The Company you Keep – Social and Associative Stigmas

You can’t choose your family, say the metaphorical “they,” but you can choose your friends. Choose wisely, but bear in mind that regardless of whether or not the decision is yours, you are going to be judged on it.

The credit for some of the most seminal work on social stigma goes to Erving Goffman who worked on defining what is meant by social stigma and delineating its variants. According to Goffman, social stigmas may be physical “abominations” such as deformities or handicaps, “tribal stigmas” such as race or religion, and character flaws, such as a criminal record or drug abuse. Goffman believed that such stigmas applied not just to the person with the perceived defect, but also extended to those individuals who onlookers associated with the stigmatized person. This sort of secondary stigma came to be called associative stigma.

Associative stigmas are more insidious than they initially appear. They are not only formed through the identification of “meaningful relationships” between two people, such as familial relationships or friendship, but they may also be the outcome of unintended or incidental associations. The latter are called “simple associations” and may be the result of such coincidental circumstances as simply being in the same room as a stigmatized individual.

There may be one of two processes at work when a stigma is formed. Spontaneous or reflexive processes are responsible for the rapid, often emotionally motivated reactions to any of the perceived stigmas mentioned above. That they are based on instinctive reactions makes them all the more difficult to control and moderate. In contrast, deliberative reactions to stigma, as the name suggests, involve more voluntarism on the part of the individual and are consequently more difficult to bring on. Deliberative processes require the individual to actively think about the situation prior to arriving at a judgment. In the case of deliberation, the perception of control plays a great part. Individuals are less likely to react negatively to an individual they perceive to have no control over his or her situation (such as one who is visually impaired) than one they believe is under a controllable stigma (such as a drug user).

Reflexive and deliberative reactions are two separate processes, but they may operate on the same situation. Reflexive reactions are likely to be behind one’s immediate reaction to a stigma. Deliberative processes come into play after a bit of a delay. They are more effortful and time-consuming, consciously applying certain rules to the situation in addition to taking into account the initial reaction to it. Changes in one’s reaction to the same stigma after a period can thus be traced to this mental process.

How do these primary judgments carry over to individuals who do not appear to possess the stigmatized trait themselves? There are some theories that attempt to explain stigma by association. The idea of evaluative conditioning puts it down to a simple case of evaluative conditioning where a neutral target becomes the recipient of an onlooker’s negativity simply because they are in the physical presence of a negatively judged target. Another more conscious theory puts it down to the simple application of the adage “birds of a feather flock together.” This is especially true when a relationship appears to be voluntary as in the case of friends and partners. An individual in the company of a stigmatized person is judged on his or her decision to be in the company of that person. Heider reasons that this tendency may be due to a need to eliminate cognitive dissonance. The assumption two people in the company of one another share similar characteristics is easier on the mind than having to reconcile the ideas that they might be markedly different yet opt for each other’s company.

Social and associative stigmas often appear irrational. We do our best to believe we are unbiased and non-judgmental, and many societies work to eliminate (or at least decrease) the prevalence of such stigmas within their populations. Nonetheless, the generation of stigma seems to be wired into the human brain and there are few who are immune. After all, even the most pious among us might be prone to stigmatizing those who stigmatize others.


Goffman, E. (1963). Stigma: Notes on the management of spoiled identity. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Heider, E. (1958). The psychology of interpersonal relations. New York, NY: Wiley.

Mehta, S., & Farina, A. (1988). Associative Stigma: Perceptions of the Difficulties of College-Aged Children of Stigmatized Fathers Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 7 (2-3), 192-202 DOI: 10.1521/jscp.1988.7.2-3.192

Pryor JB, Reeder GD, & Monroe AE (2012). The infection of bad company: stigma by association. Journal of personality and social psychology, 102 (2), 224-41 PMID: 22082057

Pryor, J., Reeder, G., Yeadon, C., & Hesson-Mclnnis, M. (2004). A Dual-Process Model of Reactions to Perceived Stigma. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 87 (4), 436-452 DOI: 10.1037/0022-3514.87.4.436

Walther, E. (2002). Guilty by mere association: Evaluative conditioning and the spreading attitude effect. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 82 (6), 919-934 DOI: 10.1037/0022-3514.82.6.919

Image via corepics / Shutterstock.

Radhika Takru, MA

Radhika Takru, MA, has a Bachelor's Degree with Honors in Psychology, a Postgraduate Degree in Media, and a Masters degree by research on online journalism and perceptions of authority.
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