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Why Stereotypes Stick

Brain research explains why we believe stereotypes.

Who first told you only children were lonely and bossy? When was that?Not to worry if you don't remember.

Sam Wang, associate professor of molecular biology and neuroscience at Princeton, and Sandra Aamodt, a former editor in chief of Nature Neuroscience report that "As the source is forgotten, the message and its implications gain strength." It doesn't seem to matter after a short period of time whether or not you trusted the person who told you only children were lonely, bossy, and spoiled. Could have been your mother years ago talking about a neighbor's child or a pregnant friend last week who wants you to have another baby so hers will have a relatively same-age companion.

Brain Research Explains Stereotypes

In their discussion of false political beliefs, Your Brain Lies to You, Wang and Aamodt point out that "This phenomenon, known as source amnesia, can also lead people to forget whether a statement is true. Even when a lie is presented with a disclaimer, people often later remember it as true."

Most of the blame for the negative labels that cling to only children date back to the late 1800's when G. Stanley Hall, called the father of child psychology, studied only children and reported a host of things wrong with them. Hall's research summary is offensive: "Being an only child is a disease in itself." If you have an only child you might consider his descriptive, which he would likely defend as scientific findings, blasphemous, and you would be correct.

Bringing up the information over and over, right or wrong, only reinforces it. Hence, the faulty results in Hall's study prevail today no matter what the evidence to the contrary in the intervening 100 plus years. Only children and their parents can't shake them because "if their message is initially memorable, its impression will persist long after it is debunked," according to Wang and Aamodt.

Legends propagate particularly when they collide with emotions, and emotions and opinion run high on the subject of onlies. "Ideas can spread by emotional selection, rather than by their factual merits, encouraging the persistence of falsehoods about Coke - or about a presidential candidate." And only children.

So if your parent, in-law, or sibling, for instance, is anti only children, maybe you are, too. Myths about only children have passed through generations, and the more emotional and negative they are, the harder they stick. People tend to adhere to their original positions and beliefs.

Have you ever heard someone tell you that only children have more education? Or that they are loyal friends. Unlikely. But if you announce you are stopping after one child, someone will remind you of the unflattering traits assigned to only children that they heard at some point and have held onto as gospel. It is, after all, a lot less "work" to label a group than to look at people individually.

Maybe with a little effort we can dismiss the misinformation of Hall's lingering stereotypical views at least among our family and friends by asking them, as researchers did with students in a Stanford University study, to contemplate that the opposite may be valid. In the study, the students were more open-minded after giving the contrary position some thought.

Assignment: When someone tells you that only children are lonely, bossy, selfish, spoiled or have more imaginary friends, you might ask them to consider the reverse and offer examples of the only children you know who lack what should be nonexistent stereotypical traits.

Related: Who’s Telling Whom How Many Kids to Have? The audacity of people who believe they know what's best for you and 6 Well-Kept Secrets that Affect Family Size.

Copyright 2008, 2011 by Susan Newman

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