This chapter starts with a discussion about how we learn what types of behaviors and actions are normal and expected and what types are accepted and approved of or regarded negatively. One of the themes that pull this literature together is that a great deal of social learning is directed toward a general goal—reducing uncertainty about how we should behave in different situations. I then go on to examine cognitive processes that focus on a second goal that is important to most individuals—maintaining a positive self-image. Individuals who behave in ways that violate broad social norms and that have the potential to harm others should feel like they have done something wrong and should feel guilt and remorse, but they often do not. I discuss a range of cognitive processes people use to rationalize, justify, reconceptualize, and mentally distort their behavior to help keep up this positive image.
A great deal of psychological research has examined the influences of stereotypes on people’s thoughts and behaviors. Stereotyping can sometimes contribute to harmful and destructive behavior. Under extreme conditions, stereotypes can lead to dehumanization—that is, treating members of particular groups as animals or objects who do not deserve humane treatment. However, conditions do not need to be extreme for stereotypic thinking to be harmful. For example, women and girls are routinely treated as sex objects, valued for their attractiveness and their capacity to please men. The objectification of women is practically the mainstay of advertising and is so routine in all types of media that it almost passes unnoticed, despite the substantial harm (e.g., increased sexual harassment and violence, unhealthy body images) that objectification does.
Finally, I briefly describe some important automatic processes that can lead individuals to behave in ways that violate social norms and that harm others. We like to think of ourselves as rational creatures, but a good deal of our behavior is guided by emotions, preconceptions, schema, and scripts that can lead us to behave in ways that are dangerous and destructive to the social order.