Laurentian University associate professor Joel Dickinson believes brain activity can help people better understand stereotypes.

Her research focuses on mental shortcuts, the ways the brain jumps to conclusions as it gathers information. 

Dickinson uses the word airport as an example. Even without visiting an airport, most people will think of a structure with planes and people. 

Dickinson said these mental shortcuts, or schemas, make memory easier.

Joel Dickinson

Joel Dickinson, Associate Professor, Psychology, Laurentian University (Markus Schwabe/CBC)

"Most of the time they're beneficial," she said. "Unfortunately, some of those schemas fall under the category of a stereotype."

"For instance, when I say 'mechanic' you get an idea of what a mechanic looks like.  If I say the mechanic dropped the wrench and she bent down to pick it up ... there's a slow-down effect of the information and processing. When we violate [the schema] our brain slows down. It chugs a little bit."

Dickinson is pursuing a new line of research that suggests when information takes longer to process, it is attributed as negative, and that peoples' brains are trained to accept stereotypes. 

For example, Dickinson said the statement "Jane and her wife" would be considered negative because it goes against the societal norm. 

Further research is needed to look at reducing or removing the slow-down effect in peoples' brains. 

Her research also indicates that people entrenched in the francophone culture in Canada were far more forgiving with violating schemas.

"They're doing something right," Dickinson said, adding more research is needed to understand why.