Schansberg: We All Stereotype

December 15, 2022

by Eric Schansberg, Ph.D.

This year is the 100th anniversary of the term “stereotype” in its modern sense. The term was coined in the late-19th century to describe printing plates and the setting of “type” to produce printed materials. Back in the day, paper and ink were pressed against a plate to produce sheets for newspaper, books, fliers, etc.

The word was derived from the Greek for “firm or solid” (stereos) and “impression” (typos). So, the term was certainly appropriate for printing. But it was eventually absorbed into broader use as any image that was reproduced to represent an original. Then, in his 1922 book, Walter Lippmann tweaked the term into what has become its contemporary definition: the “solid impression” made by a group characteristic to our estimation of an individual or an individual situation.

So, for example, based on your experiences or your sense of the data, you might assume that a movie with a certain actress will be good; a big man is intimidating; or a person with glasses is smart. You’re stereotyping the individual by the groups to which they belong — whether the stores where they shop, the political or religious labels they claim, or the car they drive.

As you’ve probably noticed, this is a form of discrimination — because we “pre-judge” (i.e., engage in “prejudice”) for or against individuals, based on their group affiliations. The concept is universal; we all engage in what labor economists call “statistical discrimination.” Why? We’re making important decisions with limited information. Why do we rely on limited information? Because it is costly to obtain. Since we don’t have access to perfect, costless information, we use what we have easily available: what we know about the individual and stereotypes about the groups to which they belong.

The information we have about individuals may not be fully accurate, given miscommunication, our misperceptions, our limited history with them, etc. But the information about groups is clearly imperfect: It’s about a group of people with certain tendencies. The individual we’ve encountered in the group is likely to share the group’s characteristics, but it’s certainly not guaranteed. That said, the information is often better than nothing — and it’s inexpensive. This explains why all of us stereotype so often.

Let’s start with an innocuous example: You’ve been asked to obtain a 12-ounce can of green beans at the grocery and there are only two left on the shelf. Both are the same price. One has a dent; the other does not. Which do you choose — and why? Most people would choose the undented can because they’re worried about the can’s contents. Do you know that the dented can is a problem — or that the undented can is not a problem? No, but your sense of the probabilities is that the undented can is a safer way to get through dinner. So, you stereotype the cans and statistically discriminate in favor of the undented can.

Let’s think through two meatier applications. First, consider the power of “first impressions.” Why are they so important? Because we’re meeting people who have little information about us — and the first impression will necessarily carry a lot of weight, through direct knowledge of us and indirect information about the categories we represent.

Second, consider the job market. Prospective employees go through an application process. What are employers looking for? Your categories: job experience, education, references and so on. None of those are direct information about you; they’re signals about the sort of worker you’re likely to be.

Are you applying for a mid-level management position and you misspelled something in your cover letter? Good luck to you. It doesn’t mean you’re a bad person or a lousy worker, but you’re sending a signal that you don’t care enough to proof-read carefully and you’ve put yourself in a rough category.

And then there’s the interview. How did you dress? How was your handshake? Were you personable? Were you quick on your feet? With relatively limited information — much of it based on stereotypes — they’ll decide whether to hire you or not.

You might be thinking “this isn’t fair.” Perhaps, but it’s reality — and how all of us make decisions. If your last four occasions with x have been pleasant or unpleasant, won’t this impact what you expect on the fifth occasion?

How do we avoid the pitfalls of this concept? Unlike the term stereotype which implies a “firm or solid impression,” we should hold our stereotypes as lightly as possible — and be open to new (low-cost) information as it becomes available. Acknowledge your stereotyping and look to get better information.

D. Eric Schansberg, Ph.D., is an adjunct scholar of the Indiana Policy Review Foundation and professor of economics at Indiana University Southeast.


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