The impact of helper characteristics on help-seeking behavior has received substantial attention from social psychologists, educators, and health care professionals (for reviews, see Nadler, 1991; Wills & DePaulo, 1991). Both experimental social psychological research and field studies in this vein have examined participants' preferences for different types of helpers (e.g., Knapp & Karabenick, 1988; Nadler, Shapira, & Ben-Itzhak, 1982), which may have implications for the type of help received. For example, students' reluctance to ask for help from teachers more than from peers may impede their academic success. Moreover, individuals who choose to ask informal network members for more help than they ask their physicians may experience negative health consequences.
In light of the problems that may be associated with such help-seeking decisions, researchers have sought to understand the conditions under which individuals are more or less likely to seek help, and from whom. In particular, psychologists have demonstrated that several characteristics of the helper, including age, status, physical attractiveness, perceived competence, perceived similarity, and relationship of the helper to the help seeker may influence the intention to seek help, possibly through their influence on help seekers' self-esteem, perceived inadequacy, or level of embarrassment (for reviews, see Nadler, 1991; Wills & DePaulo, 1991). Surprisingly, however, given that such perceptions of the helper may derive from inferences about the helper's ethnic or social group membership, only one study to date (Dovidio & Gaertner, 1983) has examined whether helper ethnicity influences help-seeking behavior.
It seems likely that stereotypes influence help seeking because a large amount of research indicates that stereotypes are most likely to influence judgments when the situation is ambiguous and individuating information is scarce (e.g., Sagar & Schofield, 1980). Research has also demonstrated that stereotypes influence judgments of a target when participants have a complex, versus a simple, processing objective (Bodenhausen & Lichtenstein, 1987) or under conditions of cognitive busyness (Macrae, Hewstone, & Griffiths, 1993). All of these conditions may be present for an individual who is deciding whether to seek help. Consider prospective patients who are deciding whether to consult a physician. Patients often have a lack of individuating information about physicians, and the information that is available may be ambiguous with respect to medical expertise. Indeed, patients may only know the physician's name, from which group membership (e.g., ethnicity or sex) may be inferred. Under these kinds of conditions, it seems probable that stereotypes of physicians may play a role in health care decisions. Similarly, students who are taking a difficult course may be overwhelmed by new information. At the same time, they may be distracted by other concerns, such as problems both in adjusting to school and with managing their interpersonal relationships. To the extent that stereotypes serve to simplify judgments in the midst of such cognitive busyness, they may be likely to influence judgments of the various helpers to whom the student has access. For example, if an individual's stereotype of Asian students holds that Asian students are likely to have high math ability, that individual may be more likely to ask an Asian student for help on a math class assignment than a student whose ethnic group stereotype does not predict high math ability.
The present study examined this issue, that is, the relationship of stereotypes about peer helpers' ethnic groups to help-seeking judgments and behaviors. Following recent developments in the conceptualization and measurement of stereotypes, the different effects of two unique components of stereotypes (i.e., perceived group stereotypicality and perceived group dispersion) on judgments and help-seeking behavior were examined (Park & Judd, 1990; Ryan, Judd, & Park, 1996). The perceived stereotypicality of a group is the extent to which the group is perceived to conform to its stereotype, that is, how extreme the group is perceived to be on stereotypic versus counterstereotypic attributes, relative to other groups. For example, an individual who believes that women in general are more passive and nurturant than men (traits that are generally considered to be more stereotypic of women than of men) but not assertive and arrogant (traits that are generally considered to be more counterstereotypic of women than of men) perceives the group in a relatively stereotypic manner. The perceived dispersion, or variability, of a group is the perceived spread of group members around the central tendency of the group on stereotype-relevant attribute dimensions. For example, an individual who believes that all women are passive does not see much variability in the group and thus would hold a stereotype that is low in perceived dispersion on that attribute. An individual who believes that some women are passive and other women are not at all passive, however, sees much more variability in the group and thus holds a stereotype that is relatively high in dispersion on that attribute. Judgments of dispersion, such as judgments of stereotypicality, are typically measured relative to perceptions of the dispersion of other groups (Judd & Park, 1993).
Only a few studies have examined the influence of perceived dispersion and perceived stereotypicality on group-relevant judgments. Perceived dispersion has been shown to influence generalization from the behavior of individual group members to the behavior of other group members, judgments of the typicality of individual group members, and the confidence with which stereotype-relevant judgments are made (Lambert, 1995; Park & Hastie, 1987, Experiment 1; Ryan et al., 1996). In particular, Ryan et al. (1996) examined whether perceived dispersion and perceived stereotypicality have different effects on judgments of individual group members. In three studies, they assessed participants' perceptions of the stereotypicality and dispersion of three different target groups. They then correlated participants' group-level judgments with their judgments of individual group members. They found that participants who perceived the group to be higher in stereotypicality judged individual targets in a more stereotype-consistent manner, and participants who perceived the group to be lower in dispersion were more confident in their judgments of the individual group member (relative to targets who were members of another group). These effects were obtained even though the group-level judgments were gathered 2 months before the individual-level judgments in apparently unrelated contexts. In short, perceived stereotypicality and dispersion may have different effects on judgment: Perceived stereotypicality tends to influence trait judgments, whereas perceived dispersion tends to influence confidence in trait judgments.
Stereotype Use in Help-Seeking Situations
The purpose of the present study was to examine the unique effects of the two components of stereotypes with respect to judgment and behavior in a help-seeking situation. Perceived stereotypicality was predicted to be associated with help seekers' stereotypicality judgments of helpers, as well as the extent to which help seekers decide to seek help from a particular target. Individuals who perceive the helper's group to be high in perceived stereotypicality should judge the helper in a more stereotype-consistent manner than individuals who perceive the helper's group to be low in perceived stereotypicality (see Ryan et al., 1996). To the extent that the content of the stereotype of an individual's group suggests that she or he would be helpful with respect to a problem, the individual should be judged as a suitable helper and asked for more help than an individual whose group stereotype does not suggest such helpfulness. This reasoning is consistent with research on aversive racism and help seeking by Dovidio and Gaertner (1983), which found that participants were more likely to ask a White American partner than an African American partner for help on a letter search task.
Perceived dispersion seemed likely to be associated with the confidence that help seekers have in their judgments of potential helpers and the amount of time taken to make help-seeking decisions. Individuals who perceive the helper's group to be high in dispersion should be less confident in their judgments of an individual helper than individuals who perceive the helper's group to be low in dispersion (Ryan et al., 1996). To the extent that individuals are not confident in their judgments of potential helpers, they may take longer to make a help-seeking decision because they may spend more time thinking about and weighing the costs and benefits of seeking help from various helpers (see Ames & Lau, 1982; DePaulo & Fisher, 1980).
Note that I expected perceived dispersion and perceived stereotypicality to have different effects: Perceived stereotypicality was hypothesized to be associated with judgments of the stereotypicality of the helper and the choice of helper, and perceived dispersion was hypothesized to be associated with confidence in judgments of the helper and the amount of help-seeking …