Do Stereotypes Have A Grain of Truth?

June 17, 2013

sterotypeI was handed a big fat wedding invitation by someone I barely know. While I was flattered, it left me in a quandary: What do I buy for a gift?

You see, the invitation was not an ordinary one. It was a box fashioned to resemble a cloth-bound 19th century book. It was decorated with brass embroidery and inside were the details of the venues and times, gold embossed in the cursive style of calligraphy. Each invitation must have cost a small fortune and I did not believe these invites were handed out lightly. It seemed ungracious and rude not to accept the invitation. But what do I buy for someone I do not know well enough?

As I searched my brain for gift ideas it struck me that my mind, deprived of real knowledge, was resorting to stereotypes about the bride and groom. I was making wild guesses about their financial status, their possible cultural tastes as far as colours and styles, judgements about their new life together based on their ethnicity. I was appalled with myself.

For most of my life I have consciously resisted generalizing people according to their membership of race, of gender, of sexuality, of ethnicity, of age, of status. I have long considered stereotyping to be lazy knowledge, but here I was effortlessly falling into  the habit.

“Relax,” said a friend, “stereotypes are stereotypes for a reason. There is always a grain of truth in them.” But  is that really true?

Certainly there are infamous examples of politicians who are corrupt and motivated purely by self-interest, but does that mean every politician must be corrupt? No doubt a percentage of policeman are bullies or crooks, but is the percentage any greater than within the civilian population? Stereotypes are never backed up by statical data, the evidence is purely anecdotal, and yet stereotypes are irresistible and enduring.

I was once summoned for jury duty. A black man was accused of attempted murder of his girlfriend. When the potential jurors were polled, the defense lawyer asked the same question to each juror: Do you think that you will be biased in your decision because of the race of the accused? The prosecution tried to stack the jury with female jurors (so they would be sympathetic to the victim) while the defense tried to get men of colour. When the case did get started, the jurors trusted the eye witness testimonies the most, even though study after study has shown how unreliable eye witnesses are. It is not that witnesses wish to lie or pervert justice, it is simply the way our brains are wired. We do not recall events like a DVD on replay, rather we reconstruct events in our minds. With each recall, we reinterpret according to what makes sense to us at that moment in our lives. In other words, our brains re-imagines events to suit our brain’s  existing stereotypes.

Without going back to the drawing at the beginning of this post, can you remember who is holding the razor? If you remembered the black man as the one holding the razor, then congratulations, you are in agreement with the majority of subjects in Allport and Postman’s (1947) experiments on reconstructive memory. Look again though, most people remembered wrongly.

It is tough to see past our own biases, but I believe we need to keep vigilant at all times. Because not all stereotypes are as broad as race, gender or sexual orientation. Sometimes they are deeply personal and have lasting effects upon relationships. I happen to know several off springs whose parents divorced and married other people. All of these off springs tell the same story: the wicked, domineering step mother, the weak, uncaring father, and of course, the poor, suffering children. As an outsider, these narratives strike me as bad literature, full of cardboard stereotypes, but to the people concerned this is the reality of their lives.

Here is where the grain of truth lies within stereotypes: stereotypes are true expressions of feelings but not of the facts. I can’t help wonder though, if the parents, step-parents, and off springs were to acknowledge that perhaps the pasts they are remembering are personal reinventions, colored by emotions and passions, would they then trust the memories and hurts quite so much? Might they even heal inside and perhaps forge new relationships with their estranged parents? I think it is possible.

Within relationships, when a couple argue, one or both might resort to the always and never declarations: “You never help around the house.” “You always go off with your friends.” These exaggerations feel truthful to the one making them because they express how he or she feels, but they are not factual. Isn’t this an example of the mind resorting to the well-worn mechanism of stereotypes?

One of the joys of meeting different kinds of people is the stories they tell about themselves and their unique worldviews. Both the elderly and the homeless are very generous about sharing their life experiences, perhaps because so few are interested. I find when I listen without re-interrupting to suit my own sensibilities, I gain a perspective I did not have before. That is their gift to me. It would be ungracious and rude not to accept.


3 Responses to “Do Stereotypes Have A Grain of Truth?”

  1. Your statement in bold is the true solution. Now, if everyone would be so bold as to so recognize it!

  2. Thought-provoking. Stereotypes are simply outdated modes of thinking.

  3. Khanh said

    Stereotypes may have been important for survival in the past (ie evolutionary adaptive) although not needed today. I believe stereotypes exist because it makes it much easier for the brain to process information and quickly fill in any gaps in knowledge. Using your example earlier, it’s easier for the brain to generalize the stereotype “all black men are violent” so you already have that preconception when you meet a black man and not have to take the time to get to understand the person.

    Yes the brain is lazy, but that doesn’t justify the stereotypes we have today.

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