Humans have evolved strategies that helped them remove group members who hampered group efficiency. By labeling characteristics and behaviors, also known as stigmatizing, groups could identify and remove inefficient and undesirable group members. To avoid social rejection, our ancestors developed ways to avoid stigmatization.
We all know him. The guy who wears unusual clothing, or maybe talks a little too loud. He gives innocent people dirty looks, leading others to reject him. Nobody wants to be “that guy.” No matter who it is, he has some characteristic that leads people to avoid or ignore him. People learn to identify this stigmatizing feature and, if they also have it, how to conceal it. Avoiding stigmatization helps people avoid numerous negative consequences, such as social rejection.
In our evolutionary history, forming groups and lasting relationships gave our ancestors an upper hand. By forming groups, our ancestors were able to rely on others for protection, resources, and reproductive needs (Kurzban and Leary 2001). Small groups provide tremendous advantages. However, as group numbers increase, so do the risks. Referring to living in groups, Alexander (1974) stated, “There are automatic and universal detriments, namely, increased intensity of competition for resources, including mates, and increased likelihood of disease and parasite transmission” (p. 328). To combat these threats, people need to identify inefficient and undesirable members in order to reduce the group to a manageable size.
The most desirable group is one in which group members equally contribute to shared goals. Those who do not contribute hurt the group and are viewed as a weak link (Turner 1982). To determine the weak links, a set of specific traits or characteristics are defined in order to segregate and remove those individuals. Anyone with that trait would be considered more of a cost than a benefit. This classification of individuals based on a characteristic is stigmatization (Kurzban and Leary 2001). Stigmatized characteristics can be based on whether an individual identifies with an outside group, such as racial, ethnic, or religious groups (Kurzban and Leary 2001).
The possession of a stigma informs group members that you lack the abilities required to perform the tasks necessary for group survival. Once marked, groups turn to denigration in order to look superior and force the lesser out (Turner 1982). In turn, the stigmatized individual will become rejected by the group. To avoid the stress and discrimination, stigmatized individuals will isolate themselves before rejection, only interacting with those in which the feel normal (Becker 1981). However, a stigmatization does not always mean instant rejection.
The amount of control a person has over a stigmatizing factor is correlated with negative attitudes and behaviors towards that individual (Mehta and Farina 1997). The more perceived control over the characteristic, the more the individual is discriminated against. For example, people often view obesity as something that people can control through diet and exercise. The possibility of controlling one’s weight adds to the ridicule and discrimination endured by obese individuals. Cancer patients, though stigmatized, do not face a similar fate due to the lack of control over developing the condition. Lack of control is not always a saving grace. The mentally ill and physically disabled are exceptions to that correlation (Mehta and Farina 1997).
Being linked to a stigma results in prejudice and discrimination (Kurzban and Leary 2001). To avoid ridicule and rejection, people try to hide the stigma. Some stigmas, like obesity, are difficult to hide. These individuals are forced to isolate themselves or attempt to cover their stigma to minimize the effects (Becker 1981). Once stigmatized, individuals will attempt to avoid further stigmatization. For example, because African Americans feel stigmatized, they show greater reluctance to seek medical attention for a stigmatizing medical condition (Anglin et al. 2006).
Some stigmas, however, are considered invisible. For example, some stigmas leave a psychological, rather than physical, mark on people, such as having a history of child abuse. An invisible stigma only becomes visible when people reveal it.
To try to keep stigmas invisible, there are three common tactics: counterfeiting, avoidance, and integration (Woods 1994). Counterfeiting involves pretending not to have the undesirable stigma. To make the cover story believable, individuals go to great lengths. For example, a diabetic child may eat and drink things that harm them in order to appear normal.
Counterfeiting involves creating a new identity. It also allows individuals to socialize with peers. On the other hand, avoidance entails telling half-truths, avoiding relevant topics, and censoring (Woods 1994). Though it is not an entirely new identity, individuals keep their distance from others, hiding their personal lives.
Both counterfeiting and avoidance shield people from being not being stigmatized, but they also come with consequences. Concealing a stigma can lead to psychological strain, emotional stress, and stress-related illnesses (Smart and Wegner 2000). Fear and anxiety can increase these negative reactions (Smart and Wegner 2000).
The last tactic – integration – involves disclosing the stigma to peers. Disclosure can entail verbally informing everyone of the stigma, or even visually showing people the characteristic. For example, gay employees may tell their friends about their partner or bring their partner to work events. Though integration can provide relief, it also provides the risk associated with stigmatized people. That is, the reduction of stress through disclosure may lead to rejection. Because of these risks, individuals with invisible stigmas use varying strategies with different peers.
To avoid further stigmatization and rejection, people adapted the ability to control one’s impulses, self-control (Baumeister et al. 2007). In a social interaction, controlling what one’s says in order to hide their stigma requires a great deal of mental control. The stress and uncertainty of never knowing if your stigma will be discovered along with attempts to suppress negative stereotypes can be draining. For example, when African American students were primed with stigmatized thoughts, they showed lower self-control (Inzlicht et al. 2006). People placed in a stigmatizing situation for too long may become depleted, leading to poor self-control. Their poor self-control can lead to the discovery of their hidden stigma.
Nobody wants to be stigmatized. Being stigmatized can lead us to become socially rejected. Because we have a powerful need to belong, people evolved strategies to avoid stigmatization. Avoiding stigmatization is easier for some people than others. Visible stigmas often lead people to isolate themselves from the group, joining with others who make them feel normal (Becker 1981). Stigmatized individuals will also do what it takes in order to avoid further stigmatization, even if it means avoiding doctor’s visits (Anglin et al. 2006).
Other characteristics, such as AIDS or cancer, are easier to conceal. Though concealable, individuals are often left in a tough position. They risk rejection by disclosing it, but they also suffer from concealing their stigma. People avoid being stigmatized because they do not want to be rejected. Thus, we evolved the desire to avoid stigmatization.
- Smart, L., & Wegner, D. M. (2000). The hidden costs of hidden stigma. In T. Heatherton, R. Kleck, M. Heble, & J. Hull (Eds.), The social psychology of stigma (pp. 220–242). New York: Guilford Press.Google Scholar
- Turner, J. C. (1982). Towards a cognitive redefinition of the social group. In H. Tajfel (Ed.), Social identity and intergroup relations (pp. 15–40). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
- Woods, J. D. (1994). The corporate closet: The professional lives of gay men in America. New York: Free Press.Google Scholar