Better judge a book by its cover? The dubious nature of stereotypes
Martin Freundlieb and András Molnar are PhD students in the Cognitive Sciences Programme at the Central European University Budapest.
Most of us would agree that stereotypes are often incorrect, that they fuel social discord and promote inequality. But few realize that even the most politically correct people will – unconsciously – show clear patterns of stereotyping. Are social stereotypes almost an indispensable part of the human nature? Are we all helpless victims to their power and influence on our everyday behaviour? Are positive stereotypes a good thing?
“Without the aid of prejudice and custom, I should not be able to find my way across the room.” — William Hazlitt (1903)
As social beings, everyday life requires us to make a multitude of decisions, for example ‘Do I trust this stranger who is offering me a ride?’, or: ‘Whom should I try to sit next to during the math exam tomorrow?’ We are continuously collecting information with all of our senses in order to get a picture of what is happening around us. We are equipped with a marvellous apparatus that soaks up the information we need to navigate the social world. But we are facing a problem of capacity: like any other organ, our brain requires a lot of energy and time to ‘digest’ all available information.
However, in most situations we simply do not have enough time and/or leisure to ponder on a problem or to make a careful judgment. Instead, we then have to rely on shortcuts. This means we base our decisions on very simplified and generalized ‘truths’ that can be more or less accurate. Stereotypes provide a good example of these kinds of shortcuts in social interactions. Now as long as these simplified beliefs or stereotypes are good estimates of the actual state around us, we are doing well. But strongly biased beliefs and extreme prejudices can lead to disastrous outcomes. In some cases, stereotypes harm both the person who holds the stereotypic views by causing unnecessary hatred and fear, and the person who is the target of the stereotypes by causing exclusion and the so-called stereotype threat.
But do stereotypes also exist outside of our conscious awareness?
In the late 1990’s a clever instrument (the IAT) was invented which can in fact reveal the unconscious or implicit forms of stereotyping.
Combining the IAT with questionnaires that measure the extent to which people deem themselves to be prejudiced or not (an explicit measure of stereotyping), Greenwald and colleagues could examine the overlap between these self-judgments and their unconscious behaviour. They found that most people who would verbally disavow any form of prejudice, nevertheless behaved as if they did when taking the IAT test. In other words: there seems to be a gap between what even politically aware people say and how they act.
A more differential view reveals that stereotypes exist for good reasons and can indeed be advantageous in several ways: they save cognitive resources while helping us to understand the world by providing quick-and-dirty categories.
For the price of being inaccurate sometimes, we get fast and automatic evaluations. Continuously. And if the cost of being inaccurate is marginal then this can actually be a great deal. Stereotypes can also ground our group belonging: they can strengthen our social bonds to people who share our stereotypic beliefs. Furthermore, even if there are no ‘allies’ around, stereotypes could be useful by enhancing learning to avoid unfamiliar and potentially threatening people.
However, all of these advantages shrink into nothing if the stereotypes are far from reality. That is why responsible governments fight so rigorously against racism or any kind of negative stereotyping. But what happens if somebody is the target of a positive stereotype: is that therefore a good thing? The answer – though it goes against our intuition – is a definite “no”.
Positive stereotypes are nothing but the hotbed for prejudice and almost as harmful as negative stereotypes
“Asians are good at math” is a positive stereotype – and is rarely considered prejudice and politically incorrect. Yet, positive stereotypes can be harmful. For example, they can raise unrealistic expectations. Later, when these expectations are not met – for instance, it turns out that a particular Asian boy has ‘only’ average math skills –, this boy may suffer a loss of self-esteem, and will probably cause disappointment to others in his environment. But the real insidious nature of positive stereotypes is revealed only after a closer look: a research group around Aaron Kay could show that positive stereotypes can facilitate the erroneous assumption of ‘natural’ causes for group differences and, ironically, increase the likelihood of applying also negative stereotypes to the same target group. For this reason responsible governments should also pay attention to positive stereotypes and reduce their spread.
Are stereotypes only influencing us or can we also influence our stereotypes?
As profoundly as we seem to be entangled in both positive and negative stereotypes we are not completely helpless and we can overcome them. Research on conflict management has indicated that perspective taking, or understanding of the world from an other’s point of view, seems to be quite an effective tool in order to decrease strongly biased beliefs.
According to a research group around Adam Galinsky the underlying mechanism can be explained: When you put yourself in the shoes of somebody else (taking on her perspective), the target literally becomes more like you. And as most of us carry a decent portion self-esteem, the stereotyped other will be viewed less negatively. Interestingly, positive stereotypes too were mitigated by this method. Basically, it is as if the positively stereotyped other is compared to somebody we deem to be quite normal: ourselves.
Of course, this process is highly simplified and it might only work in the sterile environments of laboratories. But in any case, the method of taking on another’s viewpoint provides an easy step into the right direction – namely, of becoming more aware of the social shortcuts we use every day.