Friday, September 14, 2018

Why We Stereotype?

It is a truth universally accepted that stereotyping people is bad. We all know, and we had best believe it, that we should judge each individual as an individual. We should not elevate or diminish our opinion of any person because he belongs to this or that class of people.

In the war against bigotry, we have been told that only bigots stereotype other people. The rest of us see unique individuals and judge them by their individuality.

This article of faith is so pervasive that we never ask ourselves the most obvious question. Who has the time and the energy to judge each individual as an individual? No one. If you reject the mental shorthand of stereotyping you would never get anything done. It takes time and energy to get to know any individual as an individual. It is an inefficient and wasteful process, one that, effectively fails the brain function test. The human mind stereotypes because it is the only way to make  your way in the world.

I mention that a distinguished philosopher Hilary Putnam has also argued that we always stereotype. After all, you cannot judge every apple you pick up as a unique individual object… even though, truth be told, it is. Since the apple has many characteristics in common with other members of the same type, we normally judge it accordingly and do not treat it like a baseball.

Psychologist Noam Shpancer addresses the issue in The Atlantic. He opens with a good presentation of the case against stereotyping.

Stereotypes have a bad reputation, and for good reasons. Decades of research have shown that stereotypes can facilitate intergroup hostility and give rise to toxic prejudices around sex, race, age and multiple other social distinctions. Stereotypes are often used to justify injustice, validate oppression, enable exploitation, rationalize violence, and shield corrupt power structures. Stereotype-based expectations and interpretations routinely derail intimate relationships, contaminate laws (and their enforcement), poison social commerce, and stymie individual achievement.

For example, research has shown how individual performance may be affected adversely by heightened awareness of negative group stereotypes, a phenomenon known as ‘stereotype threat.’ If I show up for a pickup basketball game, and I know that all the young players around me hold a negative stereotype about the athleticism of middle-aged Jewish guys, the knowledge that I’m being thus judged will affect adversely my confidence and concentration, and with that my overall performance on the court (thus perpetuating the stereotype).

A good presentation, which renders the argument nonsensical. In fact, the stereotype is a correct characterization of his ability to play basketball. As for the psychological effect of negative stereotyping, a side of self-esteem theory, if you believe that the only reason why he’s bad at basketball is because the negative stereotype affects his confidence and concentration, you are living in an unreal world.

True enough, stereotyping can have baneful side-effects. Shpancer explains:

... stuffing complex human beings into categories at once too broad and too narrow and using those to justify all manner of unfair and vicious conduct.

And yet, stereotyping gives us one more thing to complain about:

Looking inward, most of us resent it when our deeply felt complexity is denied; when we are judged by those who don’t know us well; when we and robbed of our uniqueness, our genetic, biographical, psychological one of a kindness. We want our story to be the fully fleshed narrative, nuanced and rich and singular as we feel ourselves to be, as we actually are. Judge me solely by my external group resemblances, by how others who share some of my features have behaved, or by any measure that does not require actual knowledge of me, and you are doing me some injustice.

The problem is, stereotypes are often accurate:

The fact that stereotypes are often harmful also does not mean that they are often inaccurate. In fact, quite shockingly to many, that prevailing twofold sentiment, which sees stereotypical thinking as faulty cognition and stereotypes themselves as patently inaccurate, is itself wrong on both counts.

More than that,you cannot make good decisions, or survive, if you fail to stereotype different beings and different situations.

... the ability to stereotype is often essential for efficient decision-making, which facilitates survival. As Yale psychologist Paul Bloom has noted, “you don’t ask a toddler for directions, you don’t ask a very old person to help you move a sofa, and that’s because you stereotype.”

Our evolutionary ancestors were often called to act fast, on partial information from a small sample, in novel or risky situations. Under those conditions, the ability to form a better-than-chance prediction is an advantage.

Obviously, if you meet a bear in the woods your ability to understand the characteristics of bears very quickly will serve you well.

Of course, stereotyping can also be abused:

Our brain constructs general categories, from which it derives predictions about category-relevant specific, and novel, situations. That trick has served us well enough to be selected into our brain’s basic repertoire. Wherever humans live, so do stereotypes. The impulse to stereotype is not a cultural innovation, like couture, but a species-wide adaptation, like color vision. Everyone does it. The powerful use stereotypes to enshrine and perpetuate their power, and the powerless use stereotypes just as much when seeking to defend or rebel against the powerful.

Psychologist Paul Bloom offers a justification for generalizing from specifics:

Our ability to stereotype people is not some sort of arbitrary quirk of the mind, but rather it’s a specific instance of a more general process, which is that we have experience with things and people in the world that fall into categories and we could use our experience to make generalizations of novel instances of these categories. So everyone here has a lot of experience with chairs and apples and dogs, and based on this, you could see these unfamiliar examples and you could guess — you could sit on the chair, you could eat the apple, the dog will bark.

Sad to say, Shpancer notes, most stereotypes are accurate. Underscore that: accurate. We are disinclined to traffic in inaccurate stereotypes because that would make our decision-making inefficient. And it would make it more difficult to survive.

If, as Malcolm Gladwell argues in his book Blink, we make split-second decisions about people on the basis of a quick glance at their appearance, their comportment, their demeanor, even their looks… then stereotyping is a normal way we judge people. Obviously, a first glance can be wrong. If we want to get to know a person we ought to put our first impression to the test. But, if a first glance is accurate more often than not, it will save us a considerable amount of time and effort. Of course, it might lead us astray, cause us to trust someone who turns out to be perfidious or cause us to reject someone who turns out to be responsible. Life is not perfect. The human mind is not perfect. It leans toward economy, as in, allowing us to economize our investments in people.

Most importantly, it leans toward efficient decision making and away from the extraordinary waste of time and energy that we would expend if we judged each individual and a unique and self-contained individual.


whitney said...

Bad think. He's facing exile

Sam L. said...

Stereotyping is a focusing on the "most-likely". From there, it takes work to determine the accuracy/inaccuracy of the stereotype.

Ignatius Acton Chesterton OCD said...

The people most against stereotypes are the most guilty... they just pick and choose which stereotypes are bad and which ones are acceptable (or even desirable).

Ares Olympus said...

Stuart: Most importantly, it leans toward efficient decision making and away from the extraordinary waste of time and energy that we would expend if we judged each individual and a unique and self-contained individual.

I read an interesting opinion recently on the subject of systemic bias. Basically things like police focusing their attention in high poverty areas is "efficient" because that's where the criminals are, but it also means things like poor people are more likely to be prosecuted for marajuana use than affluent users. And it also means we can lower our expectations for kids in inner city schools, and since we know many kids have been poorly parented, its not worth spending more money there. So stereotyping can be both ACCURATE and UNFAIR, since it ends up treating people differently and punishing people for their circumstances and averages than their individual behavior or potential.

So basically the argument was that stereotyping is unavoidable, and disadvantage exists because of it, but that social institutions (including police) shouldn't look as efficiency as their standard, but need a higher standard of treating everyone as an individual, and self-monitoring against bias. And training also matters, so police officers with diversity training do score higher on minimizing their personal biases and getting past our "fast thinking" mind of Kahneman that lies to us because its easier.