Why stereotypes are bad even when they're 'good'
Negative stereotypes about women, black people, immigrants, etc are easy to spot. More pernicious are the positive ones
by Oliver Burkeman
When affirmative action and gay marriage are both dominating the headlines (on both sides of the Atlantic, in the case of gay marriage), you know that stereotypes posing as scholarship won't be far behind. And, right on cue, here's the University of Texas law professor Lino Graglia, an opponent of affirmative action, speculating about "cultures of failure" in black and Hispanic households. Is there any, you know, evidence for his argument?
He's fairly upfront about admitting that he doesn't know. It's a stereotype: that's how they work.
Liberal-minded types are good at spotting, and calling out, this kind of stereotype. But we're less good when it comes to "positive" stereotypes: the idea that black people are just naturally better at sports, say, or that women are more in touch with their emotions. These don't seem so pernicious, since their content, after all, is complimentary. But a fascinating new study led by Aaron Kay, a psychologist at Duke University (and brought to my attention via Eric Horowitz's ever-interesting blog Peer Reviewed By My Neurons), suggests they might be worse.
The study centered on fake articles purporting to show evidence for three of the most time-honoured stereotypes about black people: that they're less intelligent, more prone to violence, and better at sports. (None of the study participants were black themselves.) Unsurprisingly, being exposed to this phony "evidence" made people more likely to believe the stereotypes. But the surprise was in the differences between people exposed to the negative stereotypes and the positive one.
First, the article claiming to show superior athletic ability among black people was more likely to be unquestioningly accepted as true: it seemed to fly under people's stereotype-detecting radars. Second, the positive stereotype seemed more likely to lead people to believe that differences between blacks and whites were biological in origin.
And third: when asked to estimate the probability that a hypothetical series of people with typically African-American names might commit a crime, people exposed to the positive stereotype rated that possibility as higher than did those exposed to a negative one. The positive stereotype ("good at athletics") apparently led to stronger negative beliefs about black people than the negative one ("prone to violence"). Positive stereotypes, the researchers write, "may be uniquely capable at reinforcing cultural stereotypes and beliefs that people explicitly eschew as racist and harmful."
In light of all that, consider this week's much-commented-upon essay at the Atlantic by Emily Esfahani Smith, entitled "Let's Give Chivalry Another Chance". You could think of chivalry as resting on a sort of "positive moral stereotype": that women are especially deserving of kindness and respect. Critics call this benevolent sexism: sure, it involves being kind to people, but it still involves relating to those people primarily as members of a demographic category, not as individuals. Smith, apparently with approval, quotes American sociology's stereotype-promoter-in-chief, Charles Murray, mocking this notion. Some research, he points out, suggests that "gentlemanly behaviour" makes both men and women happier.
"When social scientists discover something that increases life satisfaction for both sexes," he writes, "shouldn't they at least consider the possibility that they have come across something that is positive? Healthy? Something that might even conceivably be grounded in the nature of Homo sapiens?"
There are quite a few possible rejoinders to this, but the study by Kay and his colleagues hints at one more. Were its findings to generalise to this area and they might not, of course you would expect this positive stereotype ("women are naturally more deserving of respect") to be associated with more negative stereotypical beliefs about women, too; and also with the idea that women are more enslaved to their biology than are men.
The problem with stereotypes isn't only their content. It's the stereotyping.
In short: stereotypes are bad! "It's a lesson we all learned in a fourth-grade assembly through an excruciatingly uncool performance by a collegiate theatre group," Horowitz writes. (We've all been there.) The part that's easy to forget is that they're bad even when perhaps especially when they're "good".http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/oliver-burkemans-blog/2012/dec/12/stereotypes-bad-even-when-good