How stereotypes work on you

A few years ago I taught a seminar for students of economics and political science. One of them launched into a long, speculative rant, in which “the left” was violent and “the right” wanted to take care about people. I repeatedly asked him to specify what he meant by left and right, because his rant didn’t make sense.

I should state at this point that the class was held in a small, Eastern European country, that cannot pretend to be alone in the Universe and that it’s actual political divisions were universal.

If anything, the left (or what they call “left” over there) was lame with its protests, while the local “right” regularly summoned football hooligans. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t find a single perspective from which his words made sense.

After a rapid psychoanalysis, I managed to coax his definitions out of him. He recently saw a documentary about the miners’ strike against Thatcher, so when he uttered “left”, he meant the miners’ unions under in 80s Britain. But when he said “right”, he had the recently elected Hungarian government in mind, who were labeled conservative, but had just nationalised the private pension funds and promised to use it for the benefit of the people.

So I made a new rule in class. Self-respecting people don’t use certain words, such as left-wing and right-wing, in intellectually honest conversations. If you want to say something, say what you mean. Not a catch phrase that’s actually been designed to obfuscate, to drag different people under the same flag to fight, and to trigger partisanship. Intellectual honesty dictates to state precisely what you mean and what you don’t. And if it suddenly doesn’t make sense – it didn’t make sense in the first place.

For every force there is (or will be) an equal and opposing force on the other side. Including stupidity. And if I fail to find it, I have to try harder. Especially when it comes to political parties. They ask the wrong and least relevant questions by their very nature. They therefore take sides along the wrong dividing lines. So when someone vilifies one party and fails to vilify another – I fail to take that person seriously.

I couldn’t agree more with this article in that social sciences and their statistical magic is often a tool to summon more credibility to the researcher’s own political opinion. Social science topics are political by nature, so the questions of social psychology will be dictated by politics – even before we take funding into account. Their questions are therefore bound to be wrong and their conclusions partisan.

I found this page that is too happy to post “freely” about not being a Democrat in the US. (Which means “freedom of thought”, apparently.) They bravely yield the freedom to confirm what US Republicans believe. This time they took on to defend stereotypes – and to prove that social science is a Democrat. (Smart bloggers know that defending powerful parties pays better than writing actual opinions. But if you’re looking for support to your party sympathy, you can save the time and leave now. I am not such a smart blogger.)

I am aware that social scientists often moonlight as superheroes and secretly hope to save the world – when they are not out there to deliver proofs, that is. (Most of them simply just do what their discipline’s tradition dictates – to make ends meet and to produce the right number of publications, but you wouldn’t believe it anyway. It feels better to believe that they are actually looking for answers, not just funding money and tenure.)

So when I hear about a lonely, purposely neglected social science warrior, who boldly takes on the Establishment and dares to say what others don’t – I immediately reach for my reading glasses as well as google and my skepticism. Finding outlandish, partisan papers to strawman is easier than getting wet in a car wash. Does he go any further than that?

What is a stereotype anyway?

According to the article:

“To talk about stereotypes, one has to first define what they are. Stereotypes are simply beliefs about a group of people.”


Firstly, there should be a better definition.

Even online dictionaries do better than that – and so does Lee Jussim, the social scientist in question. So political agenda of article’s author is checked.

But the message she is peddling here is not the definition, but that social sciences have a “left-wing” bias (read: US Democratic Party), and they don’t want you to know that stereotypes are accurate, and stereotype threat thus cannot be true. Underpinned by anecdotes from Jussim’s “anti-authoritarian” upbringing, his hardship in his career, and a long detour about the reproducing problem.

(Jussim doesn’t measure (pdf) any of these things. He is just looking whether they are reasonably accurate, and he concludes that some stereotypes are.)

A stereotype is 1) my belief about people I don’t know – but also 2) my knowledge of the stereotypes concerning me. (And a lot more things, but let’s just take these two for now.)

In other words, I know that they know that I know. Yes, people are that bad. I will act according to my own expectations of what people expect from me, even when it is not enforced by the threat of a burning stake. I can only confirm or deny the stereotypes against me – so I am stuck with them, either way. (Good thing they don’t accuse me of having a criminal disposition, because that would seriously suck.) 

