Predictable Identities: 4 – Stereotypes

This entry is part 4 of 27 in the series Predictable Identities

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.