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Stereotypes Are Often Harmful, and Accurate

Stereotypes have a bad reputation, and for good reasons. Decades of research have shown that stereotypes can facilitate intergroup hostility and give rise to toxic prejudices around sex, race, age and multiple other social distinctions. Stereotypes are often used to justify injustice, validate oppression, enable exploitation, rationalize violence, and shield corrupt power structures. Stereotype-based expectations and interpretations routinely derail intimate relationships, contaminate laws (and their enforcement), poison social commerce, and stymie individual achievement.

For example, research has shown how individual performance may be affected adversely by heightened awareness of negative group stereotypes, a phenomenon known as ‘stereotype threat.’ If I show up for a pickup basketball game, and I know that all the young players around me hold a negative stereotype about the athleticism of middle-aged Jewish guys, the knowledge that I’m being thus judged will affect adversely my confidence and concentration, and with that my overall performance on the court (thus perpetuating the stereotype).

But you don’t even have to go to the research to develop your distaste for stereotypes. Looking around, most of us have seen with our own eyes the harm that can come from stereotyping, from stuffing complex human beings into categories at once too broad and too narrow and using those to justify all manner of unfair and vicious conduct.

Looking inward, most of us resent it when our deeply felt complexity is denied; when we are judged by those who don’t know us well; when we and robbed of our uniqueness, our genetic, biographical, psychological one of a kindness. We want our story to be the fully fleshed narrative, nuanced and rich and singular as we feel ourselves to be, as we actually are. Judge me solely by my external group resemblances, by how others who share some of my features have behaved, or by any measure that does not require actual knowledge of me, and you are doing me some injustice.

Indeed, one can hardly quarrel with the notion that we are all individuals and should be judged as such, on our own merit and the contents of our character, rather than seen as merely abstractions or derivatives of group averages. There appears to be a broad consensus, among lay persons and social scientists alike, that stereotypes—fixed general images or sets of characteristics that a lot of people believe represent particular types of persons or things—are patently lazy and distorted constructions, wrong to have and wrong to use.

The impulse to dismiss stereotype accuracy (and by proxy group differences as a whole) as wrongheaded fiction is mostly well-intentioned, and has no doubt produced much useful knowledge about individual variation within groups as well as the myriad commonalities that exist across groups and cultures. Yet, the fact that stereotypes are often harmful does not mean that they are merely process failures, bugs in our software. The fact that stereotypes are often harmful also does not mean that they are often inaccurate. In fact, quite shockingly to many, that prevailing twofold sentiment, which sees stereotypical thinking as faulty cognition and stereotypes themselves as patently inaccurate, is itself wrong on both counts.

Paul Bloom

First, stereotypes are not bugs in our cultural software but features of our biological hardware. This is because the ability to stereotype is often essential for efficient decision-making, which facilitates survival. As Yale psychologist Paul Bloom has noted, “you don’t ask a toddler for directions, you don’t ask a very old person to help you move a sofa, and that’s because you stereotype.”

Our evolutionary ancestors were often called to act fast, on partial information from a small sample, in novel or risky situations. Under those conditions, the ability to form a better-than-chance prediction is an advantage.

Our brain constructs general categories, from which it derives predictions about category-relevant specific, and novel, situations. That trick has served us well enough to be selected into our brain’s basic repertoire. Wherever humans live, so do stereotypes. The impulse to stereotype is not a cultural innovation, like couture, but a species-wide adaptation, like color vision. Everyone does it. The powerful use stereotypes to enshrine and perpetuate their power, and the powerless use stereotypes just as much when seeking to defend or rebel against the powerful.

Per Paul Bloom:

Our ability to stereotype people is not some sort of arbitrary quirk of the mind, but rather it’s a specific instance of a more general process, which is that we have experience with things and people in the world that fall into categories and we could use our experience to make generalizations of novel instances of these categories. So everyone here has a lot of experience with chairs and apples and dogs, and based on this, you could see these unfamiliar examples and you could guess — you could sit on the chair, you could eat the apple, the dog will bark.

Second, contrary to popular sentiment, stereotypes are usually accurate. (Not always to be sure. And some false stereotypes are purposefully promoted in order to cause harm. But this fact should further compel us to study stereotype accuracy well, so that we can distinguish truth from lies in this area). That stereotypes are often accurate should not be surprising to the open and critically minded reader. From an evolutionary perspective, stereotypes had to confer a predictive advantage to be elected into the repertoire, which means that they had to possess a considerable degree of accuracy, not merely a ‘kernel of truth.’

The notion of stereotype accuracy is also consistent with the powerful information-processing paradigm in cognitive science, in which stereotypes are conceptualized as “schemas,” the organized networks of concepts we use to represent external reality. Schemas are only useful if they are by and large (albeit imperfectly) accurate. Your ‘party’ schema may not include all the elements that exist in all parties, but it must include many of the elements that exist in many parties to be of any use to you as you enter a room and decide whether a party is going on and, if so, how you should behave.

