Friday, April 16, 2010

In Defense of Stereotypes

In these days, outside of the context of jokes, there seems to be much public aversion to stereotypes of all sorts. There also is a great deal of misunderstanding about generalizations. The common aversion to stereotypes and the reflexive inclination to apply needless disclaimers to generalizations seem to be related issues that stem from a fundamental misconception about how the world works and about how the human brain functions.

A stereotype is, "a commonly held public belief about specific social groups, or types of individuals." Definitionally, a stereotype is more generally accepted than a mere generalization. Apart from that, all of the standard limitations that apply to generalizations also apply to stereotypes. Namely, that there are always exceptions, and that the strength of a stereotype is determined by how consistently it correlates with reality.

Generalizing is a necessary and useful component of human thought. It is what enables us to contemplate the world, and it is what differentiates human thought from computer processing. Computers process information on the basis of established and invariable rules. Because of this, computers are very effective at processing information that requires linear processing or computation. Computers excel at adding number, performing queries, retrieving data and manipulating information sets. However, computers are generally quite weak at pattern recognition. Pattern recognition is something that humans excel at, precisely because we generalize.

If you show a person three different bowls, they are able to easily internalize the concept of what constitutes a "bowl." From that point on, if you present that person with any sort of bowl, regardless of color or shape, they will consistently be able to recognize the object presented as a bowl, even if they have never been told that the object specifically presented is a bowl. Likewise, suppose a person is presented with a lemon, a lime and a orange and taught that all of these fruits are citrus fruits. When you present the person with an apple, they will correctly deduce that it is not a citrus fruit. When you present the person with a grapefruit, they will note the vast array of similarities to the other citrus fruits and correctly categorize it as a citrus fruit. This cognitive pattern recognition is intimately tied to the human capacity to generalize.

In fact, all human critical thinking skills rely upon the cognitive ability to generalize. Generalization is used in problem-solving, in object-identification, in answering questions, in envisioning new approaches, in creating new things and in developing heuristics. In interacting with the world, we interact with objects, people and challenges by using generalizations. Proper cognitive processing is a necessary prerequisite to performing proper actions.

If we threw away mental generalizations, then we would be unable to function in our world. For example, let us suppose that I learned to program on my computer at home. When I go to work and am given a workstation and told to program an application, I would be unable to do it if I assumed that this strange box in front of me was entirely dissimiliar from my computer at home. I would be unable to program if I assumed that different computers require utterly different types of programming. If I threw out all generalizations, then I would have to re-teach myself everything from the ground up, since I would assume that all my previous knowledge only applies to the highly limited set of conditions under which it was learned. It is quite impossible to function in the real world without generalizing.

Similarly, a stereotype about a specific social group is simply a commonly held generalization about how individuals in such a group appear, act or think. There are many possible examples of stereotypes. Women are short. Blacks have dark skin. Corporate executives are highly-paid. Young men drive fast. As with any generalization, a stereotype may be strong or weak. A stereotype that is nearly always true is a strong stereotype, and therefore is more useful than a weaker stereotype. A stereotype itself is simply a statement that describes how things appear. Also, it is important to note that there is nothing intrinsically judgmental about using a stereotype. If I say that women are short, my statement may be valid or invalid, but it casts no judgment on the fact. I haven't said whether it is good or bad for women to be short. The only legitimate question is whether my stereotype accurate reflects reality.

Now, usage of a stereotype may depict an unpleasant truth. If I say that lawyers are greedy, the proper question is not whether I am judging lawyers but whether or not my statement is generally true. If I say that women are romantically irrational, it is of no use to jump all over me for stating such a thing. The proper question to ask is simply what precisely I mean, and whether or not my observation is generally true. If the stereotype matches reality, then my statement is true, regardless of the implications of such a truth.

Unfortunately, some people have a relexive aversion to all stereotypes. They are more than happy to dismiss any unpleasant truths simply because they are stated as a generalization or because they express a stereotype. This is an cognitive error. Last week, in response to a statement I made about men and women, someone responded:

Saying that all men are goal-oriented and all women are relationship-oriented is a gross generalization that can't be taken seriously. Haven't we been over this before?
That something is a generalization or even a "gross generalization" has no bearing on its veracity. The question is not whether stating that men are goal-oriented is a generalization or not--of course it is! The question is whether or not it matches reality. If it matches reality, then it is an accurate generalization. If it is commonly held and correct, then it is an accurate stereotype. This vital distinction is lost on those who emotionally react to all generalizations and stereotypes.

