How Are Stereotypes Like the Weather?

Stereotype Inaccuracy: Sense and Nonsense

Posted Jan 15, 2014

On January 7, 2014, 10:40am Pacific Standard Time, it was warmer in Juneau and Anchorage Alaska then it was in New Brunswick, NJ.  According to the temperature in these cities was 35, 20, and 11 degrees Fahrenheit, respectively.  (This is amusing on its merits.) 

More important, who is now convinced that NJ is generally colder than Alaska? No one? Really? 

Oh, right, a single exception (or even a few) does not render a generalization invalid. "It is colder in Alaska" is not rendered invalid by a single colder day in NJ. This is so obvious that many of you may now be wondering, "Why is he bothering with a blog on this stuff?" 

Here is why: That has been the logic of many who have argued that stereotypes are inaccurate: because they do not apply to all members of a group. Few generalizations of any type ALWAYS apply. That is why they are generalizations, not absolute statements. 

A belief that pro basketball players are unusually tall is not rendered invalid by a single short player (e.g., Spud Webb). A belief that NYers are loud and aggressive (whether true or not) is not rendered invalid by a single, calm, introverted NYer. These are obvious. 

Which raises the scientific integrity question:Given that the logic is so obvious in these nonstereotype contexts, why do so many scientists seem to jettison their logical and critical thinking skills when it comes to stereotypes? 

I sent an earlier draft of this blog to some friends. One, a young social psychologist replied: "I think you are single-handedly responsible for the polar vortex, so as only to prove this point you've been making all these years." 

Another, a retired physicist, answered: "Using a single counter example to refute a statistical argument seems mostly a rhetorical artifact that relies on the general incomprehensibility of probability." 

Another, a nationally-acclaimed magician declared:"Easy answer, imho…agenda.  It's just that no one, especially scientists…wants to admit to having an agenda."   

Except for the bit about my responsibility for the polar vortex, I think they are all on target. You can read more about the incoherence of allegedly scientific claims about stereotypes in my book, Social Perception and Social Reality: Why Accuracy Dominates Bias and Self-Fulfilling Prophecy (2012, Oxford University Press, available via Amazon and at libraries everywhere—and if it is not, ask them to order it!).