What’s Wrong with Stereotypes?

by  —  January 14, 2008

During the few years in which i was at Sun, i worked with several talented people. One of which, Ρ, was a very Silicon-Valley-normal, very intelligent, software developer with a great work ethic; after a while, he had taken a job across the street at Apple and as he was preparing to leave, he stopped me and confided, “Before working with you, I never thought anyone who looked like you could be intelligent.” It was one of those prize moments in life — certainly because of the compliment, but also because it put me precisely on the biting edge of that concept that i both most-love and most-hate: stereotypes.

In the personal approach, were there ever a mental civil war which waged within me it would be over the subject of stereotyping. Both at once, i think that it’s an immensely powerful and useful tool — required in daily existence, and something that potentially provides a competitive advantage when used within the right framework — and i find it quite murder inspiring when some schlub treats me as second class from the word go.
What I find most absurd, though, is the culture that we have in which we have equated ‘stereotype’ with ‘fallacy’; it has become the forensics ace card that a person is able to say “That’s a stereotype!”, and that incantation automatically invalidates the statement at which it’s aimed.

I imagine that everybody detests their schlubs as well and perhaps that’s why we seem to only ever hear about the negative side to stereotypes. In a world which often feels supersaturated with political correctness, it’s hard to think of a time when it wasn’t communicated to me that “stereotypes are bad”; it certainly has been the consistent message during my life-span in the parts of the world in which i’ve lived. That said, i can’t believe it’s historically omnipresent.

A likely start era1 for the message of “stereotypes are bad”, at least in America, would slightly tail the women’s suffrage or civil rights movements — periods during which the average person increasingly adopted the idea that all humans are equal.

Before embarking on a grander sales pitch, let’s try to first defuse reader preconceptions for this article by doing some word substitution: consider that the act of stereotyping is little different than the act of classifying. Under that note, for the rest of this article i’ll use ‘classification’ and ‘classify’ as the noun and verb of choice.

With that out of the way, let’s ask “Why do we so easily fall into the rut of classifying everything, anyway?” A very plausible reason for this is because this is a natural feature of the brain evolution of humans.2 From a species-historic perspective, it was fundamental to survival to be able to have classifying be well wired into the decision making process. For example, a caveman, Tok, is walking through some brush and comes across a saber-toothed tiger; were his thought process to give the same conscious level thought to “Should i be concerned about this creature?” as it would to “I wonder what Og is doing later today?”, he likely wouldn’t survive long. Instead, Tok has a very low level wiring which does the whole
receive optic input
    → decode scenery objects
       → recognize an object as a saber-toothed tiger
          → recognize saber-toothed object has been classified as imminent danger
             → trigger flee mechanism based on imminent danger
process chain in a very quick, very subconscious, fashion.
Is there a chance that his classification is wrong in this particular encounter — that perhaps this is the sliver-percentage case in which the tiger is actually the friendly Disney type just looking for loving companionship? Absolutely — but is the potential reward worth the potential cost? Not for your average caveman.

While most of us don’t spend our days around animals which would predate us, that hasn’t meant that our innate skill at classification has atrophied. At any given moment we can see it in action:

All of these flavours of introspection rely at some level on our ability to group things by classification:

Just like a modern-day-Tok, one’s classifications could certainly lead them into what ended up being poor choices:

Since, unlike Tok, few of our choices have a likely life-ending terminus, the result of these bad decisions is (hopefully) that the weighting in our classification system gets tweaked and we have the chance to re-apply it at some future date.

So: it’s not the creation and usage of stereotypes which is the bad apple here; it is, arguably, from where we collect the data with which we use to define the stereotypes that is the bad apple. The common places from which we do this could be ordered in the spectrum of excellent to horrendous like this:

  1. Personal experience: excellent ↓
  2. Information digested by friends
  3. Information digested by relatives
  4. Information depicted in docudramas and fictional media pieces: horrendous ↑

with the unable-to-be-ordered element being “news sources”, which can run the gamut from accurate to hype.
Where we get into trouble is when people start populating their stereotypes with incorrect data. What is, and what isn’t, incorrect data can, unfortunately, have a subjective component to it; it traipses in and out of the themes touched upon in the Belief and Common Reality article, and really merits a discussion of its own.
In some cases, though, the data is fairly correct and simply fits — and this really upsets people who fall in the classification (even more so those who are actually misclassified). With respect to the side of my relationship with stereotypes which is most-hated, i can indeed see (at more rational moments) that my anger at the schlubs is basically misdirected — and absolutely so in cases where the classification is similar to Ρ’s “People with weird hair and/or weird clothes and/or tattoos are unimpressive low-aim-ers.” classifier.
I’ll be the first one to call a spade as a spade and admit that the vast majority of people with weird hair and/or weird clothes and/or tattoos tend to be unimpressive low-aim-ers. Psycho-digging: what’s the true frustration here is that i am nearly impotent to change the situation — i’m not going to be able to change the masses of do-littles, and it’s equally unlikely that humans are going to be able to either discard the underlying classification engine or develop an extensive re-messaging framework over the classification engine through which to intervene in the decision cycle. As such, it’s not a frustration that i personally see evapourating any time soon.

