Chapter 2 - Influences Subchapter: Societal forces

Stereotypes

Key points

  • We often have general beliefs about groups of people.
  • Generalisations are a kind of mental shortcut based on our prior experiences.
  • If your generalisation lines up with reality, it can be valid. If it doesn’t reflect reality, it’s invalid.
  • Generalisations should be flexible and change as we gather new experiences.
  • Stereotypes are different.
  • Stereotypes are representations that we inherit from our culture, and they tend to be rigid and used to limit or control specific populations.
  • Positive stereotypes are just as bad as negative stereotypes.
  • It’s good to try and identify and challenge our own generalisations and stereotypes.

 

What are stereotypes?

We often have general beliefs about groups of people. For instance:

Can you think of any groups of people that fit these descriptions?

  • People from Group A are emotional
  • People from Group B are unemotional
  • People from Group C only care about money
  • People from Group D are all super smart
  • People from Group E are all great athletes

 

If you can think of an answer to any of these, it means you have at least one general view of a group.

Now here’s a question for you: is that view a generalisation or a stereotype? (What’s the difference? Are they bad?)

 

Generalisations

We all tend to make generalisations from our observations about other people.

For instance, we meet three people from Group A and every one of them is smart. So we start to assume that everyone from Group A is smart, until the day we meet someone for Group A who isn’t.

 

We generalise all the time without even thinking about it. This is because our brains are basically very efficient/very lazy depending on how you look at it.

We make it through our day by using unconscious rules of thumb called mental heuristics, and one of these heuristics is around representativeness, which means we make assumptions about one thing based on our previous experiences with similar things.

So if you see someone walking through the city in an expensive suit, you’ll assume they’re financially successful—not that they are a broke student who just won the suit in a modelling competition.

 

Generalisations can be useful, but…

Generalisations can be valid or invalid, depending on how well they reflect reality.

For instance, you might believe that men are generally taller than women. Now that’s not true in all cases, but if you were given a list of randomly selected people who were over 2m tall, and you guessed they were all male, you’d probably be about 80% right. So that’s a valid generalisation.

On the other hand, if you said men are generally more interested in science than women, this is possibly statistically true, but the variation is so tiny that it’s not valid as a generalisation. If you were to be given a list of randomly selected people who were interested in science, and you guessed they were all men, you’d probably only be about 50% right, which is as good as random guessing. That’s an invalid generalisation.

 

Generalisations are usually based on some amount of evidence, but if the evidence is limited or misleading, then the generalisation is going to be wrong. People often argue about the evidence for each other’s generalisations.

 

While invalid generalisations just don’t line up with reality, valid generalisations are actually pretty useful—they let us respond appropriately to particular situations we encounter or anticipate the likely needs of people in those groups.

The key is to be open to new input and observations, so we can constantly update our generalisations and make sure they stay valid.

Also, reminding ourselves of the limits of our own generalisations can help us be more sensitive to other people and make the effort to see them for who they really are.

 

Stereotypes are different, and generally bad

 

On the surface, stereotypes sound like generalisations. For example, “women like nurturing other people” sounds like a generalisation, but it’s probably a stereotype.

Stereotypes are different in a number of ways:

  • A generalisation is based on your own direct evidence or observation. A stereotype is usually something you inherit from the surrounding culture, it’s a pre-established way of describing people.
  • A generalisation is flexible; new observations can change our generalisation. Stereotypes tend to be rigid, and they can become boxes that we expect people to fit inside.
  • A generalisation is a shortcut to help you navigate your relationship with members of a group. A stereotype is often used to exert power over a group. This is because stereotypes are limiting. They say there is something at the core of everyone in that group that means they can’t be anything other than the stereotype.
  • Generalisations are personal; they tend to only affect you and your direct relationships. Stereotypes are fuel for broad social “isms” like racism and sexism.

 

Positive stereotypes can be just as bad as negative stereotypes

Stereotypes are often negative (e.g. people from Group A are bad drivers) but they can also be positive (e.g. people from Group B are good at maths).

Both positive and negative stereotypes can be equally bad because they operate to constrain people. Negative stereotypes are bad by definition, but positive stereotypes also trap people in expectations to be a particular way which may not be true at all.

 

How can stereotypes distort the Field Model?

Stereotypes are like any assumption: they can cause you to skip over Stop Ask Listen. That means you don’t see someone as they truly are.

If you look at another person and see them as a stereotype, then you are at risk of assuming all sorts of things that aren’t true in reality: what they think and feel, what they value, what decisions they will entertain, what they will say yes to, what they will say no to.

If you misunderstand another person so fundamentally, how can you make any free and equal decision with them?

 

How can you compensate for stereotypes?

It’s easy to fall into stereotyping people without realising it because we think we’re making a valid generalisation, and we don’t realise that we’ve actually inherited a stereotype created to deliberately limit a population (whether race, religion or gender).

 

To compensate for your own stereotypes:

  1. Reaffirm your belief that everyone is an individual with their own inner and outer worlds. This is the foundation of respect, the Field Model, and Stop Ask Listen—and it’s at the heart of any challenge to stereotypes.
  2. Catch yourself, then ask questions. If you notice yourself believing something about a person based on their membership of a group, stop and ask yourself why you believe it.
  3. Expand your world. If you realise you’ve inherited a stereotype, you might be able to challenge it by having an open conversation with a person from that group. This will at least expand your perspective by adding to your inner and outer world.  

 

If you feel like you are being stereotyped, then the response is different.

  • Assess the social context. Is this just one person among many, or is it a whole group? If it’s just a couple of people, are they close to you?
  • If it’s an isolated individual stereotyping you, then you might be able to call them out and push back. In a close relationship, you’d ideally feel safe enough to say something to your partner.
  • If it’s the social majority, you may want to be more cautious and work out if you have any backup if you are going to push back on this group. If you at least have the backing of friends, allies and institutions, it’s easier to stand up to a larger group.

 

And if you see other people applying stereotypes, you have the option to step in and make a case for a more realistic and supportive way of looking at the world, and the people in it.