies of mentalizing have not
observed a modulation of lateral frontal regions (e.g.,
Saxe & Powell, 2006; Mitchell et al., 2005; Mitchell,
Macrae, & Banaji, 2004; Saxe & Kanwisher, 2003; Mitchell
et al., 2002), and at least one has reported less right
frontal activity associated with mentalizing compared to
a scrambled-sentence control task (Fletcher et al., 1995).
One speculative explanation of these disparate results
is that the studies observing right frontal activation
during mentalizing have generally used cartoon stimuli
that may prompt perceivers to make considerable use
of semanticized social knowledge; for example, Brunet
et al. (2000) presented participants with a series of high-
ly stylized social situations (e.g., escaping from jail; send-
ing a message in a bottle) that could be understood
against the backdrop of other forms of schematic social
knowledge. In contrast, most other mentalizing studies
present unusual situations or otherwise limit the use of
precompiled, semanticized forms of social understand-
ing, which may explain the failure of these studies to
observe right frontal activation.
Over the past half-century, psychologists have devel-
oped an extensive corpus of work devoted to the role of
stereotypes in social cognition and, as such, the relation
of the current results to this literature deserves some
discussion. First, the primary focus of the current study
has been the way that perceivers may deploy stereotypes
for a specific purpose: making inferences about anoth-
er person’s mind. In contrast, many of the stereotypes
that exist about social groups cannot as readily aid
perceivers’ attempts at mentalizing, such as those that
pertain to physical abilities (e.g., men as strong, African-
Americans as athletic) or occupational roles (e.g., women
as nurses, Jews as bankers). Additional research will be
needed to determine whether the current results are
specific to those stereotypes that provide insight into
the putative mental characteristics of other people or
extend to those that instead relate to nonmental aspects
of intergroup beliefs, a distinction rarely drawn in the
existing cognitive literature on stereotyping.
Second, the current results specifically contrast those
situations in which perceivers apply a stereotype in the
process of understanding another’s mind to those in
which they mentalize on some other basis. Although a
substantial amount of research has demonstrated that
encountering a member of a minority group (or verbal
labels denoting such a group) often leads to the activa-
tion of associated stereotypical beliefs about the group,
the actual application of a stereotype to a specific
individual may rely on different cognitive processes than
mere activation of stereotypic content (Gilbert & Hixon,
1991; Devine, 1989). That is, although a perceiver may
become aware of a host of stereotypical associations
upon encountering a member of an outgroup, the use of
that content for drawing inferences about the person
(i.e., its application) may or may not ensue. The current
results examine the processes associated with the phase
of social judgment at which perceivers are either applying
or avoiding a stereotype, rather than the activation phase
that presumably precedes such application. Likewise, the
current study differs from those that ask perceivers to
report explicitly on the content of stereotypes; for exam-
ple, by considering whether a given behavior is generally
held by others to be more likely of men or women
(Quadflieg et al., in press).
Third, the current study should be distinguished from
earlier research on the neural basis of prejudice, which
has primarily focused on attitudes toward—that is, the
positive or negative evaluations of—members of an out-
group (Knutson, Mah, Manly, & Grafman, 2007; Amodio
& Devine, 2006; Cunningham et al., 2004; Cunningham,
rather than stereotypes. Although stereotypes may con-
note a particular evaluation, one’s stereotypes about a
group need not converge on a single attitude toward that
group; women are stereotypically considered weak but
caring, whereas men are considered strong but emotion-
ally stunted. In the current study, we were careful to
measure stereotypes about men and women that were
equally positive, both on the behavioral IAT measure
(science vs. humanities; home vs. career) and on the
judgment task (e.g., like baseball vs. like the ballet).
Although much of this earlier work on prejudice has
identified the amygdala as the brain region most reliably
modulated by the consideration of outgroup versus in-
group members, more recent work has highlighted the
contributions of additional brain regions during social
evaluation. For example, Knutson et al. (2007) examined
brain activation while participants completed blocks of
the IAT that were either consistent or inconsistent with
prevailing race attitudes toward Black and White Amer-
icans. Interestingly, these authors observed a correlation
between the strength of participants’ race attitudes (as
measured by the IAT) and modulation of the BOLD
response in a very similar right frontal locus as the one
reported in the current study. Curiously, this correlation
was not observed for an IAT designed to measure
gender stereotyping; indeed, these authors report ob-
serving no differences that were specific to stereotyping
(instead, all reported differences appear to have been
driven by the attitude measure or general task demands
of the IAT on executive function). These observations of
both overlap and dissociation between the current study
and that of Knutson et al. provide ample impetus for
future research designed to examine whether stereotyp-
ing shares some cognitive processes with purely evalu-
ative aspects of social judgment.