In other words, I enforce the stereotypes on myself. A stereotype is a self-executing piece of meme installed on me – and it doesn’t need to be actively enforced, as long as I am aware of it. 

If you ever spent time in an international environment you will see what I mean. Take the endless repetition of where-are-you-froms, and the cliches it triggers. Of course, I know they mean it nicely. But if they keep repeating the sights of my hometown, the conversation never takes off from the “Where are you from?” level.

One day I decided to have some fun and experiment with new countries. When we reached the socials and people still kept asking their where-are-you-froms, I said something else – just to hear something new for a change. It went horribly wrong. A gentleman, who spent two days in perfect gentlemanly manner had overheard me introducing myself as Russian. Within a second, his arm appeared on my waist and his lips uncomfortably close to my ear as he whispered: “You are in need of a passport then?” I could hear his lips smacking as he talked. Obviously, Russians must be desperate. So I learned.

But a stereotype is not simply enforced, it is implanted first.

All a meme needs to spread in a population is obedience to follow its commands and the willingness to replicate its message. And replicate we do. Don’t you find it curious how people cannot stop repeating those tedious cliches? There is no way someone hadn’t heard of the cheese-eaters in their life and yet, something compels us to repeat it just in case. So we do repeat compulsively.

Now let’s see whether we obey. And how?

How does a stereotype work?

The invisible way: Every enforcer’s dream

When you know about them and adhere to them. Feel guilty when supposed to. Withdraw when used to. Be shy or aggressive when supposed to. You know when that is. You are all too aware of the (real or perceived) judgment of others. You are dependent on their opinion and it makes you do it to yourself.


 1) If the process is self-executing, it uses purely the victim’s resources. No effort needed for enforcement.

This is probably what all those stereotype-threat studies picked up on – they didn’t make the distinction between enforcement and self-enforcement and only experimented with the latter. In the infamous study (replicable, see Inzlicht & Ben-Zeev, 2000; Spencer, Steele, & Quinn, 1999) where women fared worse on a math test when having to write their gender on the top of the test sheet, no one reminded them out loud that “Please remember, women are not supposed to be good at math.” Neither did the researchers threaten them with a fine or not finding a husband if they are too good at the test. They reminded themselves.

This may very well be behind the “misbehaving data” the article mentions. Our lousy definition of where the stereotype resides. In my head – or in my accusers’. Or both.

 2) It is deniable.

No one did it. It is the subject’s fault. Why didn’t he just ignore it? Why wasn’t he smart enough to recognise and stop it? It is a perfect launching pad for a good victim blaming (which is a misnomer, by the way) and the victim is rendered helpless with only himself to blame.

If it bothers you that you’re supposed to be the brave and the breadwinner, why didn’t you just ignore it? Who made you to get married and offer to be a breadwinner? See? You did it to yourself.You threw yourself at the robber, no one made you. So shut up. You totally had a choice, you were just too cowardly to make it.

The second best way for a stereotype to work: Enforcement

It is already too late when stereotypes have to be enforced. It has serious disadvantages:

 1) It requires the enforcer to put in some effort. 

It starts with unconscious, benevolent, or passive aggressive methods.

A woman doesn’t give birth by a certain age? Ask about it gently. Talk about how women (as such) are nurturing. See if she explodes. Demand an explanation. Tell her how much grandparents like grandchildren. A German fails to complete a task? Make a fuss. It makes him irritated? Feign surprise and tell him “don’t be so harsh”. You didn’t say anything, right? It is a benign stereotype, relax!

2) But it makes the pressure explicit – thus undeniable. 

As I said, had the researchers reminded the ladies taking the math test not to emasculate the gentlemen in the room – and there would be a good change of resistance.

Would the I’m-not-prejudiced-but types revel in the glorious test results of the pissed off women, who excelled at the test in defiance? Absolutely yes. It would be carried around on “right-wing” websites proving that no one is oppressed here. Defiance helps the oppressed to perform better.

Again, those tests measured self-enforcement, not explicit enforcement.

3) It is more risky, because it may trigger resistance.

Especially when it’s very aggressive.

Only a beginner (or a lynchmob) tries to enforce a stereotype by force

Public shaming or having to beat someone up carries the risk of resistance, and it costs you great effort. Also, others might disagree, if their indoctrination is not rock solid. Only a very stupid prejudiced person would resort to open enforcement.