Conceptual coherence notwithstanding, the question of stereotype accuracy is at heart an empirical one. In principle, all researchers need to do is ask people for their perceptions of a group trait, then measure the actual group on that trait, and compare the two. Alternately, they may ask people about the difference on a certain trait between two groups and compare that to the actual difference.

Alas, as you might have noticed, life is complex, and measuring stereotype accuracy in the real world is not easy. First, we have to agree on what constitutes ‘accuracy.’ Clearly, 100 percent accuracy is too high a bar, and, say, 3 percent may be too low; but what about 65 percent? Deciding what hit rate will constitute acceptable accuracy is a challenge. Similarly, we also need to agree on what constitute ‘stereotype.’ In other words, when does a belief become ‘widely held?’ Again, a belief held by 100 percent of people is too high a bar, by 3 percent too low; but what about 65 percent?

Second, it is difficult to assess the differences between perceived and actual traits in a group without relying on self-report measures — what people think about others, and what they think about themselves. Self-report measures are notoriously susceptible to social desirability and other biases. People may lie to look good, or shift their standard of comparison (I compare myself to people who are like me and you to people who are like you, as opposed to comparing both of us to the same standard), thus mucking up the results.

Moreover, even if we can get beyond self-report and achieve an objective measurement of a group’s trait of interest, we still must contend with the possibility that this trait may itself be largely a product of stereotyping. In that scenario, speaking of stereotype accuracy becomes cynical, like killing your parents and then demanding sympathy for being an orphan.

Another complication with measuring stereotypes is deciding what aspect of the score distribution curve we should focus on. For example, stereotypes are often assessed using a central tendency statistic — averages — rather than other qualities of the distribution curve, like mode (the most common score in a distribution), median (the score that divides the distribution into equal halves), or variability (the average distance from the mean of individual scores). This is problematic since measuring averages is not necessarily the best way to measure things, and because even those who estimate the average right may estimate mode, median, or variability wrong.

For example, the stereotype about men being bigger than women is based on the correct perception that the average man is bigger than the average woman. In this case, averages may suffice to support a claim of accuracy, since there is no stereotype concerning how dispersed the male distribution is compared to the female distribution. But variability stereotypes do exist. For example, in-group members are usually perceived (wrongly, in this case) as more variable than out-group members (this is known as the ‘out-group homogeneity bias’).

Interestingly, looking at the variability of groups’ trait distributions creates added wrinkles related to evaluating stereotype accuracy. For one, the distribution curves of different groups for most important traits overlap. Thus, even though a true and robust difference in average male vs. female height exists, some women are going to be taller than some men. Therefore, in looking for, say, tall employees, an employer cannot judge individual candidates fairly by gender status alone. The woman who just walked in may be one of those high on the female height distribution, thus towering over many male recruits who happen to reside low on the male height distribution curve. Score one against stereotypes.

At the same time, if we consider variability parameters such as the overlapping curves, then we must consider not just the overlapping middle of the distribution, but also the edges, which may not overlap. In other words, the small average difference between men and women allows for some women to be taller than some men, but the male distribution tail may extend further at the highest end. This will mean that in the case of height, if you look at the top .001 percent of the tallest humans, you will find only men. So, if you’re looking for the very tallest people in the world to join your team. You may safely, and fairly, turn down willy-nilly all female candidates. Score one for stereotypes.

Normal distribution of height for men and women

These difficulties in defining and measuring stereotypes create inevitable system ‘noise,’ error, and imprecision. But a less than perfect assessment is not at all useless. The stereotype that men are more violent than women is accurate, and can serve as useful predictive heuristic without implying that the man you’re with is violent, or that most men you’ll meet are. People who say that grapes are sweet don’t mean to say that all grapes everywhere are always sweet, and they may not know the whole range of grape flavor distribution. Yet in real world terms the statement is more accurate and useful than it is inaccurate and useless. In other words, the stereotype is true, even if it is neither the whole truth nor nothing but.

This fact may, in the mind of some, undermine the accuracy claim. Yet those who wish to hold stereotype accuracy measures to a strict standard should be willing to apply it to evaluating stereotype inaccuracy as well. When you say: ‘Stereotypes are inaccurate,’ is that the whole truth and nothing but? I think not. When you claim to be a unique individual, like no one else, you are definitely telling an important truth, but not all of or nothing but it. After all, you are also in some ways like everyone else (you follow the rewards; you sleep); and in other ways you are like some people but not others (you are an extrovert, an American).

Conceptual, methodological, and ideological obstacles notwithstanding, research on stereotype accuracy has been accumulating at quite a pace since the 1960s. The results have converged quite decisively on the side of stereotype accuracy. For example, comparing perceived gender stereotypes to meta-analytic effect sizes, Janet Swim (1994) found that participants were, “more likely to be accurate or to underestimate gender differences than overestimate them.” Such results have been amply replicated since. According to Lee Jussim (2009) and his colleagues at Rutgers University–New Brunswick, “Stereotype accuracy is one of the largest and most replicable effects in social psychology.”

