Stereotypes: The Worst Kind of Flattery

Positive stereotyping isn't as innocent as it seems.

By Matt Huston, published on May 7, 2013 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

Unlike overtly racist and sexist slurs, so-called positive stereotypes often fly under the radar. Think there's no harm in "complimenting" women on their innate tenderness, or Asians on their supposed math wizardry? Research shows that, in fact, even seemingly innocuous associations can be toxic.

Participants in a recent study were divided into three groups. The first read made-up evidence supporting a widely repeated positive stereotype—that African-Americans are naturally more athletic than whites. Later, these subjects were likelier to buy into a negative stereotype about African-Americans than were the controls, who had read nothing, and—surprisingly—the third group, who had read faked reports asserting that African-Americans are especially violent.

Duke University psychologist Aaron C. Kay and his coauthors argue that since positive stereotypes don't arouse as much skepticism as derogatory ones, people are more apt to accept them. Yet by subtly reinforcing the notion that certain groups are fundamentally different, so-called "good" stereotypes can actually be more pernicious.

Whatever the intention, lumping people together based on ethnicity, religion, or gender can also be upsetting for the targets—especially in places where individuality is celebrated. Positively stereotyped people report negative feelings when someone implies, however nicely, that superficial similarities are signs of inherent sameness, University of Washington psychologists John Oliver Siy and Sapna Cheryan have found.