Lastly, established models of stereotyping have sug-
gested that perceivers can deploy two different sets of
person perception processes. One of these makes use of
information about a target’s membership in various so-
cial groups, especially those that are immediately obvi-
ous to a perceiver such as a person’s age, race, and sex
Mitchell et al.601
(Brewer, 1988). Stereotyping results directly from this
kind of group-based approach to other people (Fiske &
Neuberg, 1990; Allport, 1954). In contrast, perceivers
may also make use of individuating information about
others, which is typically thought to involve a tradeoff
between ease of processing and the accuracy of one’s
interpersonal judgments; stereotypes may be ‘‘fast and
frugal’’ heuristics for making inferences about others,
but they are generally less specific and contentful than
judgments that follow a moment of individual consid-
eration. Recently, these insights into the nature of per-
son perception have begun to be linked to the activity
of specific brain regions involved in social cognition.
Whereas the type of mentalizing associated with the
medial prefrontal cortex may involve more individual
consideration of another person’s mind, the heuristic
application of stereotypes to understand others may
rely on the right lateral frontal cortex. Consistent with
this formulation, we recently reported modulation of a
region of the ventromedial prefrontal cortex when
perceivers mentalized about an unfamiliar target who
had previously been considered from a first-person
perspective (Ames, Jenkins, Banaji, & Mitchell, in press),
a manipulation known to reduce stereotype-consistent
judgments of others (Ames, 2004a, 2004b; Galinsky &
As such, the current results contribute to an emerging
consensus that, rather than relying on a single module,
the human ability to understand other minds draws on a
suite of distinct cognitive processes, each of which relies
on different kinds of information to solve the overall
challenges posed by mentalizing. One useful mechanism
for making inferences about others may be to use
knowledge of one’s own thoughts, feelings, and prefer-
ences as a guide to those of others (Gallese, 2007;
Davies & Stone, 1995). However, although this strategy
of simulation (or projection) may be appropriate for
understanding the mental states of someone assumed to
share one’s own worldview (Mitchell et al., 2005, 2006),
life in the 21st century includes frequent encounters
with individuals who may think in ways very different
from our own. How, then, do perceivers mentalize when
they assume that a target fails to share their own
predilections and proclivities and therefore cannot ap-
propriately be simulated? Here, we suggest that one pos-
sible alternative to individuating other minds through
simulation is to base judgments on ‘‘precompiled’’ se-
mantic beliefs about the social categories to which a
target belongs, that is, on a stereotype. Although such
stereotypical inferences may prove inaccurate guides to
an individual’s true thoughts and feelings (Jussim, 1991,
1993), perceivers, nevertheless, frequently deploy cate-
gorical social knowledge during their attempts to make
sense of others. The undesirable results of stereotyping
may result from the fact that, rather than drawing on
cognitive processes specialized for thinking about the
minds of others (Harris & Fiske, 2006; Mitchell, 2006;
Mitchell et al., 2002), stereotype-based social judgments
rely on brain regions—such as the right lateral frontal
cortex—that subserve more general-purpose cognitive
processes, such as those involved in semantic memory
and categorization. By beginning to illuminate the neu-
ral basis of these less individuating forms of mentalizing,
the current results underscore the diverse cognitive
mechanisms of which the human mind makes use in
its attempt to understand the complexity of the other
minds around it.
We thank D. Amodio, L. Powell, and C. N. Macrae for their
advice and assistance. This work was supported by a grant to
J. P. M. and M. R. B. from the National Science Foundation (BCS
0642448). Data were collected at the Athinoula A. Martinos
Center for Biomedical Imaging, which is supported by grants
from the National Center for Research Resources (P41RR14075)
and the Mental Illness and Neuroscience Discovery (MIND)
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of Psychology, Harvard University, William James Hall, 33
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