Likewise, reviewing the literature, Koenig and Eagly (2014) concluded that, “in fact, stereotypes have been shown to be moderately to highly accurate in relation to the attributes of many commonly observed social groups within cultures.”

Moreover, research findings of stereotype accuracy are compatible with the adjacent (but much less controversial) literature on interpersonal accuracy, an interdisciplinary field probing the accuracy of people’s beliefs, perceptions, and judgments of individuals. Communication, personality and social psychology studies have generally shown that people are quite accurate at judging the states and traits of other people.

Now, this would be a good time to remind ourselves that just as stereotype perniciousness does not imply inaccuracy, so does stereotype accuracy not negate perniciousness. That a tendency to stereotype is adaptive does not mean that it comes at no cost. Every adaptation extracts a price. The fact that stereotypes are often accurate does not render their existence socially benign.

As Alice Eagly has shown, stereotypes exert much of their harmful social influence at the sub-category level, when an individual violates group expectations (a process known as, ‘role incongruity’). The average woman is less knowledgeable about cars than the average man, but a woman mechanic is not, yet she will be wrongly perceived as such. Likewise, with women stereotyped as weak, a strong woman will be viewed as less womanly, and may face doubt, ridicule, or rebuke for failing to comply with stereotype (as will a weak man).

Stereotyping begets many social problems, but you seldom solve a problem by mischaracterizing its nature. Speaking of nature, even if we concede that stereotyping is adaptive and that many stereotypes (and mean group differences) are accurate, the question often comes up as to whether the source of these observed differences is nature or nurture.

The traditionalist, old school claim is, of course, that the stereotypical behaviors and traits we associate with men and women, for example, are in fact nature carved at its joints, manifesting our biological evolutionary heritage. While this claim has been used to pernicious ends (“letting women do x is against nature,”etc.), that in itself does not make it patently inaccurate. We are biology-in-environment systems. It is foolhardy to deny that biology constantly tugs at us, in the least leashing our potentials. The fact that women have a uterus and men produce sperm must find expression in the sexes’ respective survival and reproductive strategies, and with that the processes of their brains. If I have swift feet and you have big wings, when the hungry lion comes for us, I will run and you will fly. To predict otherwise is folly.

Often, the argument over the source of stereotyped group differences masks a fight over the politics of social change. The biology, ‘nature’ side, endorsed more often by those in power, hopes that winning the argument will enshrine the status quo as natural and justified, thus branding attempts to change it as misguided and dangerous. The social constructionist, ‘nurture’ view, appealing to the socially marginalized, embodies the hope that if stereotypes are merely social artifacts, then they can be eradicated by changing the way we are socialized, the way we speak, and the ways we interact.

And so they go at it, to neither end nor avail, in part because both approaches are rooted in the old ‘nature vs. nurture’ mode of thinking, which is all but obsolete. A better way, perhaps, is to see the biology-society relationship as integrated and reciprocally determined. Biology shapes society, and society shapes the meaning of biology. (It also shapes biology itself. Climate change, anyone?). In other words, to the extent that stereotypes are biologically based, they are given meaning to only in social contexts, using socially constructed tools, such as the concept of ‘meaning.’ To the extent that stereotypes are social constructions they are constructed by biologically evolved brains.

So it seems likely that stereotype harm may not be mainly due to perception inaccuracy, but to the increasingly awkward fit between ancient adaptations and current social conditions. This lack of fit is implicated in many a modern woe. For example, the fact that we are dying of obesity is not because storing fat is inherently bad, but because this adaptation has evolved in a time when our food was scarce and supply unpredictable. As food becomes abundant and easy to obtain, the old tendency begins to work against us. The polar bear’s thick fur, great for storing heat, is adaptive in cold weather. If (or when, as it were) the ice cap turns to desert, the same fur will become a death trap.

Considering stereotypes, the stereotyping process has evolved in a time when tribe was the defining unit of identity. Today, in the epoch of the differentiated self, tribal distinctions, however accurate, may no longer provide sufficiently useful and important cues for adaptive action. Rapid social change, in other words, is rendering stereotyping superfluous, and certain previously relevant stereotypes gratuitous.

For example, male physical superiority, and the attendant stereotype, may have been sufficient to justify and support a social system of male dominance during a time when physical strength was a crucial survival and social asset. Due to socio-cultural innovation, it no longer is. The most socially powerful people around, and those most likely to survive, are no longer the most physically strong. The old stereotype that women are physically weak is still accurate, but the right question in our new social times might be: So what?

 

Noam Shpancer is a professor of psychology at Otterbein University and a clinical psychologist with the Center for Cognitive and Behavioral Therapy in Columbus, Ohio. Read more of his work at Psychology Today.

