Evaluative Feedback Expresses and Reinforces Cultural Stereotypes
Andrea C. Vial
New York University
The writing of this chapter was supported in part by the Dream Gap Postdoctoral Fellowship
awarded to Andrea Vial and by National Science Foundation grant BCS-1733897 awarded to
Andrei Cimpian. We are grateful to Eddie Brummelman and the members of the Cognitive
Development Lab at New York University for helpful comments on previous drafts of this
Please address correspondence to:
Andrea C. Vial
Department of Psychology
New York University
6 Washington Place
New York, NY 10003
Vial, A. C., & Cimpian, A. (in press). Evaluative feedback expresses and reinforces
cultural stereotypes. In E. Brummelman (Ed.), Psychological Perspectives on Praise.
EVALUATIVE FEEDBACK AND STEREOTYPES 2
Evaluative feedback (praise and criticism) has a powerful influence on behavior, in part because
it communicates what society values in and expects of an individual. Importantly, feedback often
reflects values and expectations that are informed by the social group of the individual receiving
feedback, and the stereotypes attached to it, rather than being based just on information specific
to the individual. In this chapter, we first detail how group stereotypes affect the evaluative
feedback given to stereotyped individuals. We then review the effects of stereotyped feedback,
highlighting the role that such feedback plays in maintaining group disparities.
EVALUATIVE FEEDBACK AND STEREOTYPES 3
Evaluative Feedback Expresses and Reinforces Cultural Stereotypes
When used appropriately, evaluative feedback (that is, praise and criticism) is a powerful
motivator (Yeager et al., 2014). Often, however, feedback fails to shape behavior as intended
(Brophy, 1981) or even causes harm (Brummelman et al., 2014). Here, we describe the harm that
emerges when feedback intersects with stereotypes: By giving voice to what society expects of
the members of various groups, feedback ultimately reinforces group stereotypes and contributes
to the maintenance of group disparities. We first describe how stereotypes influence the feedback
provided to stereotyped individuals. Our review focuses on stereotypes about gender and race
because most of the research does as well. We then describe how stereotyped feedback shapes
stereotyped individuals’ self-perceptions and ability to succeed in counter-stereotypical fields.
The Effects of Stereotypes on Evaluative Feedback
To clarify, we use the terms feedback, praise, and criticism to refer to an overt evaluation
of a behavior; in our terminology, an evaluation is a private judgment or attitude (e.g., X
approves of Y’s behavior) that is made public by the act of providing feedback (e.g., X says to Y,
“That was great!”). At a first pass, we might use two dimensions to predict the type of feedback
that an individual will receive for a behavior. The first dimension is the valence of the attribute
that is illustrated by the behavior (the x axis in Figure 1A). For instance, donating to charity
illustrates a positively-valenced attribute (namely, generosity), whereas punching someone
illustrates a negatively-valenced attribute (namely, aggression). The second dimension is the
level or degree to which the behavior illustrates the relevant attribute (the y axis). For instance,
donating $100 illustrates higher levels of generosity than donating $1. The midpoint on this
dimension represents the average perceived level of an attribute in the population.
EVALUATIVE FEEDBACK AND STEREOTYPES 4
Figure 1. Evaluative feedback for a behavior as a function of the valence of the attribute
illustrated by the behavior (x axis) and the level or degree to which the behavior demonstrates
that attribute (y axis). Praise is depicted by the solid areas, criticism by the hatched areas.
Feedback intensity is depicted via shading (darker shades = more intense feedback). Panel A
illustrates feedback in the absence of stereotypes. Panel B provides a specific example of the
effects of a negative stereotype on feedback (see “negative stereotype” column); the brackets and
labels on the right side of Figure 1B map onto this specific example.
