The Truth About Stereotyping

Although we often receive admonishments for using stereotypes, stereotyping is a major method by which we simplify our social world, since stereotypes reduce the amount of cognitive processing (i.e. thinking) we have to do when we encounter a new person or situation.

One advantage of a stereotype is that it enables us to respond rapidly to situations because we may have had a previous similar experience.

One disadvantage is that a stereotype ignores differences between individuals; therefore, we think things about people and situations that may not be true (i.e. make generalizations).

Although stereotypes have disadvantages, we cannot disregard them as irrelevant fallacies.  Stereotypes are the progeny of diligent observation and recurring experiences.  These observations provide data about frequency and patterns of occurrence.  From that data, we make empirical generalizations, which are the foundation of statistics and scientific theory, a fact I learned in an Introduction to Data Analysis course.  Not only scientists and researchers deal in generalizations.  What many people refer to as stereotypes, scientists call empirical generalizations, an analogy Kanazawa (2008) makes in his scientific fundamentalist blog:

Many stereotypes are empirical generalizations with a statistical basis and thus on average tend to be true. If they are not true, they wouldn’t be stereotypes. The only problem with stereotypes and empirical generalizations is that they are not always true for all individual cases. They are generalizations, not invariant laws. There are always individual exceptions to stereotypes and empirical generalizations.  The danger lies in applying the empirical generalizations to individual cases, which may or may not be exceptions. But these individual exceptions do not invalidate the generalizations (1).

Despite stereotypes being observations about the empirical world, they are not behavioral prescriptions.  Therefore, with these mental shortcuts, we have to be cautious and remember the exceptions, because what is sometimes true isn’t always true.  So, while research suggests that boys read differently than girls, we can likely all name an exception.

The same is especially true when people generalize about cultures and cultural markers.  The added threat here is that those outside the culture often exoticize or minimize certain experiences which might marginalize a group, or we may trivialize the experiences of the disempowered or marginalized.

Because we humans all have passions, convictions, desires, and predilections, we will exhibit bias.  Bias itself isn’t a bad thing; it describes our inclination to present or hold opinions based on our experiences and perspectives.  The problem occurs when we allow those perspectives to color or discredit valid alternatives.  Critical thinking involves a concerted effort to recognize and acknowledge our biases, ultimately taking them into account when weighing evidence and logic so as to ensure that those biases don’t unfairly tip the scales in an inappropriate direction.  Furthermore, a willingness to examine our biases is an important step in understanding the roots of stereotypes and prejudice that exist in our society. This is easier said than done, of course, because we have a vested interest in our biases, like religion, and we tend to think that others should believe as we do, that they should share our biases.

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