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Noam Shpancer is a professor of psychology at Otterbein University in Westerville Ohio and a clinical psychologist with the Center for Cognitive and Behavioral Therapy in Columbus, Ohio. Read more of his work at Psychology Today.

64 Comments

  1. Nice to start with claims about stereotypes being the root of all evils, but then to cite “stereotype threat” as some kind of empirically well-founded evidence for this claim is “problematic” as they say, as “stereotype threat” has not been replicated:

    https://replicationindex.wordpress.com/2017/04/07/hidden-figures-replication-failures-in-the-stereotype-threat-literature/

    I would tend to say that stereotypes represent a form of knowledge, and like all knowledge, are dangerous.

    I think we should be skeptical of those who have as their agenda the promotion of ignorance (‘stereotypes are bad’) and falsehoods (‘stereotypes are generally false’) based on the idea that the broad dissemination of certain forms of knowledge are dangerous.

    That kind of thing would have been reactionary before the rise of the Progressive Left.

    • I’m confused. Is the first sentence of your comment meant to be taken as sarcasm?

    • Stereotypes are wrong – unless they apply to masculinity, which is utterly evil and needs to be purged.

      Stereotypes are wrong – unless they apply to our ancien régime, who only graduate egalitarians at their exclusive institutions.

      Stereotyping women is misogyny and wrong – have you worn your “Sarah Palin is a cunt” T-shirt lately?

      • @harland0
        Stereotyping women is wrong… Ok ok, but I’m telling you I’ve yet to see any of the women in my life volunteer to back up the car. Just saying.

      • TarsTarkas says

        I would translate it as ‘stereotypes are wrong except when leftists use them, in which case they are not stereotypes, they are settled science’. What is group identitarianism other than stereotyping of whole groups of people based on physical appearance or ideology or claimed orientation or some combination thereof?

  2. Would it be possible to live and communicate without any form of stereotyping? Probably, discussions would be much shorter than they are now, maybe shrink to below 10% of normal length. At the marathon here in our city, the numbers 1,2,3,4 and 5 were blacks from Ethiopia and Kenya. Stereotype: blacks from the African highlands are the better long distance atletes. Is that correct? Or false stereotyping? (because not always of course, most are not).

    • Kenneth Newman says

      Um, people from Ethiopia do not consider themselves to be black, not that you would care what they think about themselves. PS Nobody else considers Ethiopians to be black. Look back at the history of when Haile Selassie came to New York in the 1930s to address the League of Nations a quick perusal of even a handful of contemporary articles would show you the bizarre contrast that in the 1930s, back in the bad old racism days, Ethiopians in New York were considered (and were also legally classified by the gov’t, btw) to be white, not black. Just like even very very very dark skinned Sicilians were classified as white, though considered as much lower status than Ethiopians. But odd, back then even racists thought they were not black but you, all woke 80 years later are certain they are black. Ironic you talking about stereotype.

  3. Fred Witthorn says

    A professor of psychology has not yet heard the news that stereotype threat studies have failed to replicate? Oh my, please try to keep up with your professional reading!

  4. Id like to see something like this studied in East Asian cultures, who tend to be a lot less individualistic. From my experience with the Chinese I noticed that they tend to be less offended at being viewed as part of a group. They often spoke of Chinese people as a whole of which they viewed themselves as an extention thereof.

    I would gamble that much of this opposition to stereotypes stems from the western (dare I say, toxic?) individualism.

    • I can’t agree more with you, rounded peaks, it’s exactly what you say, the toxic western life style. But, this West is,as of now ,still the boss in the world, militarilywise. But for how long? Even Dugin in Russia doesn’t speak this nonsense, but it is firmly ground in the minds of millions in the western, comforted, easy going, well earning and happy world, and in my head too, of course!

    • And FAR less diverse, as well. Which can’t not play a part. But yeah, on a related note I recall a report on the ‘hooverboard’ craze a few years back (not the boards that hover, mind you, but those ridiculous Segways-sans-handles that make you look like a lazy zombie). Apparently in China they don’t focus on branding and protections like the west, and are/were more concerned with getting the product out ASAP for the good of China as a whole, even though they still offered different ‘brands’ perhaps mainly to appeal to western sensibilities. This also suggests a lack of accountability that likely played a role in the subsequent exploding hoverboard pandemic. So if the obverse is collectivism, that too can be not only toxic, but literally toxic.

  5. Caligula says

    “First, stereotypes are not bugs in our cultural software but features of our biological hardware.”

    We all must make decisions (sometimes life-critical ones) on the basis of incomplete and imperfect information? And thus there will inevitably be conflicts between optimizing individual safety (or other important criteria) and perpetuating unjust behavior against others based on characteristics they can’t control?

    Well, Umm, yes. We are presumably evolved for an ancestral environment. In which most of those we interacted with were part of our kinship group, and in such an environment “stranger” more often than not meant “danger.” Whereas we now live in vast nation-states and interact (at least at some level) with people we’ve never seen before (and likely will never see again).