Just as generalizations are necessary for accomplishing tasks and interacting with the world, stereotypes are necessary for guiding personal interactions. By categorizing people and create mental depictions of those categories, we are able to develop useful heuristics for how to deal with various sorts of people. One should interact with women differently than one interacts with men. One should interact with friends differently than one interacts with teachers. One should interact differently with strangers than with family members. One should treat lawyers differently than firemen. This is common sense. Common sense declares that stereotypes are a very useful way to establish a metnal framework for relating to any new person.

To throw out stereotypes when dealing with people is as dangerous as throwing out generalizations when approaching tasks. If I meet a new girl and I assume that she is entirely different from any other person I have ever met before, then I will be absolutely clueless as to how to treat her. If I throw out all assumptions then I cannot even assume she speaks the same language as I do, nor that she gets hungry and eats food, nor that she is even a human being. Instead, in order to relate to her at all, I must assume that she is mostly similar to other American girls her age. Though there certainly will be some differences, the differences will be fairly minor and the applicability of stereotypes will be nearly comprehensive. 11 Minutes has written an insightful series on this very topic. He persuasively argues that no-one is as unique as they think they are.

Therefore, it is evident that stereotypes are useful and necessary for informing social interaction and social analysis both on the personal and cultural levels. To reject stereotypes simply because they are stereotypes is to commit an error in logic that will consistently lead to poor ways of interacting or, in rare cases, an ignorance-based passivity. There is no intrinsic danger in the use of generalizations and stereotypes. There is great danger in whimsically or categorically rejecting them.

If there is one danger related to stereotypes, it is the error of inaccurate stereotypes. If a stereotype does not generally correlate with reality, then it is a commonly held misconception. Misconceptions are dangerous since they constitute a distorted view of reality. The danger of inaccurate stereotypes, then, is not that they are stereotypes; the danger of inaccurate stereotypes is that they are inaccurate. The danger of inaccuracy is a large one, and one which serves as the basis for nearly all fundamental worldview differences. Inaccurate views of the facts is what causes the divide between Catholics and Protestants, feminists and traditionalists, conservatives and progressives, capitalists and socialists and nearly any other ideological schism you can recall. People fundamentally disagree over what is observed. When such disagreements occur, at least one of the views must be incorrect. The danger of inaccuracy is an epistemological issue and is by no means limited to the confines of stereotypes.

We are left with the conclusion that stereotypes and generalizations are both useful and necessary for thinking about our world. They are useful and necessary for interacting with people, solving problems, dealing with new situations, advocating social change, and encouraging people to be true to their natures. The sole danger in stereotyping or generalizing is simply that they may be inaccurate. Since this is a danger that inescapably applies to all of life and perception, it is not a danger unique to generalizing, and therefore is by no means a reason to oppose the usage of stereotypes. On this basis, the only rational and reasonable recourse is for stereotypes and generalizations to be readily stated and utilized for the purposes of understanding, discussing and relating to social groups. The common modern aversion to stereotypes and the reflexive desire to add excessive disclaimers is irrational, unreasonable and actively harmful, since it inhibits frank discussions and the quest for truth.


  1. Another home run, Silas; my childhood best friend and I hashed this out extensively one time and essentially came to the same conclusions as you. The only thing I would add to your quite-obvious-but-non-PC perspective is that not only are stereotypes useful and indeed necessary, but almost all of them are actually grounded in truth. The human mind is great at detecting patterns, after all, and it wouldn't form a given stereotype if there weren't some good raw material there.

  2. The problem lies with assuming that a 5% probability of someone's group being a criminal with a 100% certainty that the person in front of them is a criminal. This conflation ties in with Samson's point.

    People are good at detecting patterns, but that's because they make many false positives. In a world full of predators, mistaking shadows for wolves half the time kept you alive. Skepticism made you dead. In comparison, if the world had more poisonous plants then we would've turned out differently. Someone who mistook shiny leaves for edible veggies ended up dead.

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