The Grammarphobia blog explains how English borrowed – we suggest stolen might be a more accurate verb – the word “stereotype” from French. It meant printed by means of a solid plate of type. The plate enabled printing a page of text with one impression. Once molded, the plate was easy to reuse repeatedly. But it could not be changed.
Etymology online describes how, in the mid-19th century, “stereotype” took on the figurative sense of something fixed or perpetuated without change. And in the early-20th century, the word took on the familiar, modern sense of a preconceived and oversimplified idea of someone or something.
However, it would be wrong to assume that the modern usage of the word implies a modern behaviour. Making judgements about people and things based on partial information is an inherently human trait. We all do it and have always done so. We can’t get away from it and would not cope very well even if we could.
Preconceptions (or mental programming) enable us to recognize danger and to make minute-to-minute decisions more effectively. Who do you give your credit card to? In what situations do you stop your car and trust other people to do the same? We don’t consciously evaluate all the information available to us before deciding to give our credit card to a total stranger who we recognise as a check-out clerk. We do it automatically and (mostly) subconsciously. Stereotyping is therefore an essential tool for living in the real world.
However, stereotypes are also very powerful tools for limiting our understanding of the world, and specifically many of the other people we share it with. The key limitation of stereotypes is how we use them to categorise groups of people, based on social categories.
Here, we believe, lies the rub. Stereotypes are frequently used to describe people who do not fit our own (dominant) social category. You will not often be stereotyped by members of your ingroup. By the same token, you will tend to stereotype members of “other” groups. And because they are “different” from us, the stereotypes usually have negative connotations.
A key danger of stereotypes is that, not only are they preconceived and oversimplified (see paragraph two, above), they are also unconscious. In most cases, we don’t know that they are there. They are simply how our minds have been programmed to believe (to know, in fact) what’s right or true. Much of that programming goes back generations, in some cases thousands of years. We often refer to our mental programming as our culture. The term unconscious bias is also used to describe this phenomenon.
Most of the negative stereotypes we carry are not a result of conscious choices we have made but rather a reflection of the world in which we live. Recent research (see, for example, Blind Spot by Mahzarin Banaji and Anthony Greenwald, 2013, Bantam Books) points overwhelmingly to the fact that we carry many negative stereotypes. They are a fixed part of our mental programming even if we are aware of them, suspect we may have them or wish we didn’t have them. We believe this is one of the most important books on this subject and will be reviewing it in more detail on this blog.
Another key danger of negative stereotypes is described as a self-fulfilling prophesy. Self-identifying with a group carrying negative stereotypes (“women do not succeed as engineers”, for an example), frequently leads the subject to perform as the negative stereotype suggests they will. This phenomenon is referred to as “stereotype threat” and causes many people to sabotage their potential without even realising that they’re doing so. It is consequently an important cause of the proliferation of many negative stereotypes.
We have touched all too briefly on a number of topics here without doing them justice. Mental programming, categorization, unconscious or inherent bias, culture, how languages impact our perceptions of the world and stereotype threat are some of the topics we will write more about in upcoming posts.