    Sometimes things are just what they are, and some conflicts don’t have a complete resolution, but only possible compromises.

    The (natural) right to self-defense presumably includes taking steps to optimize one’s safety, even when such steps may be perceived as rude, so long as doing so does not threaten the safety of others. Although at least some SJWs might define “rude behavior” (such as crossing the street) as “threatening the safety of others,” and thus assert that such behaviors must be punished.

    “There is nothing more painful to me at this stage in my life than to walk down the street and hear footsteps and start thinking about robbery. Then look around and see somebody white and feel relieved.” — Jesse Jackson

  6. X. Citoyen says

    I’m having a hard time squaring your conclusion with the rest of your piece. You point out that stereotyping is part of our processing of information (i.e., cognitive schemas) and that stereotypes are generally accurate–in your words, “features of our biological hardware….like color-vision” and “often essential for efficient decision-making.” Then you conclude that “rapid social change” and “sociocultural innovation” (abstractions you don’t explain) are “rendering stereotyping superfluous and certain…stereotypes gratuitous.”

    If stereotyping (i.e., the cognitive process) is, as you say, a feature and not a bug (time to shelve this metaphor, by the way), it’s hard to see how it could become superfluous and, even if it did, how we could stop doing it. I don’t know of any sociocultural innovations that have obviated the need for efficient decision making or what heuristic could replace stereotypes in such decisions.

    As for particular stereotypes (i.e., the results of the cognitive process), I can see how stereotypes become outdated by social change. Cave lions are extinct and one encounters few silverback gorillas in the suburbs of North America. But not asking toddlers for directions and old people for help moving furniture seem to have retained their relevance. I can also see how women are physically weaker than men might have less relevance in the job market than it once did. But is it any less relevant in all the cases where it is…still relevant? You haven’t made your case here.

    It seems to like a more fruitful avenue would’ve been the limitations of stereotypes. As generalizations from individuals to groups or groups to individuals, stereotypes are prone to fallacies of composition and division. Nowadays they’re talked about under the rubric “ecological fallacies,” mostly because the problems arise in statistical research. Knowing these errors in reasoning is half the way to being able to correct the stereotypes we make and use to make decisions. That knowledge, it seems to, is the sociocultural innovation worth looking at.

    • Do you like chocolate? How do you know? Have you eaten every chocolate thing made? Because you dislike some chocolate things, does that mean you dislike all chocolate?
      The desire to fix other people’s thinking is absurd. All we can really do is ensure our laws protect people equally so there’s no government-imposed bias. Humans will be humans no matter how much you wish there some perfect beings. The brain is not a perfect device, never had been. Our sense fail us all the time; hence science has helped us separate beliefs from measurable reality. But most people are not scientists and few even concern themselves with such mental rigor.

      • X. Citoyen says

        I asked myself a Platonic question: Am I better or worse off recognizing the grounds and limitations of my own reasoning? I said better off. Then I went and inferred that the set of Quillette readers overlaps with the subset of people like me who would want to improve their stereotyping (i.e., generalizations and inferences from them) and make better predictions. As a consequence, I suggested that the author better off focusing on the logical failures of stereotypes than on the alleged moral problems with such reasoning.

        My inference here involves mirror-imaging: I’m projecting my own preferences on others based on one minor point of common interest (i.e., reading Quillette). It doesn’t involve either stereotyping or a desire to fix other people’s reasoning. All the same, better reasoning is in everyone’s best interest.

    • D.B. Cooper says

      @X. Citoyen

      Excellent comment – not because I, necessarily, agree, but because it was a cogent response.

  7. One problem with stereotypes is that they come to represent the thing itself, so if you are male-bodied but conform to stereotypically female behaviour – or simply fail to conform to stereotypically male behaviou – you now qualify as a girl, and vis-versa.

    Whatever accuracy a stereotype may have they are not the thing they describe. They are, at best, a statistical model that doesn’t apply too well to individuals.

    • Statistical models are shown to be useful all the time without being “accurate” against all individuals or other things being modeled. You can’t know 7.5 billion people. What next, weather forecasts are worthless because they get some details wrong?

    • Peter Kriens says

      But don’t they work amazingly well to get through the day? Just for an hour be conscious of how many things you do and say based on statistical models that are just more right than wrong?

  8. With how stereotypes are accurate and don’t tend to affect decisions when more detailed information is available, it seems fairly obvious to me that they’re just what happens to “make the best decision I can with what I know” when the “what I know” is extremely limited.

    Which suggests that the way to fight use of stereotypes is to encourage people to have that more detailed information. Both by showing how useful it is (so that people will put in more effort into learning details), and by making it easier to gather information (so that the same amount of effort will go farther).

    Making it easier to gather more detailed information means encouraging people to be more comfortable with not hiding details about themselves. Which means showing that sharing those details won’t harm them. Which eventually gets to the whole “honest signal” thing.

