The Dangers Of Stereotyping And Why We All Do It

The definition Merriam-Webster provides for Stereotyping is “to believe unfairly that all people or things with a particular characteristic are the same.” Stereotyping is one of the seven deadly sins of decision-making and we all do it. It’s how we are wired. No one with a normal functioning brain is exempt.

Not only do we stereotype others, but we are also stereotyped in kind. These snap judgments can be accurate predictors of behavior, but quite often they are misleading and inaccurate on an individual basis. Groups do share common traits, but no two individuals are 100% the same.

Why should we explore such a negative behavior? Because it provides insight into how we make choices and decisions. When the underlying cause of something as powerful as stereotyping is understood, we can alter its influence on our thinking and sometimes defuse false assumptions others have about us.

It is widely believed that stereotyping is inherently mean-spirited and bad, but in reality it is just a thinking shortcut. It’s a simplification process that allows us to reduce the amount of analysis we have to do in a new situation. In his book Influence, Science and Practice, Dr. Robert Cialdini writes, “automated stereotyped behavior is prevalent in much human action, because in many cases it is the most efficient form of behaving…. To deal with our fast, complicated world, we need shortcuts.”

Without this cognitive shortcut we would live in a state of analysis paralysis. This shortcut is linked to our autopilot thinking system driven by our unconscious mind, which is where our personal biases, fallacies and complexes live. And, therein lies the problem.

We often think of stereotypes when applied to race and gender in the United States because those topics have been widely covered in the press; however, we stereotype people based on any and every way we can group them: political beliefs, religious beliefs, sexual orientation, education level, comparative wealth, vocabulary, accent, wardrobe, height, weight, attractiveness, place of origin, car, house, pet preference and even sports team affiliation. What set of characteristics would you attribute to a Southerner, a Republican/Democrat, or a Philadelphia Phillies fan?

Stereotyping is often initiated under time pressure. In Malcolm Gladwell’s book Blink, psychologist Keith Payne reported, “Under time pressure people stopped relying on the actual evidence of their senses and fell back on a rigid and unyielding system, a stereotype.” He continued, “When we make a split-second decision, we are really vulnerable to being guided by our stereotypes and prejudices.” Time pressure is the enemy of controlled responding, which is an analytical thought process based on all of the information available.

The other major stereotype trigger is when we have insufficient information about someone. This obviously occurs when we meet someone for the first time. My favorite example is the job interview where both the candidate and the interviewer attempt to “size up” the person on the other side of the table in a relatively short period of time. Assumptions are made about each participant in the first few seconds of meeting. How much can you really get to know someone in an interview? Not much. I will share more about the ineffectiveness of the traditional job interview format later.

A revealing exercise is to question any automatic assumptions you make about someone when you meet him or her. This self-talk or inner-dialogue is an important step in bringing unconscious beliefs to your conscious level. If you practice this consistently, you will begin to notice your own biases toward certain groups and you might find that you have judged people unfairly as a result.

In future posts on this topic, I’ll explore stereotyping from different perspectives with the goal of understanding how they influence our thoughts and behavior. Here are a few of the topics to be covered: Does size matter? Do good-looking people really have an advantage in life? Do we trust people more who simply “look the part”? You may already have your suspicions about these topics, but I’ll discuss how our irrational biases play a role in these stereotypes.

Mark Twain summed it up nicely when we said, “Get your facts first… then you can distort ‘em as much as you please.”

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