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Stereotypes

 

Explanations > Theories > Stereotypes

Description | Example | So What? | See also | References 

 

Description

Stereotypes are generalizations about a group of people whereby we attribute a defined set of characteristics to this group. These classifications can be positive or negative, such as when various nationalities are stereotyped as friendly or unfriendly.

The purpose of stereotypes is to help us know how to interact with others. Each classification has associations, scripts and so on that we use to interpret what they are saying, decide if they are good or bad, and choose how to respond to them (or not).

It is easier to create stereotypes when there is a clearly visible and consistent attribute that can easily be recognized. This is why people of color, police and women are so easily stereotyped.

We often accept stereotypes from other people. This helps us agree on how to understand and act towards various groups of people in a consistent way.

People from stereotyped groups can find this very disturbing as they experience an apprehension (stereotype threat) of being treated unfairly.

We change our stereotypes infrequently. Even in the face of disconfirming evidence, we often cling to our obviously-wrong beliefs. When we do change the stereotypes, we do so in one of three ways:

  • Bookkeeping model: As we learn new contradictory information, we incrementally adjust the stereotype to adapt to the new information. We usually need quite a lot of repeated information for each incremental change. Individual evidence is taken as the exception that proves the rule.
  • Conversion model: We throw away the old stereotype and start again. This is often used when there is significant disconfirming evidence.
  • Subtyping model: We create a new stereotype that is a sub-classification of the existing stereotype, particularly when we can draw a boundary around the sub-class. Thus if we have a stereotype for Americans, a visit to New York may result in us having a ‘New Yorkers are different’ sub-type.

We often store stereotypes in two parts. First there is the generalized descriptions and attributes. To this we may add exemplars to prove the case, such as 'the policeman next door'. We may also store them hierarchically, such as 'black people', 'Africans', 'Ugandans', 'Ugandan military', etc., with each lower order inheriting the characteristics of the higher order, with additional characteristics added.

Stereotyping can go around in circles. Men stereotype women and women stereotype men. In certain societies this is intensified as the stereotyping of women pushes them together more and they create men as more of an out-group. The same thing happens with different racial groups, such as 'white/black' (an artificial system of opposites, which in origin seems to be more like 'European/non-European').

Stereotyping can be subconscious, where it subtly biases our decisions and actions, even in people who consciously do not want to be biased.

Stereotyping often happens not so much because of aggressive or unkind thoughts. It is more often a simplification to speed conversation on what is not considered to be an important topic.

Example

Stereotyping goes way beyond race and gender. Consider conversations you have had about people from the next town, another department in your company, supporters of other football teams, and so on.  

So what?

Using it

Find how others stereotype you (if possible, getting them to stereotype you positively). They will have a blind spot to non-stereotyped behaviors, so you can do these and they will often ignore it. Thus if you are stereotyped as a ‘kind old man’, you can do moderately unkind things which may be ignored.

Defending

To change a person’s view of your stereotype, be consistently different from it. Beware of your own stereotyping blinding you to the true nature of other individuals.

Stereotyping can be reduced by bringing people together. When they discover the other people are not as the stereotype, the immediate evidence creates dissonance that leads to improved thoughts about the other group.

See also

Contact Hypothesis, Dilution Effect, Out-Group Homogeneity, Representativeness Heuristic, Schema, Ultimate Attribution Error

References

Lippmann (1922), Allport (1954)

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