November 25, 2015
Stereotypes aren't always harmful. In fact, they're a pretty crucial tool in human communication. The fact that we can make some instant judgements about people when we first meet them is far more helpful than it is harmful. It's just that we more often get caught up on the harm. So let's look at the other side for a change.
This article has been updated, but first appeared on our predecessor website, The Dirt Psychology.
Stereotypes aren't always harmful. In fact, they're a pretty crucial tool in human communication. The fact that we can make some instant judgements about people when we first meet them is far more helpful than it is harmful. It's just that we get more often get caught up on the harm. So let's look at the other side for a change.
Social psychologists define a stereotype as a "fixed, over-generalized 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 for two reasons;
- we want to quickly figure out whether talking to them is a good idea; and
- we want to figure out the kinds of things we can talk to each other about.
For these two purposes, stereotypes are extremely useful, and without them communication would be near impossible.
In early stages of conversations with new people, we all try to portray ourselves in a certain light. For the conversation to continue the other person has to 'accept' that portrayal.
This takes a number of forms, but the most common is the typical exchange of small talk. Each person asks a fairly standard series of question of the other—what do you do, where are you from, etc—not because we're particularly interested in the answers, but to find out if the other person can follow certain social scripts that indicate they adhere to familiar social norms.
If the tests are passed, perhaps you'll continue to deepen the conversation toward less superficial things. If not, you'll either stop the conversation, or spend cognitive energy on more social tests.
Stereotypes smooth this quite complicated early communication process. By recognising that someone has an accent, or is familiar with certain subjects of conversation, you can far more easily navigate which kinds of social tests are going to be informative. You can move more quickly past these initial stages of conversation.
Stereotypes help us find the common ground. And this is true because stereotypes don't materialise in a vacuum. Chances are that people will roughly adhere to a handful of stereotypes. These are impressed upon us by both our culture and our temperament. And if we didn't adhere to any kind of stereotype, then every conversation would drag on forever as we tried to work out the other person from scratch.
Where stereotypes go wrong
There is always the chance, of course, that a stereotype you've applied doesn't well encapsulate the kind of image the other person is trying to present to you. Or perhaps a misidentification of a particular aspect of a stereotype. Say, for example, the association of an academic with a leftist cause when they're more conservative. Or assuming a financier is interested in right-wing policy when they're in fact a vocal advocate for the left. These kinds of errors can make for awkward conversations.
But stereotypes also have less obvious and more damaging baggage.
For a start, some stereotypes can entirely stop you from processing information about a person that is incongruent with the stereotype. This is partially an example of confirmation bias—our tendency to make everything conform with our expectations. It's also partially an effect of cognitive dissonance—our inclination to avoid and ignore the cognitive tensions and conflicts that arise in a complex, interconnected world. If people don't adhere to our stereotype, it might be easier for us to simply ignore that fact than try to address the details.
Another difficulty arises from our socialisation. Frankly, much of what we know comes from our observing others. We're also very fond of mistaking apparent relationships between things for conclusive and causal links. This unfortunately creates massive potential for our stereotypes to be entirely incorrect. This particular aspect is responsible for the long tails of things like racism and sexism in society and public policy. And indeed, the longer we misapply stereotypes, the more they reinforce themselves.
But those complaints are surely worth their own article.
Suffice to say, for now, that though our stereotypes certainly have a lot of pain to answer for, they're entirely necessary. But only for what they're good at—helping us communicate with each other. And for this the more general the stereotype the better.
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