How to make stereotypes useful (and how not to mess it up) cover image

How to make stereotypes useful (and how not to mess it up)

Dorian Minors • November 25, 2015

This is an archived article from our predecessor website, The Dirt Psychology. The idea there was to take psychological scholarship and turn it into wisdom. The Armchair Collective tries to go a little further than just psychology. As such, these articles live here in archive form, until they're updated.

Stereotypes aren't always harmful. In fact, they're a very important part of our ability to communicate. When we first meet someone, we use stereotypes to judge other people. Social psychologists define a stereotype as a "fixed, over generalized(sic) belief about a particular group or class of people". We do this to quickly assess the kind of person someone is. And we do that to do two things;

  1. we want to quickly figure out whether talking to people is a good idea; and
  2. we want to figure out the kinds of things we can talk to each other about.

For these two purposes, stereotypes are extremely useful. We've talked before about how in early conversations we portray ourselves in a certain light and for the conversation to go on the other person has to 'accept' that portrayal. Well, for a conversation to go smoothly, we want to quickly move through the awkward 'figure out if I want to talk to you' stage and quickly get onto talking about commonalities. But, to figure those commonalities out, the quickest method is to apply a stereotype.

Stereotypes are a useful tool for successful communication

Social stereotypes are often broadly accurate in establishing this 'common ground'. Commonly (see what I did there) people will adhere roughly to a stereotype and if you identify one that applies, you'll be alright. Where it becomes an issue is when you apply an inaccurate stereotype. If the stereotype doesn't well encapsulate the kind of image the other person is trying to present to you (again, read this article for more on that), or if you speak to the incorrect aspects of the stereotype (like, assuming a scientist knows all about quantum theory, when the poor person is all about fossils) then the conversation will go rather badly.

But they can go wrong very easily

So it's about the correct application of a stereotype. Like a tool. Unfortunately, stereotypes come with some unfortunate baggage. The first of which is that stereotypes can actually straight up stop you from processing information that is incongruent with the stereotype. This is partially to do with our confirmation bias, the thing that desperately tries to make everything conform with our existing opinion (no matter what).  And it has to do with cognitive dissonance; our brain hates to come across mental conflict and do absolutely anything to eliminate it.

. I'm sure, for instance, this woman isn't a hipster. There's probably a very valid reason she has a thirty year old camera. Like, she couldn't fit her iPhone in those tight, tight shorts, so she grabbed something with a lanyard.

But also, since we learn a lot of what we know by observing others (instead of figuring them out for ourselves), and the fact that we often mistake apparent relationships for conclusive links, there is massive potential for our stereotypes to be completely wrong. Which isn't just bad for the conversation, it's bad for our society.

So...

Use stereotypes when you start talking to people. They'll help you, especially in unfamiliar environments. But, if you don't spend time constantly checking and re-checking them against your own experiences (and not just those of others), then you might find you're using stereotypes that are fundamentally broken. And to make sure you've applied the right one, start vague with your topics and test the waters a bit, lest you confuse your new conversational pal (who in all likelihood, will tend to shut down the conversation if you do it too early). Most of all, remember that people are multifaceted beings and will try to present you a certain image of themselves. If you don't consider that, you may end up making judgements that don't always make sense (or accidentally reject them because your stereotype didn't fit). And finally, always remember that a stereotype doesn't have to be ultra-specific. Often, the more general, the better.

If you’re struggling to fit me into a box……. Then build a bigger box" - Serina Hartwell

You know, if you peg someone as 'good' the first time you meet, you might ignore all the flaws that come after? And since we're talking about conversation, learn how conversation sparks intimacy, here. Giving you the dirt on your search for understanding, psychological freedom and 'the good life' at The Dirt Psychology.

Turning scholarship into wisdom we can use at The Armchair Collective.

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Dorian Minors

I mostly do brain science. Sometimes I train honeybees. I promise they're related. I made this site because there's no reason why scholars should be the only ones to own knowledge. My special interests are interpersonal relationships, the science of community, spirituality and the brain, and the neural basis of complex behaviour. I hope this stuff is as interesting to you as it is to me. You can find out more about me here.