  9. Walter says

    As a short person, I’m proud that we fight so hard to overcome the limiting stereotypes attributed to us that the tallies had to come up with a special term to salve their wounds: Napoleon Complex.

    I joke, but I’m actually serious about this. I can’t imagine wanting to jump on the victim bandwagon. What a sorry way to spend your life.

  10. E. Olson says

    If 95% of airline terrorists are darker skinned Muslim men between 16 and 40 years old with some variation of the name Mohammad, and no known airline terrorists have been white Christian women over 60 years old, should they both be searched with equal vigor at airport security to avoid perpetrating dangerous stereotypes? 75% of NBA players are tallish black men, but should coaches scout for new talent by going to China to scout women’s Tai Chi classes, or would their time be better spent going to US inner city basketball courts and major college male basketball teams? Stereotypes continue to exist because they have strong face validity – we can see it with our own eyes – but we are told by Social Justice types to disbelieve what we can see to be true because we don’t want to hurt feelings. Thus we spend billions each year and waste thousands of man-years trying to ensure that Mohammed the non-terrorist isn’t made to feel bad at airport security, while Grandma Smith gets the full body cavity search to make sure she isn’t the world’s first senior citizen female suicide bomber. And how many millions of dollars and man-hours have been spent in order to make sure the 1 in 500,000 woman physically capable of being an Army Ranger is given the chance to be in an elite combat unit? Unfortunately, these battles against accurate stereotypes not only waste resources, they typically result in a lowering of standards when the truth is revealed, and we end up letting Mohammad the terrorist through security to shorten the line caused by Grandma searches, and real Army Rangers get killed because the requirements were lowered to let Susie and Jane in the club.

    • Martin28 says

      @ E. Olson
      I love the concept of professional basketball scouts going to Chinese elderly women tai chi classes to look for prospects.

    • BillyJoe says

      The problem here is that, even if your stereotype of an airline terrorist is true, it is also true that the chance that an individual person fitting your stereotype is a terrorists is, for all partical purposes, no different from the chance that an elderly woman is a terrorist. Increasing the chance from say 0.00001 to 0.0001 by using a stereotype of the typical airline terrorist doesn’t help much in the scheme of things. And a possible down side could be increasing racist attitudes amongst the general population, which has could have its own downside regarding the frequency of terrorists attacks.

      • Farris says

        @Biily Joe
        Using your figures .00001 to .0001, would mean an increased in the number of terrorist apprehended by a factor of 10. In other words by stereotyping 10x as many more terrorists were caught and 10x more attacks were prevented. There are approximately 100,000 airline flight daily. Thttps://garfors.com/2014/06/100000-flights-day-html/ If .0001 terrorist were apprehended for each flight that would be 10 per day verses only 1 per day. The upside is a lot less victims. Seems the benefit of lives saved would out weigh the fact someone might feel slighted.

    • ga gamba says

      Whilst it has been true grannies haven’t been airplane bombers, one thing about their inclusion for heightened scrutiny, along with everyone else, it to maintain randomness. People and their procedures become predictable and these patterns are studied for weaknesses to exploit. It isn’t so much that a granny may choose to become a bomber, it that terrorists may distract her and place material into her carry-on luggage for retrieval aboard the airliner later. Further, screeners told to exclude grannies come to understand others too can be scrutinised much less or even excluded; this relaxed vigilance is a weakness this is observable and the pattern may be exploited. Creating randomness better eliminates the possibility of perfect knowledge acquisition, resulting in significantly more robustness against attacks.

      • Sean Bearly says

        Excellent explanation of why grannies need to be searched. It would be even more excellent if it didn’t result in the TSA allowing 50% – 95% (depending on year of testing) of unlawful materials through. There is a stereotype of TSA employees and it is based on statistics, studies and our personal experience. But because of political correctness and the power of unions, we accept poor performance and the ‘stereotypes’ of these agents will continue.

  11. Ernesto Raymond says

    My 25 year old son came over the other night and said “Dad, do you know why jokes about stereotypes are funny?” I said “No”. He said “because they’re usually true.”

    I love this kid.

    Seriously…if black people can joke with other black people about the size of their manhood or the size of their mama’s backside…why can’t we as humans lighten up a bit and relax.

    • BillyJoe says

      Calling yourself Pinocchio because of your long nose is not the same as someone else calling you Pinocchio because of your long nose; and even less so if someone calls you Pinochio to imply you are lying.

  12. Conan the Agrarian says

    We must stop stereotyping stereotypes.

    Everybody talks about stereotypes like they are all the same.

    Really, every stereotype is different and must be considered individually.

    Which makes them in that respect all the same.

    Yes, this is helpful.

  13. The negative effect of stereotypes is yet another semi-fantasy created by progressive social scientists to inoculate certain cohorts from criticism.

