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Defining Stereotypes as Inaccurate Is Common and Irrational

Confused thinking about stereotype (in)accuracy

Lee Jussim
Source: Lee Jussim

I have a question for you, one that I request you hold off answering till the end of this blog entry: Is the title of this blog entry any more distorted than is "scientifically" defining stereotypes as inaccurate?

Defining Stereotypes as Inaccurate is Common

Here are some quotes (you can find more in Jussim, 2012):

"The term stereotype refers to those interpersonal beliefs and expectancies that are both widely shared and generally invalid" (Miller & Turnbull, 1986, p. 233).

"... stereotypes are maladaptive forms of categories because their content does not correspond to what is going on in the environment" (Bargh & Chartrand, 1999, p. 467).

"The problem is that stereotypes about groups of people are overgeneralizations and are either inaccurate or do not apply to the individual group member in question ..." (APA Brief, 1991, p. 1064, emphasis in original).

Defining Stereotypes as Inaccurate is Logically Incoherent

No social scientist has ever explicitly claimed anything quite as silly as “all beliefs about groups are inaccurate.” Thus, demonstrating the silliness of such an argument might appear to be refuting a straw argument. But if it is a straw argument, there is an awful lot of straw lying around:

1. For decades, stereotypes were predominantly defined as inaccurate, with virtually no evidence demonstrating inaccuracy

2. Virtually any belief about any group has been considered a stereotype in the scientific literature.

3. If all beliefs about groups are stereotypes and all stereotypes are inaccurate, this leads to the inexorable logical conclusion, whether explicitly stated or not, that all beliefs about groups are inaccurate.

Again, no researcher has ever made such an absurd claim. Instead, what happens is far more subtle:

4. Among those who define stereotypes as inaccurate, statements of what sort of beliefs about groups are accurate (and, therefore, not stereotypes) almost never appear This, then, opens the door for researchers to consider any and all beliefs about groups to be stereotypes.

5. Even when researchers do not define stereotypes as inaccurate, inaccuracy is often re-imported via the “back door” – discussed relentlessly and exclusively as something bad, immoral, and unjustified which should be stamped out or avoided.

A claim that all beliefs about groups are inaccurate, even an implicit one, is worthy of ridicule on purely logical grounds. It would mean that:

1. Believing that two groups differ is inaccurate


2. Believing two groups do not differ is inaccurate.

Both 1 and 2 are not simultaneously possible, and logical coherence is a minimum condition for considering a belief to be scientific. On logical grounds we can reject the (straw?) argument that all beliefs about groups are inaccurate. Such logical incoherence is usually a red flag that something other than pure science has gone into the assumption of stereotype inaccuracy (see my blog entry, Liberal Privilege, website address in references, for a likely contender).

Defining Stereotypes As Inaccurate, if Coherent, Requires Declaring All Existing Research on Stereotypes to be Invalid

Defining stereotypes as inaccurate can be logically coherent if stereotypes are the subset of beliefs about groups that are inaccurate. Other beliefs about groups, the accurate ones, are just not considered stereotypes.

If this is how you think you can "rescue" defining stereotypes as inaccurate, you are in for some bad news. Here is why.

If stereotypes are defined as inaccurate, then only when beliefs have been empirically demonstrated to be inaccurate can one conclude that they are “stereotypes.” Absent evidence of inaccuracy, a belief about a group cannot be known to be a stereotype. The consequence of this meaning of stereotype inaccuracy is to invalidate nearly all existing research on “stereotypes.” Because so few studies have actually first demonstrated that the beliefs under study are inaccurate, they could not be known to be “stereotypes.”

No research on “stereotypes” has ever been framed as follows:

“Is this belief about that group a stereotype? We are going to figure out whether THIS belief about THAT group is a stereotype by assessing whether that belief is inaccurate. If THIS belief is inaccurate, we will conclude that it is a stereotype. If THIS belief is not inaccurate, we will conclude that it is not a stereotype.”

Lee Jussim
Source: Lee Jussim

If that question is not answered prior to conducting a study on “stereotypes” one cannot know that one is actually studying a stereotype! Because no research has ever done this, taking this version of the definition seriously means concluding that decades of research framed as addressing stereotypes really has not. Poof. We would have to throw out the baby, the bathwater, the tub, the bathroom, and indeed tear down the entire scientific and empirical house on which all our current understanding of “stereotypes” exists.

So, if you define stereotypes as inaccurate, either:

1. Your definition is entirely logically incoherent


2. It requires jettisoning almost 100 years of scholarship claiming to provide insights into stereotypes and stereotyping.

So now, feel free to answer the question that this blog entry began with:

Which is a greater distortion:

My claim that defining stereotypes as inaccurate is irrational


Defining stereotypes as inaccurate?


American Psychological Association. (1991). In the Supreme Court of the United States: Price Waterhouse v. Ann B. Hopkins (Amicus curiae brief). American Psychologist, 46, 1061-1070.

Bargh, J. A., & Chartrand, T. L. (1999). The unbearable automaticity of being. American Psychologist, 54, 462-479.

Jussim, L. (2012). Social perception and social reality: Why accuracy dominates bias and self-fulfilling prophecy. NY: Oxford University Press. (Recipient of the 2012 award from the American Association of Publishers for best psychology book).

Jussim, L. (2012). Liberal privilege.…

Miller, D.T., & Turnbull, W. (1986). Expectancies and interpersonal processes. Annual Review of Psychology, 37, 233-256.

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