Are Stereotypes the Enemy?

are stereotypes the enemy?“Stereotypes” is something of a dirty word in an egalitarian society. If we value fairness and the opportunity for individual success, then believing in stereotypes is counterproductive. But stereotypes do exist for a psychological reason, and maybe avoiding them isn’t really the answer to treating people fairly and well.

Stereotypes are essentially generalizations about a group of people. Interestingly, they are often based on some kind of observation (which I will not call a fact, for reasons I’ll get into). A primary problem with stereotypes comes when this generalization about a group gets applied to any one individual. To create a facetiously innocuous example:

Men are taller than women (generally true). So John is taller than Mary (not true).

One reason why stereotypes may exist in the first place is to help our minds organize rich information about groups of people outside of our own. We are constantly bombarded with tons of information from the world around us, and our brains create structures called schema to help group it and make the sensory stimulation more manageable. Without schemata, we would not be able to navigate the world. There would just be too many things to pay attention to and too many decisions to make.

However, even though stereotypes may be based on observations of some sort, they may not be accurate interpretations of those observations. Take, for example, negative stereotypes about groups of people who perform poorly in school. A stereotype might be that members of that group are stupid. That interpretation does not account for socioeconomic disparities that disadvantage the group. It does not account for whether or not members of that group were exposed to early educational opportunities. It doesn’t, really, account for anything outside of the classic attribution bias, that what we observe someone else do is entirely due to their nature, while our own behaviors are affected by situational factors. This is how a stereotype can come to be based on observation and yet not based on fact.

The next problem is that once a stereotype exists, people tend to look for confirmatory evidence. That’s just how our brains work; we try to see things that prove, not disprove, what we believe. So even though a stereotype is not really based in fact, because it was based on an observation of some sort, there is evidence that could appear to confirm it. The stereotype that these people are stupid exists because they get poor grades, and their poor grades prove they are stupid.

This cycle is not good.

But, is the problem really the stereotype? I think the problem is actually a lack of questioning on our part. Why are we not asking why more often? Why am I not questioning why I believe something about a group? Why am I not looking for situational factors that might have caused this?

We may not be able to change the way our brains work, but we can take the time to be thoughtful and override it when it leads to a wrong conclusion.