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How Stereotyping Easily Permeates the Way We Think About Others

Think of this example the next time you apply a stereotype.

Sarah* was a young, tall, and attractive woman. She came across as reserved, generally keeping her thoughts to herself. But one day, among a group of people, the issue of stereotyping came up, and Sarah passionately shared her opinion.

I remember her telling me:

Once in high school, she babysat for a couple who had a daughter in middle school. The mother commented on Sarah’s height, saying something like:

“You’re so tall. We need to have you give our daughter some pointers in volleyball.”

Sarah didn’t play volleyball. She was terrible at the sport.

Sarah replied,

“I’d love to, but I don’t play volleyball.”

Volleyball, surging in popularity among girls, was on the radar of many parents who wanted the best for their daughters. But why should the mother have so confidently assumed that Sarah played volleyball?

And, remarkably, that evening ended with yet another unintentional jab. After Sarah had been thanked and paid for her work, the mother’s parting comment was:

“Remember, we need to get your help with the volleyball.”

Somehow, the mother’s expectation based on Sarah’s height was so resilient to change that Sarah’s earlier statement failed to register on her. In one expecting ear and out the other.

Sarah told us this was just one of many examples in her life where people had assumed false things about her, often confidently, because she was tall.

I think Sarah’s experiences with people relying on stereotypes related to height teaches an important lesson about how the use of stereotypes permeates everyday life.

Although expectations about a category of person are useful and efficient ways we can make sense of social life, it is so often the case that these expectations can be erroneous (having no kernel of truth) or wrongly applied in the particular case.

Perhaps it is the rare person who can develop appropriate expectations about the people they meet, as details reveal the apparent categories to which people belong—and be constantly alert to where these developing expectations need revision and individuation.

*Name has been changed.

References

Devine, Patricia G. (1989). Stereotypes and prejudice: Their automatic and controlled components, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 56, 5-18.

Katz, D., & Braly, K. (1933). Racial stereotypes of one hundred college students. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 28, 280-290.

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