Every individual holds stereotypes. A stereotype is defined by the Oxford Dictionary of Psychology (pg. 730) as: ‘a relatively fixed and oversimplified generalisation about a group or class of people, usually focusing on negative or unfavourable characteristics’. When people put too much faith in stereotypical descriptions of people they can become prejudiced and can often discriminate against other groups. This can be very harmful and has led to countless atrocities, such as the racial purging of the Jews by the Nazis. Prejudices still are being fought through laws, such as Equal Opportunities legislation.
However, the subject being discussed is not whether stereotypes are harmful or justifiable; it is whether they have a practical purpose, or are wasteful. It is generally the common consensus that stereotyping and prejudice should not continue. However without stereotypes we may find the social world a lot harder to perceive and understand. We rely on stereotypes to help us function in society. With such a diverse population, the environment we live in could be very confusing. Unfortunately stereotypes may block out a lot of what makes our society so diverse and just group people into simple categories. They may also affect peoples’ choices in life. Career paths people may want to take could seem inappropriate for someone in their group and so are avoided.
From an evolutionary standpoint, stereotypes must have a use because they exist. People start creating stereotypes from a very young age and they are hard to break. However, having a purpose doesn’t exclude the fact that stereotypes are wasteful.
The main beneficial use of stereotypes is that they greatly speed up cognitive processing. The world is full of people, they all look unique and the all behave differently. If each person chose to actively perceive and evaluate every individual they encountered, there wouldn’t be much time for anything else. This is why stereotypes exist. People can glance around a room, see a spectrum of faces and not have to stop to think about each person. This frees up the brain for more important tasks.
Macrae, Milne, & Bodenhausen (1994) as cited by Taylor, Peplau, & Sears (pg. 184). conducted an experiment to see if the priming of stereotypes can leave the brain freer to process other information. Students were presented with a list of trait words for an individual and, at the same time, information about Indonesia. Half of these students were first given a group label for the individual, e.g. Black or Italian. Those given the group label remembered more traits that were label consistent and more information about Indonesia. This demonstrates that stereotypes make the social world a lot easier to process and are definitely very useful.
However, this oversimplification of the world we see can lead us to prejudice against other groups, and can lead to discrimination. People often look only at the negative characteristics of a group. In doing this we may waste the important contributions that these different groups’ perspectives can offer.
Taylor, Fiske, Eticoff, & Ruderman (1978) as cited by Taylor et al. (pg. 185) asked participants to observe a conversation between people of a mix of races. When asked to remember which individual made certain contributions the participants would often only be able to remember the race of the individual. This shows that people often place far too much emphasis on group membership and can ignore the attributes of the individual. This can lead people to ignore information that comes from a source that they may deem inferior.
The second beneficial use of stereotypes is their ability to increase individuals self esteem. Everyone has the desire to increase their self esteem and a lack of self esteem can lead to depression and social isolation. Stereotypes can improve an individual’s self esteem through a number of ways.
Tajfel (1982) as cited by Taylor et al. (pg. 188) proposed the Social Identity Theory. This is the process by which people categorise the social world into in-groups, in which the individual is a member, and out-groups, into which everyone else is categorised. People can derive their self esteem from their inclusion in the in-group if they perceive their group to be superior to other groups. This is theory is enhanced by Tajfel, Billig, Bundy, & Flament, (1971) as cited by Taylor et al. (pg. 186) and their theory of In-group Favouritism. People will automatically positively discriminate towards their in-group, which promotes the view of a superior in-group. Also Ethnocentrism can play a part in promoting self esteem, through the assumption that the in-group is the centre of the social world and is superior to all out-groups.
While many people may argue that deriving self esteem from the view of superiority is immoral, that is not the topic being discussed. High self esteem is an advantage to all people, and so any method for raising self esteem can be seen as useful. But this method for promoting self esteem does come with disadvantages.
The Social Identity theory can have quite negative effects on peoples’ lives. If an individual holds a negative image of the in-group or the in-group is associated with a negative stereotype then this can be harmful to the individual’s self esteem. Asgari, Dasgupta & Gilbert Cote (2010) undertook a longitudinal study into how exposure to successful in-group members affected female students. They found that not only did the students have to have frequent contact with the role model, but they also had to have evaluated the contact to be meaningful. This however not only improved their self concept of their in-group; it also raised their career aspirations and their engagement in their studies. This in turn led to improved academic success. This study shows that victims of stereotyping can often believe those stereotypes so much that it takes repeated, powerful interaction with stereotype inconsistent individuals to feel that they too can break out of the stereotype they find themselves in.
People that are exposed to negative stereotypes are also subject to stereotype threat. Stereotype threat was first proposed by Aronson and Steele (1995) and it occurs when members of a group find themselves subject to a negative stereotype. It results in the individual being aware that they are being stereotypically evaluated and so their performance, in areas associated with the stereotype, suffer. However, stereotype threat has been shown to spill over into many areas of everyday living. Being in a stigmatized group can contribute to a number of societal problems, such as aggression, obesity, decision making and impulse control (Inzlicht & Kang. 2010).
This serves to maintain the negative stereotype. However the study by Inzlicht and Kang was a correlation study, and so cause and effect could not be inferred.
This is one example of how stereotypes can be self fulfilling prophecies. However they can also act in a positive direction. If a person is aware of a positive stereotype about them then they can have an improved performance. Shih, Pittinsky & Ambady (1999) as cited by Taylor et al. (pg. 172) showed that Asian women performed better at a maths test when the Asian stereotype was cued. However they performed worse when the women stereotype was cued. These studies show how stereotypes can have a dramatic effect on our behaviour without any conscious action.
Stereotyping can also have affects on career choices. Women exposed to primes of gender inconsistent roles (e.g. a female surgeon) showed lower enthusiasm for these roles because of upward social comparison threat (Rudman & Phelan. 2010). They felt threatened by being outperformed by someone in their in-group. If women didn’t believe that it was rare for women to be able to become a surgeon, they may not have felt this comparison threat. Also students are often choosing to not go into a career in sales because of their stereotypes about salesmen. (Lee, Sandfield & Bhaliwal. 2007). Students think of salesmen as pushy and unsatisfied, hence they assume that if they were to go into sales then they would waste the time they spent on their degree. This cuts off a career path that may have been right for some students, but they choose not to take it because of the stereotypes they hold.
So while stereotypes do have some definite uses, they also create waste. Stereotypes speed up cognitive processing, which is necessary for people to function in the diverse social environment in which we find ourselves. This is at the cost of the individual; we lose focus of each person and just push people into categories. Stereotypes can increase the self esteem of some. However not all can gain the benefit of this boost in social identity. Stereotype threat can have a very negative effect of peoples’ lives. Stereotypes can waste the potential of many people that have denied themselves, or have been denied through prejudice. Stereotypes have led to the needless waste of life in wars and through civil struggles for equality. Therefore, while stereotypes serve a purpose, they waste potential, information and happiness.