  14. Stacy L. says

    “If I show up for a pickup basketball game, and I know that all the young players around me hold a negative stereotype about the athleticism of middle-aged Jewish guys, the knowledge that I’m being thus judged will affect adversely my confidence and concentration, and with that my overall performance on the court (thus perpetuating the stereotype).”

    Sounds like your problem, not theirs. Sounds like you (and society in general) could use thicker skin. But what a great excuse to be a victim (or a lousy basketball player)!

    • E. Olson says

      Only a truly bad basketball player or a pathetic loser would fall apart because others thought he was a bad basketball player due to his religion or race. A skilled player would use such knowledge to clean their clocks, and an unskilled player should take the hint and pick a more suitable sport. My guess is the author was not really thinking about Jewish basketball players with his example, but instead black students taking school exams, yet the same logic applies. Unfortunately, the black exam taker stereotype is accurate, mostly due to the lower black IQ median that is about 1 standard deviation below whites and 1.5 below Jews, which is why they on average do relatively poorly on exams. On the other hand, a black kid who is 1 or 2 standard deviations above the black IQ median can use low expectations to gain “genius” status by only doing as well on an exam as an average or slightly above white student, while those with average or lower IQs are likely concentrating on their basketball skills. I expect that racial/ethnic stereotypes related to “valuing education” are very highly correlated with median IQs – those “Asian tiger” and “pushy Jewish” mothers forcing their kids to do homework and go to science camp see value in education because their kids have 110++ IQs and are typically in the top 10% of their class rankings, while the “inattentive” black mothers who don’t check homework or school attendance are probably discouraged by continually seeing their kids in the bottom 20% of the rankings. If trying hard still gets you in the lower rankings, it should not be surprising that the cognitively untalented kids go in a non-scholarly direction – such as playing hoops.

  15. Great article. The survival advantage of stereotypes, where quick decisions based on limited knowledge leads to actions that help you survive still applies.

    I remember reading that business schools were proud that they were teaching students to make decisions with less than half of the necessary information at hand. In fact I would put the common experience at having to decide with far less, almost none. Survival depends on experience and a quick reading of the situation .The downside is that you may miss opportunities but the upside is you survive.

    The only solution is to socialize the risk.

    And no it isn’t fair.

  16. ‘Rapid social change, in other words, is rendering stereotyping superfluous, and certain previously relevant stereotypes gratuitous.’

    And Shpancer would be delighted to encourage his 20-year-old daughter to date the nice young grad student fresh from Pakistan — give me a break.

  17. “For example, research has shown how individual performance may be affected adversely by heightened awareness of negative group stereotypes, a phenomenon known as ‘stereotype threat.’ If I show up for a pickup basketball game, and I know that all the young players around me hold a negative stereotype about the athleticism of middle-aged Jewish guys, the knowledge that I’m being thus judged will affect adversely my confidence and concentration, and with that my overall performance on the court (thus perpetuating the stereotype).”

    It’s called being the Underdog. I would argue that for you, that is a challenge you will have to face and overcome. That is and should be part of life. Fighting that battle should be celebrated, whether you succeed or not.

    Why don’t we teach people to confront these challenges – we all have them – and persevere instead of collapsing and whining about it? How do we compete in a hostile world when our citizens need to be coddled and can only function in a room full of approval? Other nations are not going to coddle us. People who wish to take advantage of us are not going to be gentle.

    If you are great at handling the ball, other players will immediately take note and the perception of you will change immediately. Some people, like myself, function better in competition when I’m perceived as the underdog. I like to be underestimated! What a burst of confidence when you feel the vibe of the room change.

    To simply say “everyone here thinks I suck” and then play poorly and blame it all on the perception of those around you is the essence of weakness and poor sportsmanship. It means you allowed it to get into your head, and part of the challenge of competition and performance is keeping your head in the game and dealing with the nerves and fear and negative thoughts.

    I think this in where Jordan Peterson wins a lot of fans – nut up, take responsibility for your failures (and your successes!). Stop blaming everyone else.

    I’m not arguing with the research, just with what we choose to do about the conlcusion. Sorry for the soapbox rant.

  18. BillyJoe says

    Maybe I’ve had it wrong all this time. I thought stereotyping meant applying group statistics – or, even worse, perceived group statistics – to the individual. Or maybe the author got it wrong and is simply equivocating.

  19. Peter from Oz says

    The problem isn’t stereotyping, but the use made of sterotypes.
    It is really quite easy. Some sterotypes are accurate and beneficial. Some stereotypes are accurate but need to be used with care to ensure that they don’t harm people. Some sterotypes are false and of no benefit and some sterotypes are false and may be of some benefit if used with a bit of finesse.
    The trick of course is being able to apply the old nostrum about exceptions proving rules. One then also has to notice when the rule changes.

  20. Pingback: Stereotypes Are Often Harmful, and Accurate | Unhinged Group

  21. If “stereotyping” isn’t an effective way to make judgments on the increased or decreased likelihood of a specific behavior from a group as a whole (demographic), we’ll have to rewrite the basics of marketing and every single political campaign will have to drop their most successful (and cherished) methods.