On this simple analysis, behaviors that demonstrate high levels of a positively-valenced
attribute (e.g., generosity) will result in praise, whereas behaviors that demonstrate low levels of
the same attribute will result in criticism. This relation is reversed for negatively-valenced
attributes (e.g., aggression). The intensity of the feedback for a behavior (e.g., whether a person
receives lukewarm vs. effusive praise) depends both on the level and the valence of the attribute
displayed: The more extreme a behavior is on either dimension, the more intense the feedback
(as illustrated by darker shading in Figure 1A). For instance, a person will receive more effusive
praise for displaying a level of math skill far above the perceived average than just above
EVALUATIVE FEEDBACK AND STEREOTYPES 5
Effects of Stereotypes on Whether a Behavior Is Evaluated Positively vs. Negatively
A stereotype is a generic belief about a social group (Bian & Cimpian, 2017; Hammond
& Cimpian, 2017). Most stereotypes assign a certain level (high or low) of an attribute (positive
or negative) to a certain group. For example, common stereotypes are that women are bad at
math (i.e., this group has low average levels of a positive attribute) or that Black people are
athletic (i.e., this group has high average levels of a positive attribute). By informing people’s
perceptions of the average level of an attribute for a group (see the “perceived group average”
line in Figure 1B), stereotypes set the standard relative to which evaluative feedback is provided
for individuals in that group (Biernat & Kobrynowicz, 1997). In turn, reliance on these
stereotype-based standards affects both the intensity and the type of feedback provided to
#1. Stereotype Effects on the Intensity of Feedback. Stereotypes affect the intensity of
the feedback provided to members of stereotyped groups. To illustrate, as a member of a group
that is negatively stereotyped in the domain of math, a woman who displays strong mathematical
skill—above both the perceived population average and the stereotype of her group—is likely to
receive more effusive praise than other individuals at the same skill level (see Figure 1B). This is
because her skill is more extreme relative to the (low) standard by which she is judged than
would be the case for a man. Similarly, this low stereotyped standard means that she might also
receive milder criticism for poor performance in math.
Several studies provide evidence for the effect of stereotypes on feedback intensity. For
example, negative stereotypes that men are unlikely to be altruistic lead individual men to
receive more effusive praise than women for behaving altruistically in the workplace (Heilman
EVALUATIVE FEEDBACK AND STEREOTYPES 6
& Chen, 2005; Kobrynowicz & Biernat, 1997). Other studies have found similar intensification
effects in contexts where women are negatively stereotyped, such as sports (Biernat & Vescio,
2002). Stereotypes about racial groups intensify evaluative feedback as well (Biernat &
Kobrynowicz, 1997; Biernat & Manis, 1994). For example, lower stereotype-based standards
lead participants to judge the standardized test performance of a Black student to be “better” than
the same performance by a White student (Biernat, Collins, Katzarska-Miller, & Thompson,
2009). (To clarify, the fact that members of negatively stereotyped groups sometimes receive
inflated praise does not mean that observers’ evaluation of the underlying attribute is inflated as
well. Despite the effusive praise, negatively stereotyped individuals are often assumed to display
lower levels of the underlying attribute than non-stereotyped individuals [Biernat & Vescio,
2002].) Comparable findings emerge for positive group stereotypes: People who endorse positive
stereotypes of athleticism for Black people tend to evaluate Black individuals’ athleticism less
positively, especially when the standard of comparison is the stereotypic average for this group
(Biernat & Manis, 1994; see Heilman & Chen, 2005, for a gender-relevant example).
#2. Stereotype Effects on the Type of Feedback. Stereotypes can affect the type of
feedback (praise vs. criticism) received by an individual (see Figure 1B). For instance, as a
member of a group that is negatively stereotyped in the domain of math, a woman who performs
better than would be expected given the stereotypes of her gender may receive praise even if her
performance is below the perceived population average (which includes men). Thus, a behavior
that might have been criticized in others is now met with praise. Similarly, members of
negatively stereotyped groups are sometimes spared criticism for poor performance compared to
other groups—and may even receive praise: White students showed a positivity bias when giving
feedback on a poor-quality essay ostensibly written by a Black (vs. White) student (Harber,
EVALUATIVE FEEDBACK AND STEREOTYPES 7
1998), as did White teachers when giving feedback on Black and Latinx (vs. White) students’
essays (Harber et al., 2012).
