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February 26, 2010 at 4:58 PMComments: 0 Faves: 1

Stereotype: The Latest Studies and Psychological Insights

By Erin Froehlich More Blogs by This Author

Despite a few outspoken individuals, the majority of people today are adamantly against stereotyping. Children are now raised in a world that emphasizes equality and equal opportunity. They are taught that anyone can do anything, that judging a person based on their physicality, clothes, skin color, age, gender - is wrong, and that it's the inside that counts. Large strides, from the world of just 50 years ago.

In fact, one year after the election of President Obama, polls show an unprecedented surge in optimism within the black culture. This year, 39% of blacks say African-Americans are better off now than they were five years ago, a 19% jump since 2007. Additionally, 53% of African-Americans say the future will be better for blacks (a 10% increase from 2007), while only 10% think the future will be worse (a 10% decrease since 2007).

Certainly, conditions have improved in terms of race relations, but will we ever see a world completely free of stereotypes? New studies say no: stereotyping is programmed into our brains from birth. Mahzarin Banaji, psychology professor at Yale University explains, "Our ability to categorize and evaluate is an important part of human intelligence. Without it, we couldn't survive."

With a focus on the study of stereotypes, Banaji agreed to be subjected to a test of her own design, meant to measure unconscious bias. Banaji, as a woman and member of an ethnic minority, has experienced firsthand the hurt of prejudice against her. Yet, her test exposed her own bias. "I showed very strong prejudices. It was truly a disconcerting experience." says Banaji.

Studies Reveal Name Bias

Studies being done now shine a completely new light on the area of stereotypes. It turns out the conscious aspects of stereotyping, the parts we are aware of, are only a part of the story. In the past, the only way to measure stereotyping and prejudice was to ask subjects for their input. The particular study Banaji took part in uses a computer screen which populates a series of names that are typically either culturally black or white, paired with either a positive or negative descriptor. The person being tested must press a button to indicate whether the descriptor is good or bad, and with so little time, they are unable to think deliberately. Their response is timed by the computer. Even among African-Americans, response to good words with a "white name" and bad words with a "black name" was faster. The same technique was used to measure bias against women, gays and the elderly.

Bias Against Your Own Group

This time at Harvard, researchers designed a study they claimed could reveal any bias you have, even down to the most minute details such as a preference for pants over skirts. In these tests, which measure "Implicit Association" similar to the previous study, pictures were flashed of white and black people, moms and career women, young and old, gays and straights, Christians and Muslims, all along with words that were either positive or negative. Test subjects were as diverse as the people pictured. Once again, they were given so little time they were unable to consciously think over the matter, and once again the study revealed biases that most of the subjects had no idea they had, and some even became defensive. What was really surprising, was once again, even the minorities being stereotyped seemed to hold the same prejudice against their own groups. For example, the elderly held a bias against other elderly people. It didn't matter how "liberal" or "progressive" a person was.

Prejudice in Children

Margo Monteith, Ph. D., has been doing her own studies on stereotyping in children and has found that at age five, children already have definite biases concerning blacks, women, and other minority groups. Says Montheith, "Children don't have a choice about accepting or rejecting these conceptions, since they're acquired well before they have the cognitive abilities or experiences to form their own beliefs."

Another study looked specifically at African-American children from first to sixth grade and coming from a variety of socioeconomic backgrounds. These results were alarming. Shown pictures of white people and black people at work, they believed those jobs with the white worker to be higher paying and more important than the jobs black people were pictured doing, even when they were doing the same job, or had careers that were made up. It was also found that by sixth grade, poor students already showed less interest in high status jobs such as a doctor or lawyer, which they saw as "white jobs."

Lynn S. Liben, professor of psychology and coauthor of this study weighs in, "It's troubling that children in our society take race as something that defines the status, importance, and pay of jobs". However, parents CAN do their part to change the sway of stereotyping on their children. By pointing out bias when they see it and explaining why it's incorrect, they might not remove the bias completely, but by training their children to identify bias and to view it for what it is, largely inaccurate - they'll lessen its effect on them.

An Evolutionary Understanding of Stereotypes

Scientists now believe that while we may strive to see people as colorless, sexless, and ageless, our brains are hardwired to stereotype. The traits we tend to think of as innately human are traits we have evolved with for one or both of these two reasons: because it kept us from dying OR because it helped us reproduce. So how does stereotyping help humans accomplish these goals?

For our ancestors, the social group you belonged to was everything. Other groups, in their own fight for survival, might kill a member from your group. Therefore, in terms of survival, those who were better at identifying common characteristics between friendly groups and unfriendly groups had a better chance at identifying those that may try to hurt them and surviving. On the other hand, stereotyping can be beneficial for reproduction as well. By stereotyping for the characteristics in the opposite sex that increase our chance of not only conceiving, but raising a healthy child into adulthood, we increase our chance of successful reproduction. However, when we fear or avoid someone based on learned bias today, in the majority of instances there is absolutely no reason for the action. Economists might call this "Opportunity Cost."

When we assume a good person is bad, we might lose the chance to make a friend. On the other hand, when we assume a bad person is good, we might lose the chance to live. In evolutionary terms, the potential harm that could come from open-mindedness was greater than the potential harm that could come from discerning too harshly.

Stereotypes in Today's World

Far from our days of dwelling in caves, our need to make snap judgments based on a person's appearance is certainly not the same today as it was then. John Bargh Pd. D., professor for NYU puts it this way, "Even if there is a kernel of truth in the stereotype, you're still applying a generalization about a group to an individual, which is always incorrect".

Yet, no matter how open-minded we try to be, stereotyping will always affect us to some extent. Jack Dovidio, a professor of psychology at Yale explains, "If I'm a white person talking to an African-American, I'm probably monitoring my conscious beliefs very carefully and making sure everything I say agrees with all the positive things I want to express. And I usually believe I'm pretty successful because I hear the right words coming out of my mouth."

However, he points out that it's not only verbal communication that's occurring. While talking, the listener is also picking up cues from our expression, our posture, how near or close we stand, the amount of eye contact we make, and more. Banaji speaks of the unavoidable affect of the media on stereotypes, the use of women as sex objects, the images of African-American criminals on the news: "This is knowledge we cannot escape, We didn't choose to know it, but it still affects our behavior."

Says Bargh about the challenge of overcoming our natural tendency to stereotype: "It's clear that the way to get rid of stereotypes is by the roots, by where they come from in the first place." Now, with our increased understanding of the way stereotypes work, we are better able to identify bias in ourselves and others and to work against it as best we can. Take a moment this weekend to reach out to someone you may have initially stereotyped - it may lead to a lifelong friendship!


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