Stereotypes: Where do they come from?

Officially, stereotypes are the set of beliefs and expectations we have about members of a social group or category. In other words, they are schemas about groups. But schemas aren’t innate. They have to be formed through some sort of life experience. So where do these beliefs and expectations come from?

Everywhere.

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They come from everywhere.

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Think of your unconscious mind as a serious hoarder. Everything we learn about a particular group, be it from personal experience, an overheard conversation, a movie, a news program, etc. is placed in the metaphorical box we have representing a group. Some of our boxes are overflowing with an inconsistent jumble of information – we’re likely to recognize the diversity of these groups. Others overflow with a brilliantly organized and consistent set of information – these people, it seems to us, are all the same. Still others sit virtually empty – we know very little about people that represent these groups. Although you may not consciously remember some specific information or experience at a particular point in time – just like for a hoarder, it is there, somewhere, influencing our overall impression of the group.

We begin to learn stereotypes at a young age, and one way we do so is through social learning. Social learning is the process of observing and mimicking the behavior of others. As we mimic behavior (or beliefs or attitudes), we are reinforced or punished according to whether we’ve picked things up ‘correctly.’

Social learning is one of the primary ways we learn gender roles (and corresponding gender stereotypes). Children may play dress up, for example, as my sisters and I did with our younger brother. If he were to wear a beautiful princess dress to school though, his classmates may ridicule him. Many parents may do the same, telling boys that ‘those clothes are for girls.’ In the same way we tell boys to “man up” and girls they “look pretty” and very quickly we learn both how to fit in, and what is expected of different groups.

We also form stereotypes on the basis of something called an illusory correlation. The concept is fairly simple. Minority groups are numerically distinctive – they stand out. Likewise, unusual behaviors or events, an in particular negative behaviors or events stand out to us. So if we see a member of a minority group doing something bad – it’s doubly distinctive. It captures our attention and becomes memorable. As a result, we tend to overestimate the correlation or association between that type of behavior and that group. In other words, we form a stereotype that the whole group is ‘like that.’

Many prominent stereotypes that exist in the world today likely result from this kind of process. The stereotype that Muslims are terrorists, for example, may result because both Muslims and terrorism are distinctive, at least to Western audiences. Terrorist events attract so much attention, in fact, that they are exceptionally notable. Exceptionally horrifying. Exceptionally distinctive. And we are likely to focus on the distinctive examples of Muslim terrorists, rather than the millions of examples of non-distinctive Muslims in forming our impressions of the group.

The issue is compounded by the language we use in reporting news events or setting a political agenda. Do we label a perpetrator, for example as a ‘radical Islamic terrorist’ (linking the action to a group and repeating it anytime the action is condemned; piling and re-piling the consistent information into our “Muslim box” until the link seems a formal truth) or just as a ‘terrorist’ (which can represent its own category that incorporates multiple ideologies, becoming a box that includes both the 9/11 hijackers, and the Oklahoma City bombers, people “who use terror as a means of coercion”). One label creates and reinforces a stereotype by repeatedly linking a behavior to a group (even when such behavior is rejected by the majority of the groups’ members); the other labels a person by the intent of their violent actions. It allows for a more comprehensive, more nuanced, but perhaps also more jumbled box. And darnit, most of us like organized boxes.

In this way and others, the news and other forms of media may also help us form stereotypes. In fact, even without ever meeting a member of a particular group, we may hold beliefs and expectations about ‘them’ because of how ‘they’ are portrayed on television, in the movies, or in the news. Because media often highlight negative events, coverage may color our perception of various groups, and perhaps to form those organized stacks in the little box labeled “Black” or “Mexican” or “transgender” or “refugee.” And that means, when we finally meet a member of that group, we already have expectations about what they might be like.

Those expectations are our stereotypes. They have important consequences. Stay tuned…

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