Stereotyping: A double-edged sword

While stereotyping started as a mere survival instinct, it was also consciously implemented in societies for a reason - to get to know people better - their likes and dislikes through generalisation.
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Blondes are attractive but dumb. Teenagers are rebellious. Women are not suitable for leadership roles. Goths are dark and depressed. These are but a few examples of classic stereotypes. When we are used to such generalisations, we seldom flinch even when these statements are laced with prejudice against colour, creed, gender, sexual orientation or even beliefs. Nevertheless, it is safe to say, times are changing for the better when there is greater sensitivity towards mindsets and thought processes. Open-mindedness is the order of the day.

Perhaps, one of the reasons for this gradual change is the increased sensitivity and awareness about the impact of bias and prejudice. According to research published by Stanford Graduate School of Business, the more people feel devalued based on the group they belong to, the more likely are they to deviate from the social norm. According to the article: “People feel disrespected and expect unfair treatment from others when they feel they are being viewed through the lens of a stereotype. This leads them to defy or undermine group norms.” Additionally, negative stereotyping can harm people’s self-esteem, and thereby, hinder their prospects of success. According to Gender, Stereotype Threat, and Anxiety: Psychophysiological and cognitive evidence, stereotype-threat significantly decreases cognitive efficiency by instilling anxiety and stress.

But, is all stereotyping unhealthy? Is there such a thing as positive stereotyping? Indeed! Positive stereotypes are favourable beliefs around certain social groups. Often, we come across notions such as gay men are well-dressed and warm-hearted, Asians are good at math, women are patient, kind and nurturing, African-Americans are good athletes, among many others. Though such stereotypical statements are good-natured compliments, several studies suggest they are, in fact, worse. They raise the bar unrealistically high. For example, there could be several African-Americans who are bad athletes or not inclined to sports, in the first place. Hence, judging them through the lens of a stereotype only does them more harm than good.

Positive stereotypes can also pressure a person to perform below par in the very thing they are supposed to be good at. In a research study When Positive Stereotypes Threaten Intellectual Performance, Asians were made aware of their ethnicity and the stereotypical expectation (they are supposed to be good at math) right before a math test. As a result, their performance significantly dropped. They were reported to have collapsed under pressure leading to poor performance.

To kickstart this change, sage advice is to explore opportunities that expose us to diverse experiences and people from different cultures.

Given the negative connotations associated with stereotyping in general, why do we resort to it, to begin with? Several recent studies reveal that we may be conditioned to stereotype, if not explicitly, at least at a subconscious level. That’s just how we’ve evolved. In his 2014 paper, The neuroscience of prejudice and stereotyping, David Amodio, associate professor of psychology and neural science at New York University writes, “The capacity to discern ‘us’ from ‘them’ is fundamental in the human brain.” We innately perceive anyone different from us as a threat because our brain has an evolutionary requirement to do so. Known as Implicit Bias, we all have the tendency to be suspicious of people who are ‘not like us.’

Whereas stereotyping started as a mere survival instinct, it was also consciously implemented in societies for a reason—to get to know people better—their likes and dislikes through generalisation. For instance, it is commonly perceived that African-Americans like rap and hip-hop, Indians like a big, fat wedding, the French are die-hard romantics. Explains law professor Dale Nance in an article published by Case Western Reserve University, “A stereotype is simply a generalisation about how a group of people behaves. With the limited amount of time we have and the number of people out there, stereotyping is an efficient way to categorise crowds of people. Ideally, it would be nice to get to know everyone as individuals, but that’s just not feasible. So, we resort to stereotypes because it’s the next best thing.”

Furthermore, Nance says that stereotyping can also be beneficial. “Stereotypes enable you to categorise people into groups, which allows you to form expectations about people and situations making life more predictable and easier to understand,” he says. For instance, if you are a westerner starting a business in an Asian country, you need to make fast decisions to be successful there. That’s when having a generalised idea about people could come in handy. A general notion that Asians conduct business primarily based on trust, could help others make a sincere effort to earn their trust first, before proposing a business deal.

Evidently, stereotyping is a double-edged sword—while it has a good side to it, it can also lead to discrimination at a deeper level and create prejudice and bias. Hence, circa 2019, organisations and institutions make a conscious effort to promote inclusivity. The hard part is to bring about the same change at an individual level. To kickstart this change, sage advice is to explore opportunities that expose us to diverse experiences and people from different cultures. For it is only by mingling with those different than us can we broaden the mind and learn to be more inclusive. As actor Carson Kressley once said: “People are much deeper than stereotypes. That’s the first place our minds go. Then you get to know them, and you hear their stories, and you say, ‘I’d have never guessed’.”

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