Not to mention that if you burn someone at the stake, they won’t stay to sing your praise and won’t join your army of enforcers. They won’t even boost your headcount of silent obedience.

“But this is just profiling. And let’s face it, it comes from experience…”

The real question is not whether they are accurate. Not even whether they make themselves accurate by being self-fulfilling. The real question is how they work and whether they do anyone a favour. And when I say anyone, I mean any individual. Utilitarianism is a nasty business, and social utility is its best-marketed evil, but I don’t buy it.

Prejudices don’t deserve your protection. And they don’t protect you back.

People cherish and protect their beliefs – and react with various degree of violence, when they are challenged. Some are weirdly eager to protect the right to stereotype.

Sure, go ahead and reduce yourself to a statistical probability gleamed from past frequency – dubiously measured. I suspect the angle of this article stems from the domestic political hysteria in the US (as evidenced by the comments), where “the left” regards stereotypes purely as self-fulfilling projections and “the right” sees them as indispensable clutches to understanding this big, confusing world. Given the stupefying level of oversimplification inherent in partisan public debate, they also need to take sides on whether stereotypes are accurate (“right” say 100% yes, “left” says 100% no). So they came to believe that it is the real question. And finally, both squarely put the blame on one side only: the enforcers or the victims of stereotypes. Never both.

This way, the “left” are forced to argue that stereotypes are not even correct, and the “right” is resorting to all sorts of similarly inane reasoning to prove that they have an amendment somewhere that gives them the right to use them. So the accusation that stereotypes might be as self-fulfilling as they are useful hit home with the I’m-not-prejudiced-but “profilers”.

God forbid, if knowledge cannot be easily gleamed from people’s names, ethnicity, gender, race or other visible attributes, such as height, we may have to take risks and not act upon our received wisdom. Risk-taking is for pussies. We want our certainties, thank you very much.

These lines must be music to their ears:

Jussim and his co-authors have found that stereotypes accurately predict demographic criteria, academic achievement, personality and behaviour

So they are right about the unknown. It IS known.

I still think, however, that the real question here is not the truthfulness or accuracy of stereotypes, but people’s spectacular insistence to keep using them.

The psychological need to hold prejudices 

Whether they apply to any single individual or not, stereotypes are the safety blanket for people, who otherwise claim to be grown-up and courageous. They veil over the debilitating fear of the unknown and makes it look like loud, brave common sense. For the fearful it provides the illusion of knowledge, where there is none. It should be deemed more dangerous, not less so – if it wasn’t for its self-fulfilling potency. Stereotypes are negative. No one needs to be prepared for positive traits in others. So they give, after all, a false sense of security. Or insecurity. Or paranoia.

It must also be delightful to hear that in the presence of evidence, people tend not to apply the stereotypes.

people tend to switch off some of their stereotypes – especially the descriptive ones – when they interact with individuals. It appears that descriptive stereotypes are a crutch to lean on when we have no other information about a person.

I will go on and read the book they cite and sincerely hope that this statement is solid and the research replicable – and those semi-enlightened answers are not motivated by the participants’ desire not to look like a prejudiced ass – and to gain some credibility for next time. It’s all in the method. I get it.

Still, why bother with the stereotype, when saying “I don’t know yet” is perfectly accurate and actually more safe?

The irony

If you are your own man, it is nobody’s business whether you have changed your mind. But not if you’re a slave to others’ judgement.

People, who fight for their right (oppardon, freedom) to stereotype seem way too afraid to change their minds or admit that they don’t know something yet. It makes perfect sense if you know about their fear of the unknown and that their opinion doesn’t reside in them.It comes from and resides in their image in the minds of their peers.

For those, who live in their image changing their minds would require changing their image in all those other people’s minds. They cannot even say that they don’t know something yet, let alone that they were not 100% right all the time. As if others would think less of them.

In other words, they are aware and afraid of the (real or perceived) judgment of others. Dependent on their opinions. Oh wait…

And while I’m not in the business to judge any political group (more than the other), everyone please stop saying “left-wing” and “right-wing”. No one knows what you mean. It doesn’t help thinking, and if you cannot rephrase your statement to specify what you mean by those words, maybe you don’t have a thought to share. Just say “the other tribe” and I’ll know what I need to know.

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Image: Web by Inertia09


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