Fighting Your Prejudices Could Make Them Worse

Fighting Your Prejudices Could Make Them Worse

We all have prejudices. Stereotypes are a necessary part of our psychological make-up and prejudices are an unfortunate side effect of these. However, we are sentient beings who should be able to rise above these prejudices, see them for what they are, and act in a fair and unbiased manner. Right? Weeeell… sooooort of.

Imagine you are interviewing people for a job and you have in front of you a skinhead man with tattoos and piercings in places you didn’t even know were potential sites for such things. You may well hold a stereotype in your head that tells you people who look like that are aggressive anti-establishment types, which isn’t what you really require for the running of the local Conservative council.

Hang on, you tell yourself, I must not be biased and judgemental. I must not pander to my thoughts that skinheads are aggressive. I must not think that. In the short term that may work and this one lucky skinhead may get a fair hearing. What you are doing, however, is reminding yourself of your prejudice. It is like trying not to think of an elephant. It makes you think of one (this is called ironic process theory). Trying not to think of skinheads as aggressive may actually bring to mind memories from TV or film or real life when you did see skinheads being aggressive. And bringing those images to mind strengthens the stereotype.

So fighting against your prejudice may have, perversely, made it worse.

The good news is that repeatedly, consciously countering the negative stereotype does appear to get rid of it eventually. Unfortunately, however, we hold so many stereotypes, there is no way we could even know what they all are, let alone combat them all.

Find out more about how the mind plays tricks on you and how your memory works by reading my books, Bias Beware and Memory Matters.

We act out our own stereotypes

We act out our own stereotypes

We cannot help acting out our own stereotypes. By this I mean, if we have a stereotype which applies to us, we are prone to conforming to that stereotype.

Priming is the means by which social psychologists, being extremely devious, awaken a schema in someone without their knowing it. It is like getting a thought going in the back of their mind that they are not aware of. Psychologists might do this by exposing the person to several related words. For instance, to awaken the old age schema people might be exposed to the words grey, wrinkles, walking stick and so on. These words are put in amongst plenty of irrelevant words to stop the participant catching on. The technique seems to do the trick (as seen, for example, by people who have had the old age schemata awakened walking more slowly than people who have not).

Shih, Pittinsky and Ambady decided to see if people would act more like stereotypes of themselves if they had those stereotype schemata awakened. In America there is a stereotype that women are not good at mathematics. There is also one that people of Asian descent are good at mathematics. So the experimenters took a bunch of Asian American women for their participants. One third did not have any schema awakened, one third were exposed to words concerned with ethnicity, and one third were exposed to words concerned with gender. They all then completed a mathematics test.

Those who had their ethnicity schema awakened did better than average at the test, and those who had their gender schema awakened did worse than average.

So, those who had their Asian schema subconsciously awakened conformed to the stereotype concerning Asians and did well; and those who had their female schema awakened conformed to the stereotype that women are not good at mathematics.

A replication of this experiment by Carolyn E. Gibson et al, in 2014 showed the same effect, and also showed that the effect did not materialise in women who were unaware of the stereotypes.

Find out more about how the mind plays tricks on you and how your memory works by reading my books, Bias Beware and Memory Matters.

We need stereotypes

We need stereotypes

A stereotype is a heuristic – a mental shortcut. We would need them to negotiate our way around a simple world, let alone the complicated one we find ourselves in now.
If you see a square-ish, flat surface with four legs holding it off the floor and a vertical surface rising from one side you are likely to deduce that it is a chair. It fits the various qualities you associate with chairs according to your chair-schema in your head. Imagine if every time you saw a chair you had to work out anew exactly what it was and what it was for. Now imagine you had to do that for every object you came across. Life would be unmanageable.
We need schemata to tell us what novel objects are likely to be, what they are for, and whether they are dangerous.
A stereotype is simply a schema, but we usually (not always) use the term stereotype when talking about schemata applied to types of people. For example, a man with lots of piercings and pink hair in a mohican style fits the stereotype of a punk. A man with a pin-striped suit, a bowler hat and an umbrella fits the stereotype of a London stockbroker who inadvertently stepped into a time warp.
In these days of tolerance (although that seems to me to be on the decline recently), people-based stereotypes appear to be less important because we copy styles from all over the world. Wearing a special tattoo no longer necessarily means you are from one particular Maori tribe – it may just mean you liked the design. Having a distinctive shade of skin no longer designates you as being from a particular part of the world any more, as more and more cities become more and more cosmopolitan.
Stereotypes persist, however, and can help us out occasionally. If you see a man with a balaclava and a shotgun, it is still best to follow your stereotype instincts and duck around the corner before he sees you.

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