The salient take-away point is that stereotypes and their use are inescapable, and that’s not a bad thing; their usage is prevalent in nearly all facets of human existence, and imperative to the survival of biological species (nor is this article immune, i’ve marked up some of the stereotypes in this article like this). This makes the common imploring of “Don’t stereotype” just as misguided, and just as futile, as would be an imploring of “Don’t produce adrenaline when startled”.

A more correct, more realistic, message that people should communicate is that of, “Populate your stereotypes responsibly and intelligently”.

  1. Though i’ve been able to find no good studies… []
  2. …and likely any species which itself, or had an ancestor species that, survived through an extended period of predation []
12 Comments so far
  1. doug January 14, 2008 10:33 am

    I think there are many concepts that deserve a re-evaluation.
    I was speaking about improving the human species by means of “designer genes”, “transhumanism”, amongst a group of people. One of them, morally outraged, had the sudden sudden epiphany: “why, that’s just eugenics!”
    Indeed. Call it what you will.

  2. Plasmafist January 15, 2008 8:13 pm

    The stereo typical percentage of any classified group goes in hand with the predictability of nature, okay, but I think your theory of populating may find discord with those who simply can not do anything intelligently.

  3. magdalene January 16, 2008 8:03 am

    I’m in basic agreement regarding the ordering of your “spectrum”, and I agree that the sticking point is “when people start populating their stereotypes with incorrect data,” which is, to a degree, unavoidable in light of the “subjective component” you mentioned. [Subjectivity being a given, and, perhaps, a necessary component in making decisions when one lacks access to data.] I also agree with a point you make in the Belief and Common Reality article about the importance of continual reflection. But I do struggle with your language, specifically that personal experience is an “excellent” source of data. Though this is perhaps only tangentially related to the original article, I’m interested in reading more about how others consider their own subjective lens, particularly when it is emotionally charged (I would assert that it usually is). You’re making the statement that people should be responsible and intelligent about populating their stereotypes, which seems sound enough, but making accommodations for that omnipresent subjective lens makes it a tricky request, and calls into question judgments based on personal experience alone.

    Now bridging to the comment made by ‘Plasmafist’: I think it’s erroneous to presume that critical thought requires above average intelligence. I have the megalomaniacal privilege of teaching college undergrads, and have found the majority of them to be functioning at average-or-just-below-threshold intellectual ability. I am impressed, intellectually speaking, by a student maybe once a year. However, I have been moved, over and over, by their ability to examine stereotypes, and even more emotionally volatile topics such as their own religious beliefs, abortion, homosexuality, etc., and to think beyond. I have only anecdote & interpretation, but what seems to be effective is a warm, nonjudgmental arena in which they can air not only tenderly held beliefs, but also the ones about which they feel ashamed, coupled with warm, excited encouragements to think beyond, to develop a productive balance between wonder and skepticism, and, finally (and this is the difficult part for me, but human will is a reality that must be acknowledged if real change is to occur) that doing so needn’t demean their existing perceptions/beliefs (the part of me that loves Richard Dawkins’ work always cringes at this spot, but Dawkins is not especially attentive to what makes people change, only that they should).

  4. Plasmafist January 16, 2008 10:08 am

    Well, just to clarify, I didn’t say a person had to be of high intelligence for critical thought. As the article pointed out even Tok the “low level” wired Neanderthal was able to classify to, an at least, apt degree of intelligence.

    Natural selection proves that some people are too inept to live. Its just an unfortunate sign of the times that the safety nets set up around us allow for these individuals a habitat in which they may thrive in their own gluttonous shrouded impotence.

