Stereotypes As Legitimizing Myths

Beliefs about group properties can serve ideological functions

Posted Dec 22, 2012

Stereotypes are the beliefs we hold about members of groups (e.g., “Group X is lazy” or “We are intelligent”). These can include beliefs about characteristics, but also about behavioural tendencies and even harm-potential (e.g., “they are dangerous”). It is no surprise that social scientists are very interested in understanding stereotypes and their relation to prejudice and discrimination. What we’ve learned so far is that stereotypes are actually not strongly related to these other forms of bias. Part of the reason is that our beliefs (such as stereotypes) can often exist independently from our emotions and behaviors. Chances are that you hold negative beliefs about someone in your life, but nonetheless you like (or even love) that person. For example, you might believe that your husband is a messy individual, but you love him anyway. Or perhaps you consider your boss to be extremely smart, but you don’t particularly like her.

It should come as no surprise, therefore, that our beliefs about group properties or characteristics might not correspond directly with whether or not we “like” that group. Moreover, one can express a positive group belief that can functionally oppress that group. For instance, when men argue that women are vastly superior at childcare than themselves, this “positive” belief nonetheless hinders career advancement for women.

On top of that, it’s important to recognize that we often have beliefs about groups that don’t simply reflect our impressions of the world (i.e., what we see and perceive), but also how we want the world to be. In short, stereotypes about groups can serve to keep groups in their place (and promote others). For this reason, social psychologists conceptualize stereotypes as falling under a larger umbrella of “legitimizing myths”, the “attitudes, values, beliefs, stereotypes, and ideologies that provide moral and intellectual justification for the social practices that distribute social value within the social system” (Sidanius & Pratto, 1999, p. 45). Therefore, expressing stereotypes that men are agentic and hard-working effectively keeps men in the top tiers of companies, whereas stereotypes of women as compassionate, empathic, and nurturing functionally keeps them out of the “shark tank” otherwise known as the corporate boardroom.

Stereotypes matter. They shape our thinking, our ideologies, and our actions.

So what do psychologists think about this topic? Historically we have been particularly interested in whether stereotypes are accurate or inaccurate. This is a complicated topic; suffice it to say that psychologists have generally argued that stereotypes are inaccurate beliefs that are based on faulty reasoning. But there is amassing an impressive body of literature on the overlooked side of stereotype accuracy – particularly the well-articulated research and synthesis by Psychology Today contributor Dr. Jussim (see his webpage here). His research clearly demonstrates that stereotypes can be quite accurate -- people can fairly accurately form impressions of others and predict their behavior on the basis of group membership. If you’re having difficulty imaging this being the case, just ask yourself whether the elderly (on average) move more slowly or are more forgetful (on average) than most university-aged students. The answer is “yes” – these are relatively true stereotypes of the elderly as a group (although we can all think of exceptions).

I have two points to add to this discussion. First, although there is some empirical truth to the notion of stereotypes being accurate, we need to be careful to not overstate the case. Some stereotypes are patently false, and people can form stereotypes on the basis of very little (if any) factual information at all. Second, the accuracy issue is interesting, but it seems less critical than examining the functional aspects of stereotypes. Yes, stereotypes help us to navigate the world and to make quick judgements (e.g., old ladies are unlikely to assault strangers). But they also help us to see the world as predictable and stable, serving to impose social structure and hierarchy. Put simply, stereotypes have psychological functions and purpose, servicing both personal and group goals.

This idea is well-captured in a recent paper by Hyers (2006, pp. 196-197):

“For example, during legalized slavery, the free/slave dimension was legitimized with myths that black Americans were content, docile, and childlike, rationalizing their continued control by white slave owners. After emancipation, the legitimizing myths changed, with black Americans stereotyped as hostile and violent to justify a return to slavery. With the onset of the civil rights movement, whites’ resistance to changing white/black inequalities were legitimized with myths that black Americans were “reverse-racist,” power-hungry strategists, pushing for too much. Thus, legitimizing myths support the interests of the dominant group over those of the subordinate group.”

As Hyers notes, stereotypes about groups change with the shifting interests and concerns of a society. In this way, stereotypes serve the dominant group’s interests. (they can also serve the disadvantaged group’s interests as well, but that’s beyond the scope of today’s article). To me, it is less interesting to ask whether these particular stereotypes were accurate or inaccurate, and more interesting to consider the function that these beliefs about groups serve in establishing and maintaining group dominance and social hierarchy. As Hyer’s passage illustrates, the accuracy question is difficult to pin down anyway, as society moves the goal-posts regardless of any “truth”. Instead, what we believe is true or untrue about a group depends on many factors, including whether we are members of that group, and whether holding and communicating these beliefs serve a personal and system-level function.

References and Suggested Readings:

Hyers, L.L. (2006). Myths used to legitimize the exploitation of animals: An application of Social Dominance Theory. Anthrozoös, 19, 194-210.

Sidanius, J., & Pratto, F. (1999). Social dominance: An intergroup theory of social hierarchy and oppression. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

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