Four things you need to know about stereotypes, and sausages

In my last post, we saw where unconscious biases come from, and their connection with stereotypes, which are beliefs about a group of people.

Here are four things you need to know about stereotypes, so that you can better understand their impact on the way you relate to yourself and to others.

  • They are misleading

Stereotypes maybe statistically wrong. For instance, often when people hear the word disability, they think of people on wheel-chairs, yet, wheel chairs users make up only two to three percent of all disabled people. Even when stereotypes are true most of the time, they will never be true all the time. Individuals are unique. I’m Brazilian and I don’t like football, yet most Brazilians love football.

  • They are difficult to get rid of

Stereotypes provide a sense of order and predictability that reassures us. That’s why once you have a stereotype about a certain category, you’ll filter information to confirm your association with them, and disregard information that contradicts them.  For instance, you believe the British are gentlemanlike, if you come across a rude British, you’ll tell yourself “This is not the typical British person” and your stereotype will remain intact. Even when you see a group of British hooligan on TV destroying a stadium.

  • They influence our self-image

Stereotypes don’t only influence the way you see others. You also internalise stereotypes about the categories you belong to. The historical “doll test” conducted by Dr. Kenneth Clark with black children is a good illustration of this. In his experiment, he asked black children to choose a doll to play with, and most of them chose a white doll, because they saw it as the “nice” doll, whereas the black doll was seen as “mean”. A Harvard’s global online research study, which included over 200,000 participants, showed that 76 percent of people, men and women, are gender biased. And tend to think of men as better suited for careers and women are better suited as homemakers. [i]

  •  Stereotypes versus generalizations

A generalization is an insight based on empirical evidence about a group of people. It’s a real distinctive behaviour in a group of people (not individuals). It’s a starting point, that can help you understand and adapt to people’s behaviours. For instance, “Teenagers tend to reject what their parents say” (generalization). Now that I have three teenagers at home, I can see this happening. Thanks to the generalization, I’m not surprised. I read about it. I even found out that this is a healthy sign. I don’t take it personally. A stereotype is an ending point, it’s when you apply beliefs about groups to every single group member, without questioning. “Karl is German, he must love eating sausages”. You invite Karl for dinner and you cook sausages. This is stereotyping.  “Karl is German. Germans eat lots of sausages”. You invite Karl for dinner and ask him “I was thinking of cooking sausages, how would you like that?” This is making good use of a generalisation. By the way, Karl is vegan…

In my next post, I’ll explore how biases influence our actions. Thanks for taking the time to read this one. Let me know what you think about it in the comments below!

This is an excerpt from one of the chapters of my upcoming book “How to become an inclusive leader – The winning leadership habits in a diverse world” (release in March 2017).

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[i] Tiffany Pham, Think you’re not biased against women at work? Read this, December 2016


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