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Are Stereotypes Unfairly Stereotyped?

Most of us tend to stereotype "stereotypes." Is there a cost?

Think you know what stereotypes are?  If you're relying on definitions from mainstream dictionaries, you're probably, well...guilty of stereotyping.  But don't worry.  That might not be a bad thing.

Cartoon caption: The only good ____ is a dead ____
Is this really how a person who uses stereotypes thinks? illustration by Allan Lorde.
http://www.flickr.com/photos/elnegro/2911470200/sizes/z/in/photostream/
Here's the definition from Webster.com:

"a standardized mental picture that is held in common by members of a group and that represents an oversimplified opinion, prejudiced attitude, or uncritical judgment"

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This definition clearly reflects the popular perception of stereotypes as inaccurate and negative overgeneralizations.  The only problem is that this popular perception is mostly wrong.  Sure, there are people like the fellow in the cartoon, but most of us who have stereotypical thoughts (which is to say, all of us) have very different notions of groups we stereotype than the stereotyped stereotype-holder in the cartoon. The specifics are discussed below.  In the meantime, here is a better definition of "stereotype", one deliberately non-judgmental.

"Specific traits attributed to people based on group membership"

Research Summary:

Research studies conducted by cognitive and social psychologists reveal that stereotypes are often contextually based, meaning that we have different stereotypes for different social contexts (see Rupert, 2000).  In addition, psychologists generally agree that stereotypes:

  • may be accurate or false.
  • may describe positive or negative characteristics
  • may be intentional or automatic
  • may be consciously endorsed or rejected (i.e., may or may not result in prejudice)
  • may or may not have an impact on behavior (e.g., discrimination)
  • have both positive and negative functions
  • may have either positive or negative outcomes

Are stereotypes accurate?

Sometimes they are. For example, men are stereotyped as being violent (relative to women) and data consistently show that a disproportionate number of men commit violent crimes.  Sometimes they're not.  For example, African American men are often stereotyped as "drug users", but data (from community studies that protect the identity of respondents) show that a higher percentage of White men report illegal drug use than Black men. Often, we don't really know. The bottom line is that the existence of a stereotype not only doesn't tell us anything useful about any individual, it doesn't even tell us anything useful about group differences.  All they tell us is that there is a common shared perception about a group difference.  The perception may be either accurate or false.

Exploding Stereotypes
Some stereotypes, as comedian Sherif Hedayat points out, are ticking bombs in terms of their potential impact
http://www.flickr.com/photos/funnysherif/4196258236/sizes/z/in/photostream/
Are stereotypes always negative?

As long as we're not talking about outcomes, stereotypes can describe both positive and negative characteristics, and it is generally true that all groups have both positive and negative stereotypes attached to them.  For example, in the United States, the White racial majority group is stereotyped as both smart (positive characteristic) and unathletic (negative characteristic).  Stereotypes of Asians as "hard working" and African Americans as "athletic" are also considered to be positive stereotypes, but these and other positive stereotypes can still be damaging to the members of the target group.

Are stereotypes under our conscious control?

Sometimes they are, especially if we consciously endorse a particular stereotype, but research with the Implicit Association Test (IAT) demonstrates that stereotypes are often unintentional, effortless, and automatic, which is to say that they are not under our conscious control.  However, this should not be taken to imply that racial, ethnic, or other social stereotypes are unavoidable.  Although people seem to have an innate need to place people (and objects) into categories, the categories themselves are not an essential part of the natural world.  They are social creations that are a function of the cultural and political Zeitgeist, and as the Zeitgeist changes, so do the categories.  As just one example, the multiple categories for classifying biracial people are no longer in vogue.

Do stereotypes always result in prejudice?

The connection between stereotypes and prejudice is probably not as strong as most people think.  While it's true that stereotypes often pop into our minds automatically, as long as we have some awareness of the stereotypical thought, we can choose to either endorse it or reject it.  We might reject stereotypes for all sorts of reasons, including having information that the stereotype is false or understanding that the reason it is true is because of social conditions (e.g., access to resources) rather than group membership.  Whatever the reason, when we reject a stereotype, we also make a deliberate choice not to hold a prejudicial attitude. The problem is that we don't necessarily have a conscious awareness of all the stereotypical thoughts that pop up.  It's this lack of awareness that can lead to unintended prejudice.

Do stereotypes always have behavioral implications?

No, not always.  Even when we consciously endorse stereotypes, our behavior may be inhibited by a variety of social factors, especially now that explicit racism is no longer publicly tolerated.  And, as explained in the previous section, we can choose to reject the stereotypical thoughts that pop into our heads.  However, we are more likely to act on our stereotypes when such action is within the social norms or when the situation is sufficiently ambiguous that it is not clear what the socially-appropriate action is.

Do stereotypes serve any positive function?

Stereotypes are associated with a variety of different negative outcomes, but they also serve some useful functions.  Primary among these is that they serve as heuristics in various decision-making contexts, and, in so doing, free up our thinking for other things.  Yes, such heuristics can get us in trouble.  But, to the extent that our understanding of group differences is accurate and we realize that group differences cannot be generalized to individual members, stereotypes can help us navigate our social environment.

Can stereotypes have positive outcomes for the target group?

As mentioned earlier, positive stereotypes do not necessarily have positive outcomes.  For example, the commonly-endorsed stereotype that Asian Americans are good in math can have two negative outcomes: First, it can be damaging to the self esteem of those Asian-American students who struggle with math because of the high (and unreasonable) expectations.  Secondly, it devalues the achievements of those Asian American students who do excel in math because their achievements are attributed to their racial status rather than their hard work.  

That said, stereotypes can, in fact, work in some people's favor, especially for members of the dominant group.  For example, a Harvard graduate probably benefits from some of the stereotypes associated with Harvard, even if he/she isn't even aware of benefiting in this way.  In this way, stereotypes are a double-edged sword.  They can produce prejudice against one group and prejudice in favor of another.  The reality is that both are equally problematic.   

Key Readings:

Tajfel, Henry. "Social Psychology of Intergroup Relations." Annual Review of Psychology 33, (1982): 1-39. 

Brown, Rupert. "Social Identity Theory: past achievements, current problems and future challenges." European Journal of Social Psychology 30, (2000) 745-778

Stangor, C. & Schaller, M. (1996).  Stereotypes as individual and collective representations.  In C. Stangor (Ed., 2000).  Stereotypes and prejudice: Essential readings (pp. 64-82).  Philadelphia: Taylor and Francis Group. Cartoon caption: The only good ____ is a dead ____

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Creative Commons License  This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

This blog post appeared as an entry in the Routledge Companion to Race & Ethnicity, edited by Stephen Caliendo and Charlton McIlwain (Routledge Press, 2010).  It is posted here with permission of the publisher. As per the permission agreement, I am required to provide a link to the eBookstore www.eBookstore.tandf.co.uk and let you know that "many Taylor & Francis and Routledge books are now available as eBooks."

Mikhail Lyubansky, Ph.D., is a member of the teaching faculty in the department of psychology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

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