Stereotypes are oversimplified generalizations used to describe a person or group. They can exist in virtually unlimited categories. Age, gender, race/ethnicity, religion, hair color, height, weight, residential locale, and occupation are but a few of the possibilities.
Stereotypes act as a means to simplify unfamiliar situations. In initial contact with an unknown person or group, one typically engages in categoric knowing; that is, classification on the basis of limited information obtained by visual and/or verbal clues. These quick judgments may well contain some elements of truth, since they rest on perceived characteristics. The problem is that, once assigned, these stereotyped characteristics virtually take on a life of their own, becoming difficult to eradicate. Moreover, when stereotypes get applied to an entire group, such perceptions ignore the wide range of individual differences within that group.
Another problem with stereotypes is that they affect others’ reactions to the one stereotyped. For example, if an individual is labeled as “trouble,” then others may either avoid her or him and/or prejudge that person. Similarly, members of a group labeled as “lazy” may well encounter difficulties in finding jobs.
Stereotypes often form as a response to a particular stimulus. Historically, common factors that initiated common stereotypes were economic and social competition, misunderstood cultural attributes, wartime panic, and fear of one’s own group losing power as others gain power. Unsurprisingly, therefore, stereotypes are typically negative in nature, regardless of the group they are describing. The rare exception usually occurs regarding stereotypes of those who hold societal power.
One may argue that stereotypes have an almost instinctive role. When people must assess danger, their decision for flight, fight, or remaining calm must rely on some type of external factor. Usually individuals rely on the stereotypes of an individual’s group to deduce whether or not the person is a risk. For instance, if a person were confronted by two strangers—one dressed in ragged, dirty clothes and the second nicely dressed—appearance will dictate the response. Despite the many variances of possibilities as to who these individuals actually are and what they are truly doing, typical stereotypes would lead one to believe the former is potentially dangerous and the latter is someone who is not a threat.
Since stereotypes vary from society to society (sometimes even within one society), one must question their true validity. For example, race is a biological reality, but it is also a socially contrived concept based on physical attributes. Thus, still influenced by its legacy of slavery, the United States has a more rigid racial classification system and greater problems with racism than does Brazil. Similarly, the social construction of gender leads to different stereotypes, perceptions, and social interaction patterns from one society to another. Although male and female are biological concepts, what is considered masculine or feminine varies greatly among societies.
Although stereotypes may be useful at times, they are not always beneficial and are frequently degrading. The problem with the quick assumptions one makes based on stereotypes is that they are often derived from prejudicial beliefs and have little or no merit. Therefore, as these stereotypes are perpetuated, so is the prejudice (i.e., negative feeling) toward that particular group.
The existence of stereotypes affects academia. If stereotypes exist that a certain race, ethnic group, and/or gender academically performs either well or poorly, then students are more likely to be treated with bias and either favored or disfavored based on their membership, or lack thereof, in the stereotyped group. Even if the perceived unintelligent student was actually smarter than the perceived intelligent student, the biased treatment from the teacher could lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy in which the former student performs poorly and the latter student performs well. If this phenomenon continues to occur throughout the students’ academic careers, the stereotypes will continue to perpetuate self-fulfilling prophecies and contribute to the cyclical process of keeping minorities without power in society. For example, poor performance in school leads to the likelihood of low-paying jobs. In turn, this will keep these individuals in low-income neighborhoods that are likely to have poor educational systems more likely to give their children a below-average-quality education. Therefore, stereotypes can play a key role in continuing the cycle of poverty.
Further affecting minorities are criminality stereotypes, an all-too-often label they receive. This results in racial profiling, when minorities of a particular racial or ethnic group are more likely to be questioned by police and hence more likely to be charged with a crime. This can be particularly troublesome in court: if the defendant is of a minority group typically stereotyped as “criminal” and the jury is familiar with that stereotype, the issue of how likely that minority person would receive a fair trial arises. Stereotyping can help us understand why crimes committed by the lower class and minorities are seen as more wicked and immoral than white-collar crimes, which are typically committed by the upper class of society.
Even positive stereotypes can have negative consequences for a particular group. Consider Asian students stereotyped as excelling in math and science. If an Asian student does not do well in these subjects, that individual could feel inadequate and have emotional distress, perhaps even severe depression.
Additionally, if only members of a group are stereotyped and perceived to be good at a particular task (such as playing a sport or taking a science test), then others may not perform at their true level because they believe they will not do as well. Also, when members of a particular group are obviously or subtly made aware that their group generally performs poorly on a task, they are much more likely to perform more poorly on that task. This effect has obvious consequences in the classroom as well as on the athletic field and workplace.
The media portrays and reinforces stereotypes. One latent function of the media is to both teach and reinforce cultural norms and values. Therefore, the stereotypical depictions of gender and/or minority roles vary through time and reflect present-day societal norms. Conflict theorists argue, however, that the upper class or elite of society rule the media and are more apt to project the norms, values, and stereotypes that keep them in power. Since the owners of media are often white males, they are more likely to favor programs that portray and stereotype white males powerfully. This transmission of stereotypes through media leads to their legitimization and continuation in a society.
Another drawback with stereotypes is that they are often long lasting. Once a person has learned a stereotype about a particular group, it is difficult to erase or forget that belief. Even when meeting individuals of that group who do not fit the stereotype, one often dismisses those individuals as “exceptions to the rule.” Therefore, if a member of the minority group (stereotyped as criminal) stops a crime from occurring, one may view that person as “one of the few good minorities.” Additionally, if a member of the majority commits a crime, one may view that person as being deviant and acting out of character.
One does have the ability, however, to overcome learned stereotypes and to judge others on a more individual basis. The ability of a person to do so relies on three factors. First, as the amount of personal information known about another increases, the stereotype loses relevance. Second, a person’s cognitive ability affects how likely one will rely on stereotypes; a person without the time or mental clarity to correctly assess another will be more likely to make quick judgments based on stereotypes. The third factor that enables someone to overcome a stereotype is motivation; if someone were to be rewarded (financially or otherwise) for making an accurate judgment about someone, this could encourage a more accurate impression rather than a reliance on stereotypes. Ironically, research shows that the more people try not to use stereotypes, the less they are able to not use them; even if they can suppress using stereotypes for the short term, afterward the stereotypes often rebound more strongly than before, resulting in greater prejudice.
Although stereotypes simplify situations for people and allow them to make quick judgments based on limited information, they can also have serious negative consequences for all members of society. Due to the tendency for stereotypes to disproportionately affect minorities negatively, it is important for one to use stereotypes with caution and to make an effort to judge people based on individual characteristics and less on stereotypes of the group to which they belong.
- Brehm, Sharon S., Saul M. Kassin, and Steven Fein. 2005. Social Psychology. 6th ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
- Marger, Martin. 2007. Social Inequality: Patterns and Processes. 4th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill.
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