Linguistic bias

C.J. Beukeboom, C.F. Burgers

Research output: Chapter in Book / Report / Conference proceedingEntry for encyclopedia/dictionaryAcademicpeer-review


Social categorization and stereotypes play a pervasive and fundamental role in social perception, judgment, and interaction. Although stereotypes are functional by allowing us to make sense of our complex social environment, their use can promote prejudice and discrimination when individuals are treated based on generic stereotypic expectancies, rather than on available individuating information. Prejudice and discrimination emerge from generalized (negative) stereotypic associations that people hold about social categories. These stereotypes become socially shared within (sub)cultures through communications about categorized people and their behavior. Research on biased language use reveals the communicative and linguistic processes through which stereotypes are formed and maintained. When communicating about other people and their behavior, our language echoes the existing stereotypic expectancies we have with categorized individuals (often without our conscious awareness). A linguistic bias is defined as a systematic asymmetry in word choice that reflects the social-category cognitions that are applied to the described group or individual(s). Three types of biases are distinguished in the literature that reveal, and thereby maintain, social-category cognitions and stereotypes.

First, when labeling individuals, the types of category labels that we choose reflect existing social category cognitions. Second, once target individuals are labeled as members of a category, people tend to communicate predominantly stereotype-congruent information (rather than incongruent information). Third, research has revealed several biases in how we formulate information about categorized individuals. These formulation differences (e.g., in language abstraction, explanations, use of negations, irony) subtly reveal whether a target’s behavior was stereotypically expected or not. Behavioral information that is in line with social-category knowledge (i.e., stereotype-consistent) is formulated differently compared to incongruent information (i.e., stereotype-inconsistent).

In addition, when communicating with individuals we have categorized in a given social category, our language may subtly reveal the stereotypic expectancies we have about our conversation partners. It is important to be aware of these stereotype maintaining biases as they play an important role in consensualizing both benevolent and harmful stereotypes about social categories.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationOxford Research Encyclopedia of Communication
EditorsH. Giles, J. Harwood
PublisherOxford University Press
Number of pages21
ISBN (Electronic)9780190228613
Publication statusPublished - Jul 2017

Publication series

NameOxford Research Encyclopedias


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