Don't Be Afraid to Stereotype Strangers

By Ross Pomeroy

"Stereotyping is a bad word in our culture," writes Daniel Kahneman, "but in my usage it is neutral."

Most of us probably consider stereotyping to be akin to misrepresentation. When we do it, we brand a group in an oversimplified, politically incorrect fashion. But in his book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, Kahneman, an eminent psychologist and the winner of the 2002 Nobel Prize in Economics, describes stereotyping as a more rudimentary, cognitive-based notion.

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At its most elemental, stereotyping is simply a way to efficiently categorize information so that it is more easily identified, recalled, predicted, and reacted to. It's an ingrained function of our brains that frees up processing power and cuts down on the sheer quantity of data that we take in each and every day.

"Stereotyping is a way of processing information," Dr. Pamela Rutledge, director of the Media Psychology Research Center, says. "It's a way to take something that's not familiar and put it in your brain next to something that makes sense."

For simplistic and evidence-based assessments, stereotyping is quite beneficial. Take this example (adapted from Kahneman's book): "If there were two cab companies in a city -- Green and Blue, both with an equal number of cabs -- and you were told that Green cabs are involved in 85% of cab accidents, which company would you choose to ride with? You'd obviously choose Blue, and, additionally, you'd almost certainly reach a conclusion that Green drivers must be a 'collection of reckless madmen.'"

"You have now formed a stereotype of Green recklessness, which you apply to unknown individual drivers in the company," Kahneman writes.

Is this wrong? My guess is that most people would say "no," as the stereotype is grounded in evidence. 

But, when stereotyping moves into the broader sociocultural arena, it's oft considered entirely unfavorable, and is almost synonymous with discrimination or racism. For the sake of political correctness, we're regularly urged to suppress our urge to stereotype, thus consciously forcing ourselves to ignore the brain's built-in efficiency mechanism for decision-making.

In many circumstances, this makes sense. People are incredibly complex and simply cannot be categorized into one group or pigeonholed under a single, overarching label, even though instincts often compel us to do so. That's why we've passed laws outlawing racial profiling. For example, when an individual is applying for a job, he or she shouldn't be judged based upon the collective stereotype of the wider group to which he or she belongs.

"The social norm against stereotyping, including the opposition to profiling, has been highly beneficial in creating a more civilized and more equal society," Kahneman contends. "It is useful to remember, however, that neglecting valid stereotypes inevitably results in suboptimal judgements."

While some stereotypes -- especially ones that describe very large social groups -- are overly generalized and incorrect, many others are accurate and steeped in verifiable statistics. Indeed, some cultural stereotypes may actually be more valid than most hypotheses stemming from the social sciences; so ignoring them may not necessarily be in the individual's best interest.

For example, when in a large metropolis, venturing through a neighborhood of lower socioeconomic status, some people might feel slightly on edge, more watchful, and even anxious because they stereotype the location as dangerous. Politically correct social norms stigmatize this response. Moreover, if that person were to admit such feelings in a social context, he or she may be accused of sporting deep-seated prejudice and ostracized for it. But crime is probably higher in that area, so it makes sense to be extra vigilant. Stereotyping, in this case, was evidence-based, beneficial, and harmless.

As Daniel Kahneman writes, disregarding stereotypes, in some cases, is tantamount to ignoring evidence. 

"Resistance to stereotyping is a laudable moral position, but the simplistic idea that the resistance is costless is wrong. The costs are worth paying to achieve a better society, but denying that the costs exist, while satisfying to the soul and politically correct, is not scientifically defensible."

Make no mistake, acting on pernicious stereotypes at the expense of others -- especially when they're false -- is wrong. But to stereotype all stereotypes as inherently immoral, well, that's just as erroneous as proclaiming that all women are poor drivers, that all French people imbibe wine by the gallon, or that all English people have bad teeth.

(Image: Stereotypical Frenchman via Shutterstock)

Ross Pomeroy is the assistant editor of RealClearScience. Follow him on Twitter @SteRoPo.