A guide to everyday psychology

Psychological Processes

Stereotyping: a source of prejudice – but a priceless asset in life

In the 21st century, few social questions exercise western political minds more than racial prejudices, equality and diversity. Why do people have prejudices – and how can we stop/reduce prejudice?

Prejudices about other people have been around for as long as people have walked the Earth. Prejudices are usually based on things we can observe about people, which give them an identity different from our own (their skin colour, their gender, their religious faiths, their physical shape and a hundred other factors).

It is very common for social scientists to highlight ‘stereotyping’ as a major factor in causing prejudice – and they are right to do so.

To stereotype is to make sweeping generalisations about groups of people or things. We put people into categories (black, white, educated, attractive, Moslem, Christian, male, female and a thousand others) and then ignore the individual differences between them. Stereotypes are often based on things we’ve been taught – and sometimes they might be rooted in one bad experience… A French waiter was rude to me, so I create a stereotype of all French waiters as being rude.

Put like this, stereotyping sounds dreadful. And culturally, we are often taught to dislike stereotyping as a ‘bad thing’ done by ‘bad people’, and the root of prejudice.

A priceless Asset

But this is to misunderstand basic psychology. Stereotyping is a priceless asset. Every animal with the mental processing power necessary to stereotype the things in its world has evolved with it. The reason for this is simple: in the vast majority of life experiences stereotyping nearly always gives us ‘correct prejudices’. An impala is correct in its stereotyped prejudice that an approaching lion is not coming over to make new friends.

So when judged overall, stereotyping and our resulting prejudices are very good (or ‘adaptive’) for survival. And it is survival that evolution has prepared us for. Evolution is not interested in equal rights, diversity or human animals being fair to one another.

So what does this tell us about racial prejudices?

Despite their immense socio-political importance, racial prejudices represent only a tiny fraction of the prejudices that we hold because of stereotyping. Let’s consider some other, and less emotive, examples…

Any of the following words will create an image in your mind: car, mountain, forest, politician, banker, teacher, house. Depending on what each of us has learned, we summarise (or stereotype) all those things into a few mental snapshots. So why do we stereotype these things?

Summarising thousands of things into a few stereotypes/boxes provides us with a fantastic short-cut to understanding. It enables us to store vastly more information. And it often gives us instant responses without complicated processing. For example, once we have identified something as ‘a car’ we know all kinds of useful things about it without needing to check them all individually. Every car is a means of transport. They all have some kind of engine, together with seats and wheels. And when two people talk about ‘a car’, they can usually assume that they are talking about the same (stereotyped) thing. Imagine how long it would take to organise a lift to work, if we had to explain the individual details of every car. So stereotyping – and the prejudices it brings us – are fantastically valuable. They save us time and effort because the vast majority of our everyday stereotypes and prejudices are correct.

Unfortunately, of course, some of our stereotypes are faulty. And these give rise to faulty prejudices – including all kinds of negative prejudices based on things like gender and skin colour. These negative prejudices are no longer culturally acceptable in western societies.

The Solution?

This isn’t as easy as flipping a switch – or devising social policies to reduce stereotyping. The psychological process of stereotyping is innate and universal. We can’t remove it or even diminish it. All we can sensibly do is be aware of its damaging potential – and teach ourselves and our children to hold positive or neutral stereotypes that conform with our common cultural values.

Like other psychological processes, stereotyping is a morally neutral phenomenon – present in us all because it is adaptive for our survival.

Closely related to stereotyping – and probably the source of all our individual stereotypes – is a psychological process called ‘stimulus generalisation’. This describes how when we learn a response to one thing, that response generalises to similar things (or stimuli).

Stereotyping and stimulus generalisation are essential components for understanding the development of our prejudices – along with our general anxieties, fears and phobias. Please see the article!

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