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Steve Livingston

Steve Livingston

“Positive” Prejudice: Killing With Kindness? Part One

Positive stereotypes can have complicated consequences.

When people think about stereotypes, their minds often first gravitate to negative generalizations: Blacks are lazy, Scots are miserly, old people have poor memory, women are irrational, Canadians guzzle beer, and so on. Yet it is not hard to find examples of positive content within these same mental representations: Blacks are musically talented, Scots are excellent curlers, old people give sage advice, women are compassionate, and Canadians are humorous. For decades, second-rate comedians have strip-mined stereotypes for material. (Unsurprisingly, some of that content is not safe for work!)

What should we make of these "positive stereotypes"? Are they categorically different from negative ones, or do they have similar origins and psychological consequences? Suppose a neighbour or co-worker shows unduly positive attitudes/actions toward you, seemingly based upon some misunderstanding about your ethnicity (or age, or gender, or fill-in-the-blank). Should you be as willing or as quick to levy charges of prejudice/discrimination? For those who watch The Office, consider Michael Scott's continually strained relationship with Darryl Philbin, the African-American warehouse manager. Of course, Darryl enjoys creating further misunderstandings. At one point, he teaches Michael a series of phony "black man phrases", slangy-sounding nonsense like "bippity boppity gimme the soppity", under the guise of friendly cultural exchange.

At first blush, the answer may seem obvious: no, we shouldn't worry, because these positive generalizations are a boon to the target. Let us consider the famous "Title VII" prohibition when it comes to job hiring which states that "it shall be an unlawful employment practice for an employment agency ... to discriminate against, any individual ... or to classify or refer for employment any individual on the basis of his race, color, religion, sex, or national origin." (Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2; my emphasis)

The key word here is "against". So what if the stereotype is wrong, one might argue, as long as it creates beneficial outcomes (undeserved as they might be in some cases) for the people who are stereotyped? At worst, goes this logic, reliance on positive stereotypes as a guide to judgment might lead to benign (but not harmful) outcomes. Such as it doesn't "hurt" these targets to be judged in a more positive way. Even many peer-reviewed social psychology textbooks frame their discussions largely or exclusively in terms of antipathy, as reflected in the definitions they provide for ‘prejudice' and ‘discrimination'. For example, Breckler, Olson, & Wiggins define them respectively as "a negative attitude toward members of a group, which is often very strongly held" and "negative, harmful behavior toward people based on their group membership".

Let's do a little spitballing: If you were interviewing for, say, a computer programming job, it might benefit you to belong to a group--such as the Japanese--that is stereotyped to be handy with technology. Similarly, if you wanted to become a kindergarten teacher, it might benefit you to be a woman with a matronly appearance. In this sense, a positive stereotype could help you get your foot in the door.

Congratulations, you're hired! Okay, so you lucked out based on a factor that you had no personal control over. But you're in, so let's get to work. Your boss probably has somewhat higher expectations about you than your coworkers. People like you are supposed to be whizzes with computers or kids! So when your performance is merely adequate, and not outstanding, perhaps your yearly bonus will be less than expected. When your colleague screws up a joint project, perhaps you ("of all people!") will be expected to have known better. Your lustrous halo starts slipping down around your neck, transmuting into a wooden stock.

Social psychologist Monica Biernat's shifting standards model provides a framework for understanding this conundrum. In my next post, I will discuss how this model suggests that the same information about person can be interpreted quite differently when group stereotypes are considered. Until then, I want to hear your take. Do you feel that the use of positive stereotypes has different ethical implications than the use of negative stereotypes? Do you have experience as a target of this favoritism, perhaps as a member of a so-called "model minority"? Do you feel this is all mere pedantry, and much ado about nothing?

Also, one quick point of clarification: I made the presumption of target-stereotype mismatch in my example, but this is not to say that stereotypes are necessarily invalid bases for our decisions. One of my fellow PT bloggers made a case last year that "stereotype" should be thought of as generally synonymous with "empirical [evidence-based] generalization". Generalizations about people may derive from our own observations or can be simply communicated to us by others, but for many reasons they are rarely (if ever) entirely accurate - aside, that is, from uninteresting claims like "Texans have internal organs" that have little diagnostic value for decision-making.

In a future post, I will address whether a sensible and scientifically-defensible threshold for stereotype accuracy can be established. In other words, what's the rational exchange rate when trading expediency for error?


About the Author

Steve Livingston

Steve Livingston is a social psychologist based in Toronto.