  5. Loki der Quaeler January 17, 2008 6:41 am

    Using the grouping defined in the BaCR article, i don’t expect to (read: hope not to) find people who hold stereotypes which cover items in group #1 (for example, there’s hopefully no person who has a stereotype that general relativity’s predictions about rates of time in relation to the curvature of space-time are ‘probably right’ — rather they are proven correct and so not really ‘a stereotype’). As such, i think personal experience can (and should) lend important data to stereotypes which cover items in groups #2 & #3; similarly, it’s an efficient mechanism through which to apportion energy to stereotypes (for example, if i’m gathering a lot of personal experience data concerning customer service in a number of supermarkets around town – it’s likely because i’m visiting a lot of supermarkets around town (and therefore have a practical use for (and value return for energy spent on) such stereotypes). Similarly, if i’m not gathering a lot of personal experience data concerning what type of bait works best for fish at the local pond, it’s likely because i’m not fishing at the local pond (and therefore have no need to expend the energy developing the stereotype (unless i work for a fishing magazine, or the state Fish and Game department, an so on)).
    On the subject of subjective lensing (and the need to be able subtract out its effect), i’d like to believe that the case of ’emotionally charged’ data gathering is the minority of experience (and if it’s not, i hope not to have to be around a person for which it isn’t) — surely (staying with the supermarket analogy) there’s days in which the collector is having a bad day, or another shopper ticks off the collector, tainting the data, but if this type of event is regular enough so that the majority of the data is due to emotionally charged collection then i’m not sure how i could begin to address that sort of personal reality.
    Lastly – although ‘news sources’ are too varied to be accurately ordered, a subset of them should be considered ‘excellent’ sources of data. Not at all meaning to suggest that data population based solely upon personal experience was ideal, i think a tempered application of a number of higher-ranking sources to items in groups #2 & #3 is a responsible approach.

    WRT Plasmafist’s off-topic safety nets – i definitely lean in the direction that there’s something totally unbalanced in the equation involving resources spent by a society on members who themselves generate little-or-less for that same society — that is an article of its own, though.

  6. Plasmafist January 17, 2008 8:13 am

    Sorry for drifting off topic.
    As we all start off as the blank palette of awareness, absorbing reality as it is able to be deciphered, I think the productive time line of ones stereo typing ability is crucial to the development of a proper classifier and intrapersonal reasoning. The predisposed effects of ones environment (e.g. education, location, etc.), and externally evolved, influenced persona make up a far more drastic segment of ones ability to stereo type then most other factors.

    I’ll use this example from Spinoza’s Ethics:
    “… it clearly appears that we perceive many things and form universal ideas:
    1. From individual things, represented by the senses to us in a mutilated and confused manner, and without order to the intellect. These perceptions I have therefore been in the habit of calling knowledge from the vague experience.
    2. From signs; as, for example, when we hear or read certain words, we recollect things and form certain ideas of them similar to them, through which ideas we imagine things. These two ways of looking at things I shall hereafter call knowledge of the first kind, opinion or imagination.
    3. From our possessing common notions and adequate ideas of the properties of things. This I shall call reason of knowledge of the second kind.”

    I think each of these given points acknowledge the synthesis of deciphering intake, its effects, and subsequently stereo typing. With these ideas I would say that stereo types can be conceived and evolve in a sort of “Allegory of the cave” type way. You understand what you perceive from a labeling perspective and deduce to justify quality by the merit which your reality shows as greater, lesser, positive or negative. Thus, modeling an architecture of labeling around quality and how it relates to its ordering quality.

    So in essence all intake can become stereo typed can it not? A pin pressing into my flesh I stereo type as negative because my nerves / senses send waves to my brain which deciphers them and concludes that. Same would go for what I believe certain words to emote. Even, as was “hoped” against, there are persons who stereo type individuals who happen to believe in any form of non-religious based science as mislead persons. Each would conclude the opposite, but isn’t this part of the endless spiral of stereo typing outside of simplistic ideas, which even then can essentially be cause for debate as any firm believer in Cynicism might suggest?
    Does this make sense? Stereo type it!

  7. magdalene January 17, 2008 7:42 pm

    Those collecting formal data that may result in contributions to scientific knowledge (and, similarly, trade knowledge, as with your bait example) can and should systematize their collection & interpretation to minimize or “subtract out” the subjective lens. But I think we’re talking about mundane stereotyping; the variables involved do not lend themselves to such a degree of control (past experiences with emotional associations, unexamined beliefs, unexamined wishes, desires, etc): This is an intellectually gifted man with specific physical characteristics; he’ll probably be severely emotionally restricted, and I will probably find him sexually appealing. In this sort of mundane stereotyping, I question that one can significantly “subtract out [the] effect” of the subjective lens.

    Perhaps as with stereotyping, where you assert that because it is a given our recourse is to “populate intelligently” (though I’d add a precursor: “become aware of held stereotypes, where they come from, and what they are for”) the subjective lens is also a given. One could (erroneously) proceed about life behaving as though banishing it is possible, and, as such, (erroneously) assume that they are seeing clearly and making sound judgments. This seems like wishful thinking, if not bald denial.

  8. FatalTwilight January 17, 2008 9:42 pm

    Speaking of classification, I have a question. Please dont be angry if this seems off-topic, spare my ignorance.

