“He’s Asian, of course he’s goad in Math!”
“ She’s so skinny, she must be Anorexic.”
When we meet someone, we automatically develop an impression of them based on their characteristics, like assuming someone extremely skinny has an eating disorder. This is a stereotype, an overgeneralized assumption or expectation that we have towards certain groups of people. These assumptions are rarely done consciously, it’s mostly based on what we learn and see from our environment.
Stereotypes can be seen in different aspects of our daily lives, such as in terms of gender, race, culture, and social class, with positive and negative assumptions about different groups of people. While some of these assumptions may seem harmless, stereotypes are often found to be the root cause of discrimination within society. Discrimination occurs when we start treating people differently simply because we associate them to certain stereotypes, such as not trusting a woman to drive because of the stereotype that women are bad drivers. Discriminatory behaviors can cause unfair treatment and missed opportunities to a person, causing them to be stressed, have low self-esteem, and even affect their quality of life. Some individuals even internalize stereotypes that exist for groups they belong in, and when they find themselves being unable to follow through and behave accordingly, they start being ashamed of themselves, which can lead to a downward spiral.
Factors of Stereotypes
So if stereotypes are harmful, why do they even exist? Stereotypes can be attributed to two factors, our external environment and our internal cognition. The Social Learning Theory dictates that social behavior is learned through observation and imitation of those around us, like how children learn through the actions of their parents. Similarly, stereotypes are developed the same way too. If one grew up in an environment where they were constantly exposed to specific assumptions about certain people, these assumptions are likely to remain ingrained in them even when they reach adulthood. Aside from that, stereotypes can also be formed due to social categorization, an internal cognitive process that associates specific characteristics and traits of a person with certain social groups. When we categorize a person to a specific social group, we automatically associate other characteristics commonly found in the perceived group we’ve placed them in, characteristics that may not be connected to the person at all.
Understanding stereotypes is important in knowing how to combat them, and stop them from influencing our day to day lives. We never want others to make assumptions about who we are or what we can do based solely on our characteristics, so of course we should not do that about others either. However, by living in a world filled with stereotypes, we would have probably made assumptions about others based upon stereotypes that we know of.
Information that fits into our existing stereotypes stick to us more than information that goes against these assumptions. This self fulfilling prophecy that occurs whenever we see behaviors matching the stereotypes in our minds reinforces the stereotype, causing us to continue making assumptions about others based on the stereotypes. Which is why the first step in combating stereotypes is acknowledging its existence.
Knowing that such a stereotype exists gives us the opportunity to reduce it by being open and accepting of other characteristics of a person, seeing them as individuals and not as belonging to a specific group. For example, looking at the popular stereotype that men covered with full arm tattoos are actually gangsters or belong in the mob, knowing it exists allows us to stop and consider the fact that he could actually be a doctor that just happens to like tattoos. Acknowledging stereotypes also makes it easier for people to stop internalizing expectations and being pressured into pursuing it because of the understanding that it does not necessarily apply to us, and that it is completely fine to not behave or achieve accordingly.
Aside from acknowledging its existence, the best way to tackle stereotypes in society is to educate the younger generation. If children grew up learning that characteristics do not define a person, that mindset will stick with them until adulthood, which will reduce the overall existence of stereotypes. Instead of generalizing characteristics towards groups, using specific characteristics while talking to children allows them to look at individuals as themselves and not part of another group. This way, they will not be able to make any form of generalized assumptions about different categories of people because they begin viewing everyone as their own individual person, which will in the long run reduce the existence of stereotypes. In addition to that, reducing children’s exposure to stereotypes, especially in parental behaviour, will lead to a significant decrease in what they believe in when they get older.
To summarize, stereotypes are generalized assumptions about certain groups of people that develop over time. Stereotypes often affect our judgement and actions towards others, which is why understanding its existence and how it came to life is important in reducing the impact of stereotypes in our daily lives.
Johns, M., Schmader, T., Martens, A. (2005). Knowing is half the battle: Teaching stereotype threat as a means of improving women’s math performance. Psychological Science, 16(3), 175-179. Doi: https://doi.org/10.1111/j.0956-7976.2005.00799.x
Foster-Hanson, E., Leslie, S. J., & Rhodes, M. (2016). How does generic language elicit essentialist beliefs?. CogSci.
Vescio, T. K., & Weaver, K. (2013). Prejudice and stereotyping. Oxford University Press. Doi: 10.1093/OBO/9780199828340-0097
Lumen Learning. (n.d.). Introduction to Sociology. Retrieved from: https://courses.lumenlearning.com/sociology/chapter/stereotypes-prejudice-and-discrimination/
University of Minnesota. (n.d.). Principles of Social Psychology. Retrieved from: https://open.lib.umn.edu/socialpsychology/chapter/12-1-social-categorization-and-stereotyping/