Post No.: 0758
Our intuitions are frequently based on crude cognitive shortcuts like how easily we can think of or remember an example of something. If instances of something come readily to mind then we’ll presume it to be commonplace, or more commonplace than it statistically is (e.g. train crashes). And if many instances of something come readily to mind then we’ll presume this to always be the case (e.g. assuming that an attractive 6ft tall woman must be a model rather than a scientist, which is an error in inductive reasoning). We’ll presume that a representative sample (prototype or stereotype) reflects the wider population. We’ll judge the frequency or likelihood of an event by the extent to which it resembles the typical case.
A baby who has been conditioned to fear a white rat will over-generalise and end up also fearing bunnies and Santa Claus with his white beard (the poor Little Albert experiment). Now heuristics or rules-of-thumb, like forming stereotypes, do make sense – when we know nothing else, no better specific details, then they can guide us towards the most likely conclusions. But that’s based on our own potentially incredibly limited knowledge of the world.
Clichés and stereotypes, if accurate, can give us a clue about the prior odds of something being true when we have no other information about a particular individual case to base our guesses on (e.g. we see a silhouette of what looks like a human wearing a skirt and, based on the prior odds, we can guess that this person is most likely going to be a woman). But hardly all clichés or stereotypes are accurate.
For instance, when we talk about bees, we tend to mean European honeybees even though there are >20,000 known species of bees and they vary considerably in sociality, whether they die after they sting, whether they even sting at all, and more. There are up to 11 known species of honeybees out of that >20,000, thus how come honeybees have become the ‘stereotype of bees’?
What’s most astounding is that even made-up things with infinitely diverse possibilities will get stereotyped, archetyped or prototyped by us. So robots are envisioned to go ‘beep-boop’ and move jerkily even when not all machines today are the same; like not all organic species are the same. When we hear about AI in the news, we shouldn’t stereotype all AIs as being identical – it’d be like a news report about how a human did something moronic and then concluding that all human intelligences would do exactly the same!
Complex-organism extraterrestrials are somewhat stereotyped too – even though no one has categorically proved that they’ve even observed one of these yet! And why can’t zombie humans run or jump? Has anyone seen a zombie human in real life to make such an adamant assertion as if it’s ‘a fact’?! (You may argue that a griffin should always have a particular design even though it’s another made-up being, but the lore on zombie humans is less concrete about how one must behave.) Thus what’s a ‘realistic depiction of a zombie human apocalypse’? We’ve never ever seen a real one to come to any kind of conclusion. The closest we’ve come to are pandemics like the Black Death and COVID-19, and they’re evidently far more mundane than the depictions of brain-craving infected in fiction. No one can really call themselves an expert on zombie human apocalypses or how aliens should look.
If ghosts exist, we shouldn’t stereotype them all as necessarily nefarious. Some people are scared of clowns, but there are good and bad clowns hence we shouldn’t be prejudiced against them all – that’d be just another illiberal ‘ism’.
Bruce Lee only made his trademark vocal exhalations in the movies when fighting, for dramatic effect. These sounds aren’t something that’s distinctive about Chinese people broadly. There are cultural clichés that don’t even have one single instance in reality, like Siamese people playing piano with chopsticks like the cartoon Siamese cat in Aristocats. Perhaps Hitler, Mussolini, Franco, Ceausescu and Vargas represent the stereotype of all white men then, if we wish to spread a propaganda campaign about white men?!
There may have been historical reasons for these clichés forming but have you personally seen many modern Dutch people wearing clogs, Mexicans donning sombreros, or French people with garlands of alliums around their necks whilst sporting berets and stripy tops? If you’ve seen anyone dressed like that, they’re doing a great impression of fellow ignoramuses, more than of French people!
There are probably more tourists in Russian tourist hotspots wearing ushankas than local Russians wearing them today. There are definitely proportionally more tourists in Britain having afternoon teas (as in the special occasion in a tea room, not just a regular cuppa in the afternoon) than native Brits. And we’re not all sticking our little pinkies out when we sip our brew! There are dozens of distinct accents in England, yet just about none of us say, “Cor blimey guv’nor!” Hardly all Americans are from Texas, hence hardly all Americans say, “Howdy.”
Whether such racial or national clichés are harmful depends on the balance of power and prejudice, but they’re nevertheless clichés that aren’t reliably representative of the group they’re trying to simplify. And how fair or useful is a stereotype that doesn’t even fit half of the people we presume it to fit? Woof.
There’s far more to Jamaican cuisine than jerk chicken, or to Japanese food than sushi. Sushi isn’t even the most common type of food eaten by Japanese people on a daily basis. (And a clue is in the name ‘California roll’ regarding some of the sushi that people in America eat.) Most Japanese homes are tiny due to the high population density and are therefore crammed with stuff, rather than are in the minimalist style that many in Europe consider ‘Japanese’.