Effects of Stereotypes on Evaluative Feedback: Beyond Positivity vs. Negativity
The two effects described above address only how stereotypes influence the degree to
which a behavior is evaluated positively or negatively. But stereotypes also affect (#3) causal
attributions for behavior and, in some cases, (#4) global evaluations of the feedback recipient, as
well as (#5) the frequency of feedback in a stereotyped domain. We describe each of these
#3. Stereotype Effects on Causal Attributions. Feedback can convey information about
how observers explained the behavior under evaluation (Cimpian, Arce, Markman, & Dweck,
2007; Mueller & Dweck, 1998), and stereotypes have systematic effects on this aspect of
feedback: Whether a group is stereotyped positively or negatively, feedback for an individual’s
stereotype-consistent behavior (e.g., a Black person’s excellent athletic performance) is more
likely to reference the individual’s inherent traits or properties as an explanation, in part because
stereotypes are generally understood as describing the inherent attributes of group members
(Cimpian & Salomon, 2014; Hammond & Cimpian, 2017). In contrast, feedback for an
individual’s stereotype-inconsistent behavior (e.g., a woman’s excellent math performance) is
more likely to explain that behavior in ways that reconcile it with the stereotype and portray the
individual or the circumstances as unusual (e.g., “she worked really hard,” “she got lucky”; see
Richards & Hewstone, 2001). Indeed, teachers praise boys for the intellectual quality of their
work more often than they praise girls (Dweck, Davidson, Nelson, & Enna, 1978), which is as
expected given that high-level intellectual ability is a male-stereotypic trait (Bian, Leslie, &
Cimpian, 2018; Gálvez, Tiffenberg, & Altszyler, 2019; Leslie, Cimpian, Meyer, & Freeland,
EVALUATIVE FEEDBACK AND STEREOTYPES 8
2015). Conversely, teachers systematically attribute girls’ good performance to hard work (J.
Cimpian, Lubienski, Timmer, Makowski, & Miller, 2016).
#4. Stereotype Effects on Global Impressions of the Person. Many stereotypes are
descriptive beliefs about the members of a group. When people believe that women are bad at
math or that Black people are athletic, they are endorsing descriptive stereotypes. They do not
typically think that women should be bad at math or that Black people should be athletic.
However, some stereotypes—particularly about gender—have a normative element as well,
dictating what people in a group should be like; these are known as prescriptive stereotypes
(Burgess & Borgida, 1999). When people believe that it is desirable for women in particular to
be modest or for men in particular to be ambitious, they are endorsing prescriptive stereotypes
(Smith & Huntoon, 2014). Beyond influencing feedback intensity/type for specific behaviors (as
described above), prescriptive stereotypes also affect an observer’s global evaluation of the
person. For example, several studies have shown negative global evaluations of successful
female targets, who are often perceived to violate gender prescriptions when they project
ambition and confidence (Heilman & Okimoto, 2007; Phelan, Moss-Racusin, & Rudman, 2008).
When a woman brags about her accomplishments or fails to act in altruistic ways, criticism of
her behavior is often tinged with dislike for her as a person (Heilman, 2001). Similarly, male
targets who violate gender prescriptions by being modest about their accomplishments often
elicit negative global feedback (Moss-Racusin, Phelan, & Rudman, 2010).
#5. Stereotype Effects on Frequency of Feedback. The value-laden layer of
prescriptive stereotypes has another important effect: It makes feedback more likely to be
provided in the first place. Individuals are more likely to be praised or criticized for behaviors
that conform or fail to conform, respectively, to a prescriptive stereotype than a merely
EVALUATIVE FEEDBACK AND STEREOTYPES 9
descriptive stereotypic standard. This is likely because observers care more about prescriptive
stereotypic standards, and may also assume that individuals being evaluated care more about
these standards as well and would thus benefit from the feedback. Illustrating this phenomenon,
women are more likely to be praised or complimented for their appearance than men (Eckert &
McConnell-Ginet, 2003), whereas men are more frequently praised for their skills and abilities
(Holmes, 1988; Parisi & Wogan, 2006; Rees-Miller, 2011).
The Effects of Stereotyped Evaluative Feedback
Evaluative feedback that is influenced by stereotypes contributes to the maintenance of
the societal status quo, (re)producing inequality in several ways, as we describe next. Due in part
to their effects on praise and criticism, stereotypes are ultimately self-reinforcing—they bring
about, and maintain, the version of reality they project.
