Stereotypes Are Often Harmful, and Accurate

Stereotypes Are Often Harmful, and Accurate. By Noam Sharper.

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. …

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 are robbed of our uniqueness … 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. …

Stereotyping is better than random when information is limited:

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.

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. …

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. …

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. …). 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.’ …

Stereotypes just deal in averages:

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. …

The evidence is in:

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.”

There’s the dilemma: limited information. If you have only limited information about a person, such as what groups they fit into, using stereotypes is prudent. But sometimes those guesses from stereotypes are wrong, which does the individual an injustice.

Limited information presents a genuine dilemma with no easy answer. But that doesn’t stop the PC mob from telling us to use whatever simple solutions they’ve come up with most recently.