Stereotyping isn’t sinister in nature, experts say

Katherine Klingseis

Stereotypes can change, but the act of stereotyping will not go away, experts said.

The negative results of stereotyping are often discussed in the media and in everyday conversation regarding a wide range of topics. Recently, some have said that racial stereotyping was involved in the death of Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old African-American man killed by a neighborhood watch volunteer. Although often associated with negative results, like in the Martin case, the act of stereotyping is not sinister in nature, psychology professors at Iowa State said.

“In some sense, stereotypes are generalizations about a category of something based on what is typical or most common,” said Zlatan Krizan, assistant professor of psychology. “Stereotypes are useful in general because they help us generalize about things that we experience. If we didn’t, it would take a lot of work to learn everything anew.”

Krizan said people stereotype both living and non-living components of the world. He said people do this to make sense of the world. He explained that if stereotyping did not exist, a person would approach every object as if it were entirely new to them. The person would have to learn everything about the object regardless of whether the person had contact with the object several times before.

“We have stereotypes about chairs — they can have four legs, but they don’t have to,” Krizan said. “Once I get a sense of what a chair is, I can deal with chairs more effectively.”

Essentially, stereotyping allows humans to store a bank of previously learned knowledge in their minds. When approaching an object, a person can pull out some of that stored knowledge and categorize the object based on that knowledge.

“As we experience something, we gradually accumulate those experiences and that helps us to develop a notion or a sense of what something typically looks like or how something typically behaves,” Krizan said.

For instance, early humans used the act of stereotyping in order to learn about and later avoid dangerous animals and plants. If a person discovered an unknown berry, ate it and became sick, that person would store that knowledge, categorizing that berry as dangerous. If that person approached a similar-looking berry later, he or she would use that stored knowledge to categorize that berry as dangerous and avoid it, preventing that person from becoming ill again.

Stephanie Madon, associate professor of psychology, said humans categorize objects and people in similar ways. She explained that humans categorize objects and other people based on previously learned knowledge and then make generalizations based on that categorization. Madon said this process is fundamental to how people live their everyday lives.

“If we didn’t categorize and generalize from that categorization, we honestly could have never learned from prior experience,” Madon said. “We would walk through the world like never having known what anything was.”

Krizan said negative results of stereotyping occur when people have uninformed and incorrect opinions about other people. He explained that when people are introduced to other people, they deliver their characteristics, such as ethnicity, sexual orientation and age, like a package.

“That package that we experience for the first time is going to leave a big impression on us and is going to sort of create an expectation that we have about how those people … typically look or behave or act,” Krizan said. “The problem becomes that we may be exposed to a very biased subsample of that group.”

Krizan said another problem with stereotypes is that when people stereotype others, they typically focus on the differences between groups, not between people. For instance, he explained how some people assume that all women are more caring than men.

“We sometimes tend to focus too much on the differences in average, and then we make the mistake of assuming that all women are more caring than all men,” Krizan said. “And that’s not true.”

One way to reduce the likelihood of incorrect, overexaggerated stereotypes is to meet more individuals from different groups, Krizan said.

“When you are exposed to a lot of different people, you’re not going to have a very biased or extreme view about a certain social group because you’re going to realize that in every social group, you’ll have people who are mean, people who are nice, people who are caring, people who are criminals, people who are saints,” Krizan said.

“The more varied your experience, the more different individuals you see from a certain social group, the more you’ll appreciate how those people are different, that they’re not all the same, that they don’t fit a single stereotype.”