    The irony of people of a particular political bent screaming about the injustice of stereotyping from one side of their mouth while screaming about racial/ gender/ etc. commonalities (“understanding the needs of X people”) out of the other… always makes me laugh out of frustration.

    How can you even have a rational conversation with people whose thoughts are so completely incoherent?

    • Matthew says

      “How can you even have a rational conversation with people whose thoughts are so completely incoherent?”

      You can’t. In fact, rationality is seen as a tool of oppression. There is no reasoning with progressives. Makes it hard to have a conversation with them, full stop, actually. The joys of living through a cold civil war.

  22. Graeme says

    Stereotypes are an exercise in probability. For example, it’s not the case that EVERYBODY who lives in Cincinnati is a Reds fan. But the odds of finding them there are significantly over the national average. It’s precisely because they don’t always hold true that it’s funny when they do.

    You can certainly find women who like power tools, and men who like housework, but the odds are less than even money. That’s called Diversity. You know, the thing everyone claims to love but is secretly terrified of.

    • Cassandra says

      Women don’t like housework. They just find it harder to endure dirty houses.

      Maybe we should rebrand a vacuum cleaner/ Hoover as a power tool?

  23. Somewoman says

    Strerotypes have greater utility the more specific they get. And a person is more effective at ad hoc decision making the more quickly they can apply a nuanced sterotype to a person. For example, there are not many practical purposes that stereotypes of a large group will apply to, like men. Male vs female is also possibly the most overgeneralized and overused set of stereotypes.

    But if you see a man, an assumption that he is interested in football is likely to be a shoddy generalization if all you know about this person is that he is a man. But if you can quickly gather additional signals about this man and apply more subsets of stereotypes, then your accuracy will increase. For example, he is a man, but his pants are very tight and his hair is very carefully put together with gel. So probably he is a gay man and then probably not interested in football. Or he is a man and he has a MAGA hat on. So, he is probably a straight american man and likely to be at least somewhat interested in football.

    I have found that people who hold highly particular stereotypes are actually very accurate. The person who sees a girl and makes assumptions is usually either wrong or very limited in what they can assess. The person who sees a blonde girl with a lacoste shirt and a sweater that says “Spence School” and can integrate stereotypes for all of those details will tend to be better enabled to make decisions about people they encounter.

    Racial and gender stereotypes seem to veer out of stereotype category and into archetype category. What other cultures have thought about women would often seem bizzarely inaccurate to people in the western world. A cleric railed against women drivers because driving would violate women’s special natures by destroying their natural shyness. A cleric in Iran railed against women in politics because women were too frail to handle the constant pressure to attend social events and meetings that went on till late in the night. Rather than looking at how actual women behave and forming a stereotype, they apply the theoretical archetype of femininity to all actual women. It’s the worst way to use stereotypes and has led to those societies where men in power are actually viewing real women as emblems of constant and ubiquitous frailty and shyness. Frailty may be a feminine rather than masculine trait, and shyness is an archetypal attribute of their idealized woman, a virgin, but viewing actual women through this lens denies their humanity, individuality and real natures.

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  25. “The old stereotype that women are physically weak is still accurate…” At several points, as here, the author confuses fact with stereotype, or fails to use his words precisely. In this instance, it is not accurate that “women are physically weak;” itis accurate that on average, women are physically weaker on several tests of strength than men (but not all tests). But that is not a stereotype–that is merely a fact. In several places in the essay, the author confuses fact with stereotype.. I agree with the rather tepid thesis, but wish the author had been more rigorous and precise with his examples and reasoning.

  26. Like gender roles there’s an attitude these days that stereotypes were socially constructed to hold certain groups back, even if these roles or stereotypes are positive. It’s a cart/horse affair. The reality is that gender roles and stereotypes were formed from hundreds of years of observations of men and women. Natural Behaviours and abilities and preferences came first then stereotypes and gender roles were formed because of them so the horse came first then the cart but these days we’re taught that the cart came first then the horse because those with that belief seek to Unteach such behaviours and abilities and preferences to create a society with equality of outcome and the only way they can do that is to teach that such things are not natural but nurtured

  27. mike87122 says

    Have you thought about the fact that stereotypes are the very foundation of identity politics?

  28. Thylacine says

    It is doubtless true that stereotyping assisted survival in our Pleistocene past; but like many human traits, it is no longer adaptive in most situations today. Our taste for sugar directed our Pleistocene ancestors to eat ripe fruit, but in a world with mountains of refined sugar, it leads to many health problems. Likewise, stereotyping has outlived its usefulness in modern society for most people at most times. Today, most people rarely encounter a situation where the application of a stereotype positively assists in making an important decision. It is almost always possible to get more information when it matters most. What rational people object to in stereotyping is the lazy reliance on less reliable indicators. We over-use stereotyping

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