There are pernicious clichés about baby boomers being selfish, millennials being lazy and entitled, and zoomers being civic-minded. ‘Pretty’ doesn’t necessarily mean ‘vacuous and dumb’ any more than ‘small’ means ‘weak and fragile’, for instance. When people think that all women are x or all men are y, or even that most are when the statistics don’t support this, then an inaccurate cliché is being perpetuated. Narrow-minded clichés and stereotypes are problematic when they lead to prejudice and discrimination (e.g. women being overlooked for leadership roles because women don’t fit the expected stereotype of a leader), or the penalising of people who stray from their supposed stereotype (e.g. ostracising men who behave ‘effeminately’). If women are from Venus and men are from Mars then the planet Venus is actually incredibly hostile and the planet Mars is relatively more conducive for life! Yet we tend to rely on primitive clichés over other forms of information, even if this results in logical errors.
Adults who play with cuddly toys are apparently psychopathic; even though the psychological profile of a psychopath would more likely mean that they wouldn’t humanise or therefore care for furry toys, for they even fail to humanise humans! They’d more likely tear the heads off toys than care for them. And how can the way someone dresses tell you whether they’re a sex offender or not? Such assumptions and discriminations can lead to injustices, and therefore we’d actually be the evil ones – if only we had the rationality to compute this logic.
So there are many misleading clichés and stereotypes – many of which are continually perpetuated by the media – and they persist not because they’re always generally accurate but because they’re lazy cognitive shortcuts.
However, if we watch a film that has a male character who is inept at housework and childminding, or a young female character who wishes to be a ballerina – is this film deliberately trying to perpetuate these clichés? There do exist many males who are inept at housework and childminding, and there do exist many females who wish to be ballerinas. It’d be somewhat contrived, and perhaps ironically a creative-industry cliché right now, to constantly cast such characters as counter-stereotypical. If the film pawtrayed every character with stereotypical traits then that’d present a stronger case that it’s lazily perpetuating clichés (e.g. if every male in this film couldn’t change a nappy, or if every young female character wished to fulfil stereotypically female careers when older) but we cannot jump to that conclusion based on one or two characters. If we judge too quickly and erroneously, it’d ironically be us who’d be broad-stroking the entire media industry!
Ad hoc excuses are frequently used to uphold one’s perceptions too. For example, one holds a stereotype of an Indian person, then meets an Indian person (or many) who doesn’t fit that mould – but instead of ditching that stereotype, one rationalises it as, “Oh but you’re an exception.” Almost any set of reasons or excuses can be rationalised by us to maintain our existing beliefs, biases or worldviews instead of adjusting or abandoning them, despite the evidence evident before us.
Because our stereotypes are frequently unreliable, we need to seek for more information – to refine them and to not just jump instantly to conclusions – especially when we have the time to learn more before forming a judgement. Hardly much in modern life in modern environments requires true life-or-death ‘if you don’t decide instantly then you might get mauled by a predator’-type decisions.
People’s fight-or-flight response is needlessly triggered far too often in modern life and modern environments though, leading to chronic stress. People simply didn’t evolve to be optimal for this modern world because the human world has changed relatively too rapidly for genetic evolution to keep up, especially because survival pressures have decreased rather than increased in this time. (Genetic evolution can be fast when survival pressures are great but modern life has only generally made survival for humans easier.) This can be overcome by adapting to the modern world though. But this requires effortful education rather than relying ever more on one’s crude innate instincts.
We perceive the world by making comparisons and we cannot help but pigeonhole people and things into categories – at its most basic into ‘us’ versus ‘them’ groups. Stereotypes are useful for navigating the world efficiently but our over-simple categorisations of people and things means that we end up missing the true complexity of reality.
A simplistic view makes us feel more confident in our own assumptions, judgements and conclusions though, due to cognitive ease. Of course we’ll be unaware that our view is too simplistic precisely because we’ll lack the education to know what we don’t know – the stuff that’ll make us realise the situation is more nuanced than initially thought. When we don’t know enough, we’re not going to be aware of that until after we learn what we didn’t previously know – if we ever do. Consequently, we’re likely to assume that we already know all we need to know to make a judgement. We’re not going to realise we’re holding an overly crude stereotype. And if the picture appears simple, we’re going to feel quite sure of our conclusions too. Our stereotyped opinions of others thus speak about our own (naïve) level of knowledge and experiences. Inaccurate stereotypes are symptomatic of a lack of refined wisdom coupled with a naïve belief that one possesses sufficient wisdom.
We need the intellectual capacity, or patience afforded by withholding a premature judgement, to judge more people and things on an individual case-by-case basis rather than according to the broad category we believe them to belong. Wait for firmer and unambiguous evidence. Most people believe that everybody should be deemed innocent unless proven guilty yet often behave contrarily to that.
Woof. We’ve got to especially be careful when forming sweeping generalisations or perceiving patterns based on just one or two data points or individual cases, and we’ve got to be more open-minded when we’re forming opinions about purely hypothesised or made-up stuff.