Predictable Identities: 4 – Stereotypes

How do we predict strangers?

Humans evolved in an environment where they rarely had to do this. Practically everyone a prehistoric human met was familiar and could be modeled individually based on their past interactions. But today, we deal with ever-stranger strangers on big city streets, in global markets, online…

We need to make quick predictions about people we’ve never met. We do it using stereotypes.

Early research on stereotypes focused on their affective aspect: we dislike strangers, but less so as we get to know them. But new studies have looked at the content of stereotypes, finding that groups are judged independently on the dimensions of warmth/competitiveness and status/competence. For example, Germans see Italians as high-warmth low-competence, i.e. lovable buffoons; Italians see Germans as the exact opposite, i.e. mercenary experts.

These dimensions are primarily about predicting someone’s behavior and capability. In game theory terms: Will that person cooperate? And can I safely defect on them or do I have to play nice?

Contrary to the well-meaning wishes of most stereotype researchers, there is robust empirical evidence on stereotype accuracy. The short of it is that people’s stereotypes are, in fact, quite accurate, especially stereotypes of gender and ethnicity. Whether stereotyping is good or bad, it cannot simply be wished “educated” away. It is universal because it’s very useful for prediction.

A smart person noted that problems arise from having too few stereotypes, not too many. If you have a single stereotype for “Jews” you’re doing a bad job of modeling Jewish people, and are likelier to mistreat them due to prejudice. If you have separate stereotypes for Hasidic Jews, Brooklyn conservative Zionists, liberal Jewish atheists, secular Israelis etc. you’re one step closer to treating (and modeling) unfamiliar Jews as individuals. Studying cultures is about acquiring many useful stereotypes.

Series Navigation<< Predictable Identities: 3 – Prisoner’s DilemmaPredictable Identities: 5 – Outgroup Homogeneity >>

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About Jacob Falkovich

Jacob is so proud of his blog,, that it's on his online dating profiles. He also tweets @yashkaf.


  1. One of the distinctions I like to make is a three-way one among prototypes, archetypes, and stereotypes.

    Prototypes are paradigmatic early successful examples of a class that trigger mimetic processes in adjacent instances that result in stereotypical behaviors. These in turn go on to suggest archetypes via inductive generalization into cultural tropes. Girard’s mimesis theories are relevant here.

    The thing about stereotypes is that the stereotype threat is real, and the dark side is that you may be predictable under the influence of a coercive process. In honor societies this is often explicitly enforced (“do not bring dishonor upon the family!”).

    So when I encounter a stereotype, I usually try to do two things: trace it back to the historical prototypes (with Jewish people, perhaps medieval European bankers?) that inspired the stereotype in one direction, and “out” of time to the inductively generalized archetypes. With Jewish people, perhaps the tropey archetypes of fiction exemplified both by actual Jews like Shylock (though Shakespeare does some subtle humanization) and figures like Doctor Zoidberg in Futurama and the Ferengi in Star Trek.

    Archetypes, interestingly, tend to display some convergent evolution. So there are common elements to the Jewish, Arabic, Gujarati, and Japanese urban-trader-financier archetype.

    In terms of predictability, the person is some mix of mask and territory. The mask part is partly conforming to both prototypical and archetypal features. The territory part is the “mask failure” glitches which reveal whether it is a voluntary or coerced conforming, and how harmoniously the territory fits the map.

    On a Simpsons’ episode, Milhouse once says, “I’m not the smart kind of nerd” or something.

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