Stereotyped Feedback Shapes Self-Concepts
Stereotyped feedback reinforces the status quo by shaping stereotyped individuals’ self-
concepts (i.e., what they value, what they think they are good at) from a young age (Block,
Gonzalez, Schmader, & Baron, 2018). A child who is often praised (or criticized) for displaying
(or failing to display) an attribute stereotypically associated with their group might over time
begin to value that attribute themselves—to incorporate it as part of their self-concept. This
effect follows from general principles of operant conditioning (Domjan, 2000): There are few
reinforcers as powerful as the perception that others approve of us, and few punishers as
effective as the prospect of social disapproval (Tomasello, 2014; though see Brummelman,
2018). Differentially reinforcing (with praise) and punishing (with criticism) the behavior of
certain groups (e.g., girls) with respect to certain attributes (e.g., being altruistic) is likely to
modulate the behaviors and attitudes associated with those attributes. Ultimately, these
EVALUATIVE FEEDBACK AND STEREOTYPES 10
developmental processes can be observed in the way that adults sort themselves into stereotype-
congruent careers (e.g., women choose more communally-oriented careers; Diekman, Brown,
Johnston, & Clark, 2010). The fact that self-selection among adults occurs seemingly free from
external influence—people choose the careers they want—is in part a function of prior shaping
of an individual’s desires by stereotype-driven evaluations from parents, teachers, and peers
(Sullivan, Moss-Racusin, Lopez, & Williams, 2018; Thomas & Blakemore, 2013).
Stereotyped praise and criticism shape not just what individuals want but also what they
believe they can achieve, another key facet of the self-concept. For example, praising the success
of negatively stereotyped groups (e.g., girls doing well in math) in terms of their effort, while
potentially beneficial in some respects (Mueller & Dweck, 1998), might also lead members of
these groups—as well as observers—to infer that their effort compensates for a lack of ability
(Amemiya & Wang, 2018; Meyer, 1992). In turn, this inference is likely to trigger concerns
about belonging and undermine persistence in members of stigmatized groups (Graham &
Taylor, 2014; Smith, Lewis, Hawthorne, & Hodges, 2013).
Stereotyped Feedback Creates Obstacles
Stereotyped feedback reinforces the status quo not just by changing how members of
stigmatized groups think about themselves but also by creating external barriers that keep
individuals out of domains that are not stereotypically associated with their group (Gaddis, 2015;
Heilman, 2001). Some of these effects are direct and obvious: Evaluating individuals through the
lens of their group membership carries the risk of failing to appropriately recognize and reward
their good performance. For example, women who excel in a male-typed career are often viewed
as highly competent but “cold,” which is a violation of gender prescriptions. As a result, women
who are successful in male-typed domains often receive fewer organizational rewards than
EVALUATIVE FEEDBACK AND STEREOTYPES 11
comparable men (Heilman et al., 2004). More generally, there is evidence that the stereotyped
expectations and evaluations of those in positions of authority deprive individuals from
stigmatized groups of opportunities to show their abilities and further their careers (Bian, Leslie,
& Cimpian, 2018; Biernat & Vescio, 2002; Moss-Racusin, Dovidio, Brescoll, Graham, &
Beyond the direct effects that stereotyped feedback can have on the opportunities
afforded to stigmatized groups, stereotyped feedback can—more indirectly and subtly—
undermine their motivation and success. An individual who perceives that others are evaluating
them in light of a certain stereotype is likely to experience a sense of psychological threat even if
they reject that stereotype (Schmader, Johns, & Forbes, 2008; Steele, 2013). As a result of this
threat, the individual may experience uncertainty about whether they belong in that context,
decreased trust, and other psychological states that are not conducive to success (Bian, Leslie,
Murphy, & Cimpian, 2018; Emerson & Murphy, 2015; Walton & Cohen, 2007). Thus,
stereotyped feedback can set into motion a set of processes within the recipient that ultimately
limit their success in a counter-stereotypical domain, thereby reinforcing the status quo.
Whether we are aware of it or not, the feedback we give to others is not just a function of
their behavior (i.e., the objective stimulus). Critically, others’ perceived social identities
influence the standard we use to evaluate their behavior and, as a result, the feedback we give
them. The evidence reviewed here suggests stereotypes affect multiple aspects of feedback, from
its positivity and frequency to the factors that we think explain the person’s behavior, and these
effects are themselves consequential. Much like a self-fulfilling prophecy, the recipients of
stereotyped feedback often end up conforming to society’s perceptions of their groups, thereby
EVALUATIVE FEEDBACK AND STEREOTYPES 12
“validating” these biased perceptions and perpetuating social inequality.
EVALUATIVE FEEDBACK AND STEREOTYPES 13
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