    Is this project titled ‘The Process’ a secular version of The Process Church, or is it a project with similar concepts and ideas?

    I cant find any infos for people new to this project and was wondering exactly what it is about.

    Judging from what the reconstructed archive from wikipedia says, there seems to be 3 different projects.

    Transmedia and TOPI seem to me like they are The Process applied to Genesis P-Orridge’s “Psychick Philosophies” and the main page seems to be like something different with a similar approach.

    Was the old process.org simply just about shocking people into a state of new awareness? or was it something more?

    I also studied the Skinny Puppy lyrics from the song ‘Process’ and saw a striking resemblance to TOPI/Transmedia.

    Maybe Im just confused… Is the process about attaining a guitless state of self-awareness?

    It seems to me that the old process.org was some sort of collaboration effort for information/art that had relevance to making people more aware of current issues. Can someone help me with this?

  9. Loki der Quaeler January 18, 2008 12:58 am

    I’m hazy on where i said ‘banish’ and i, of course, disagree that such aims are ‘denial’. As a society, we seem to be very reluctant to up the bar of behaviour standards; in a number of societies in the world, we appear to be on the same page about some primal bad-deeds, like “don’t hit each other when you’re angry or upset” – at the same time we’re just not there, for some reason, with “assert rational control over your thought processes when you’re angry or upset”. It’s a duplicitous message that we’ve evolved enough that we should have self-control in the first case, but get a skate in the second case.
    There’s also something slightly rancid about making a distilled argument which is:
    ‘We cannot be expected to keep a rational head with this data gathering because it is often based on “unexamined beliefs, unexamined wishes”.’
    while it is internally consistent that a person who lugs around a lot of unexamined beliefs and unexamined wishes isn’t very likely to be mindful of their subjective stereotyping, it feels again like we’re giving a gentle “there-there” skate on the second case.

    Banishment in either case seems entirely unlikely — that reptilian brain isn’t going anywhere — but if we continue to be apologists for the second case, if we don’t endeavour to keep raising that bar (as we have in the first case), then i think we’re at a fairly contemptible state. It’s an evolutionary onus to be attentive to both cases.

    (My last denoting of something as ‘off-topic’ had no teeth to it; it was just meant to be an observation (though as more off-topic things now show-up here, i do feel myself cranky and teething – wondering aloud (not inviting discussion in this thread): there should be an implementation introduced which is a workable solution for everyone involved)).

  10. magdalene January 18, 2008 5:01 am

    Your distillation is faulty. Though in revisiting my language, it seems your error is somewhat understandable. So to clarify, I do not suggest maintaining a smooshy status quo, nor inattention to the aspects of motivation and experience that are subjective. It is not apologetic to insist that subjectivity is at play despite the best of fastidious intentions. It is a necessary acknowledgment, a necessary precursor to developing self-awareness and exerting self-control.

  11. seekue January 18, 2008 1:43 pm

    Subtracting out the “subjective lens” seems a fool’s effort. However, modifying the “subjective lens” through experience and education seems to be a reasonable way to go about things.


    “don’t hit each other when you’re angry or upset”
    The emotional charge is still present, and you still may *want* to hit, but you are taught that it is inappropriate to let your emotions manifest in that physically violent manner.


    “assert rational control over your thought processes when you’re angry or upset”
    This is a request to suppress the emotional charge altogether.

    These are two very different requests, from my perspective. The former still allows for the emotional experience, while the latter is a request to cast it away. Instead of rational control by way of suppression, I vote for making rational decisions during an emotional state when the thought process may be more befitting rational decisions (e.g., not during a state of outrage or euphoria).

  12. Loki der Quaeler January 21, 2008 9:25 am

    ‘Cast it away’… ‘Banish it’… ‘Suppress the emotional charge altogether’… …
    I’m not sure where i keep conveying these things in what i’ve written – but as an attempt to suture this thing up:
       As you, seekue, point out, we have some wiring with a very rational rule of “don’t hit” which at the same time both prevents the emotionally charged situation from turning primate-like with physical violence, and allows the emotional charge to still exist somewhere inside.
    What i am trying to convey is that there should be an equivalent wiring which discourages the type of gone-mad behaviour that replaces rational discourse with yelling and/or crying and/or raging and/or physical attacks on non-living objects. I’m not saying that this equivalent wiring should banish / cast-away / altogether-suppress / outsource-to-india one’s entire emotional state – just that we’re all adult human beings who should be capable of continual rational exchange, even when we’re not getting our way.

Leave a Comment

If you would like to make a comment, please fill out the form below.

You must be logged in to post a comment.

© 2007-2015 Process Media Labs and the respective authors. This WordPress theme began as a public work by Speckyboy.