By Catherine A. Sanderson, Amherst College
Much of the research on stereotypes has focused on the detrimental effects of holding negative beliefs about members of a certain group. But in some cases, these over-generalized beliefs actually attribute positive characteristics—women are more nurturing, Asians are smarter, blacks are really athletic, and so on. Unfortunately, even these positive stereotypes can lead to negative consequences.
The Negative Outcomes of Positive Stereotypes
Firstly, people rely on the same cognitive shortcut of making assumptions about someone based on their group membership. This is why people who overhear someone use a positive stereotype about members of a particular group also tend to believe that person also holds negative stereotypes about members of that same group.
Positive stereotypes can also be used to justify systemic problems in society. A stereotype that women are more nurturing, for example, can also lead to a belief that women are less suited to serve as CEOs or senators, or police chiefs. Positive stereotypes can also place intense and unwanted pressure on individual members of particular groups. As Frank Wu, an Asian-American lawyer and author, wrote in his book Yellow: Race in America Beyond Black and White: “I am an Asian American, but I am not good with computers. I cannot balance my checkbook, much less perform calculus in my head. I would like to fail in school for no reason other than to cast off my freakish alter ego of geek and nerd … I yearn to be an artist, an athlete, a rebel, and, above all, an ordinary person.”
There is good news about how we can overcome using stereotypes. One approach is to introduce people to counter-stereotypical examples, which can help correct inaccurate assumptions.
Someone who believes that women are too emotional to serve as leaders might shift their perception after seeing a woman serve effectively as a governor, senator, or president of the United States. This is one reason why high-profile people can shift such beliefs, such as when a professional athlete announces he’s gay.
But it’s not as simple as providing counter-examples because we also tend to find ways to disregard these examples and cling to our pre-existing beliefs. How? We move people who disconfirm our stereotypes into a special subtype or category in our minds, saying, in effect, “Well, most gay men aren’t very athletic” or “Most aerobics instructors aren’t very smart”. This process of subtyping allows the overall stereotype to remain unchanged.
This article comes directly from content in the video series Introduction to Psychology. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Increased Contact Works Wonders
So, what does work? First, increasing contact between members of different groups can go a long way toward reducing the reliance on stereotypes. A study published in 2020 provides a powerful demonstration of how increased contact with members of other racial groups during medical school can help reduce doctors’ racial bias and potentially even save lives.
Researchers in this study followed over 3,000 people during their six years of medical school and residency training. Most of the participants, 70%, were white. Black students were specifically not included.
Students were surveyed about their racial attitudes, using both implicit and explicit measures, and asked to rate how favorable their interactions were with black medical students, faculty, and doctors. They were also asked how many hours received of diversity training, which spanned a very wide range. And the best predictor of attitudes toward black people was how much positive contact they had had with black people before and during medical school. What didn’t matter at all? Amount of diversity training they had received.
Increasing contact between members of different groups is especially effective at reducing stereotypes if people work together in the pursuit of some type of shared goal. This shared focus brings people together and probably increases the incentive to get to know group members as individuals. This is one reason why people on athletic teams often form cross-race friendships; they are highly motivated to get to know all team members as individuals in order to work together effectively because they want to win.
Climbing into Another’s Skin
Another strategy that helps reduce stereotypes—developing empathy, trying to see the world through another person’s eyes. As the character Atticus Finch says in To Kill a Mockingbird, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view … until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”
College students who are asked to write about a day in the life of an elderly man from his perspective later show less negative stereotypical views about aging. Increasing empathy also helps reduce aggression, which is why many bullying prevention programs try to develop children’s ability to put themselves in someone else’s shoes, with hopes that will lead them to speak up if they witness bullying later on.
How Empathy Helps
One very simple study found that even a 10-minute conversation that helps people develop empathy can reduce prejudice towards people who are transgender, meaning a person who identifies their own sex as different than the one assigned at birth. Researchers sent canvassers to knock on the doors of people and asked them to have a 10-minute conversation. Half of the people talked about being transgender; the other half talked about recycling.
The canvassers asked people to think about their own personal experiences with others judging them or showing prejudice and to then think about how that experience relates to the experience of transgender people. This type of active perspective-taking led to a substantial decrease in transphobia, as measured by degree of positive feelings towards transgender people, that lasted for at least three months.
Common Questions about the Consequences of Positive Stereotypes and How to Overcome Them
Positive stereotypes show others that the person who believes them also believes in negative stereotypes. Positive stereotypes also put unwanted pressure on people that can’t live up to them. They also lead to other unwanted consequences like believing women are kinder, which can make someone believe they’re not suitable to be a senator.
Both negative and positive stereotypes can be countered with counter-examples. For example, a female senator doing her job well is a counter-example of the belief that women can’t make good senators. Another way to deal with stereotypes is by increasing contact with the group a stereotype is associated with.
To counter stereotypes, an effective method is to try to view the world from that person’s perspective. This can help people empathize with others and avoid believing in stereotypes, whether they are positive stereotypes or negative.