The Danger of Stereotypes

By Masimba Biriwasha | Op-Ed | @ChiefKMasimba | January 07, 2014

Stereotypes are pictures in the head that behave in a funny, insidious, and paradoxical way.

They’re supposed to provide a shortcut to the way we understand the world and yet they can be thoroughly misleading. A stereotype is defined as “…a fixed, over generalized belief about a particular group or class of people.”

The term “stereotype,” coined in 1798 by the French printer Didot, originally referred to a printing process used to create reproductions.

Stereotypes are akin a pile-up of images of the world that we repeatedly produce in our heads. It’s easy to see why our minds turn to stereotypes.

The mind has a way to turn to signposts to get understanding. Given the loads of information that the mind, the mind relies on boxes of pre-packaged information. Whether we are conscious of it or not, we use stereotype to make sense of the world on a daily basis. Think of stereotype as old, worn out perceptions that are repeated over and over.

The problem is in believing stereotypes and letting them guide your actions and responses. Stereotypes provide a simplistic way to see the world.

Most of us believe stereotype without questioning. We pocket them and dish them out every time it is convenient to do so. Once activated, stereotypes can powerfully affect social perceptions and behavior. They make us lazy to engage our thinking capacity, our ability to see things without discoloration of pre-conceived notions.

The danger of stereotypes is that they block a first hand interaction with the world. Every interaction is filtered through categories that we’ll have formed in our heads.  In a way, stereotypes mask our humanity. Preconceptions and generalizations distort a clear view of the world around us.

“The immediate effects of stereotype activation fade after a few minutes, but regardless of their duration, each activation reinforces stereotypic thinking in the long run. Additionally, evidence suggests that once a stereotype is activated, it can be reactivated by something as simple as a disagreement with someone in the stereotyped group, and if brought to mind frequently enough, can become chronically accessible,” says Scott Plous in a paper titled, “The Psychology of Prejudice, Stereotyping and Discrimination: An Overview.”

I think if you allow stereotypes to sink deep into your psyche, you may find yourself missing out on life’s opportunities. Instead of depending on them to categorize the world, they should be challenged.

People, for instance, are simply more complex than the stereotypes that we create for them. Working through stereotype can be difficult but its worth the effort: it’s an ongoing effort.