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How Stereotypes Create the World You Fear

The term ‘stereotype threat’ refers to being at risk of confirming, as self-characteristic, a negative stereotype about one’s group  (Steele & Aronson, 1995). This chapter investigates whether the self-enforcement mechanism of stereotype threat might work as the transmission mechanism through which we internalise authoritarian behaviour.

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The following aspects of stereotyping will be examined here:

1) Stereotyping is a way to mitigate the anxiety and fear of the unknown.

By applying stereotypical received wisdom on the unknown, one can create the illusion of knowledge and thus limit the sense of the perceived threat. But it doesn’t make the stereotype true. Or does it?

2) Further problem is that stereotypes are not meant to be positive.

Received wisdom serves to protect from unexpected threats, it is meant to be a warning, not a compliment. It is not meant to create positive anticipation. As a result we enforce and self-enforce the dumbest character traits: cowardice, deference to power, conformity, and fear. Never the good ones.

3) But the real question here is not the truthfulness or accuracy of stereotypes,

…but people’s spectacular insistence to keep using them. This is where the phenomenon can be tackled.

Stereotypes are both enforced and self-enforced

A stereotype is 1) my belief about people I don’t know – but also 2) my knowledge of the stereotypes concerning me. So enforcement and self-enforcement both play a role in making stereotypes true – and the two enforcement mechanisms are hard to tell apart. In a sense, studies about stereotype threat really only measure how much we enforce these things on ourselves. Whenever I feel tested, I will act according to my own expectations of what people expect from me, even when it is not enforced by the threat of a burning stake. Furthermore, I can only confirm or deny the stereotypes against me – not build other, individual character traits. So I am stuck with the stereotypes, whether I fight them or embrace them. In other words, I enforce the stereotypes on myself.

A stereotype is not simply enforced, it is implanted first. A stereotype is a self-executing piece of meme installed on an individual – and it doesn’t need to be actively enforced, as long as the victims is aware of it.

 

All a meme needs to spread in a population is obedience to follow its commands and the willingness to replicate its message.

And replicate we do. Don’t you find it curious how people cannot stop repeating tedious cliches? There is no way someone hadn’t heard of the cheese-eating cliche about French people and yet, something compels us to repeat it every time the topic French people come up in a conversation. Just in case. We do repeat stereotypes compulsively.

There are two instances when repeating a cliche is pointless: when it applies, and when it doesn’t. Haven’t you marveled why we repeat a stereotype even when it is notably not applicable? “You know, girls are normally not good at math, but you…”  Why does it need to be said out loud? Similarly, why do we need to spell it out when it applies? “Girls are poor at math, you are a girl and you are poor at math, so…”

We do repeat the memes called stereotypes compulsively. Now let’s have a look at whether we obey them.

How does a stereotype work?

There are multiple way a stereotype can get to make an impact. The invisible way is every enforcer’s dream. When that doesn’t work, active enforcement is necessary. But when you have to resort to enforcement by force, you might have a lost cause so better keep it in more cunning, more deniable channels as long as you can.

The invisible way

The invisible way is every enforcer’s dream. It is when we know about the stereotypes regarding our person and adhere to them. Or maybe we don’t, but then we feel guilty because we know we are supposed to. We do so because we are all too aware of the (real or perceived) judgment of others. We are dependent on outside opinion and it makes us adhering to it by ourselves.

Benefits from enforcement perspective:

 1) If the process is self-executing, it uses purely the victim’s resources. No effort needed for enforcement.

This is probably what all those stereotype-threat studies picked up on – they didn’t make the distinction between enforcement and self-enforcement and only experimented with the latter. In the infamous study (Inzlicht & Ben-Zeev, 2000; Spencer, Steele, & Quinn, 1999) where women fared worse on a math test when having to write their gender on the top of the test sheet, no one reminded them out loud that “Please remember, women are not supposed to be good at math.” Neither did the researchers threaten them with a fine or not finding a husband if they are too good at the test. They reminded themselves.

In other words, those tests measured self-enforcement.

 2) It is deniable.

No one did it. It is the subject’s fault. Why didn’t he just ignore what other expected of him? Why wasn’t he smart enough to recognise peer pressure and modify his own behaviour? The deniability of invisible enforcement (self.enforcement) is the perfect launching pad for a good victim blaming as the victim appears to have only himself to blame.

If it bothers you that you’re supposed to be the brave and the breadwinner, why didn’t you just ignore it? Who made you to get married and offer to be a breadwinner? See? You did it to yourself. You offered to be a breadwinner, you repeated it every time you felt you’re supposed to, you promised it, you signed the contract. No one made you, so your misery is all your fault. We didn’t enforce the breadwinner stereotype on you. You totally had a choice, you were just too cowardly to make it.

And indeed, the thing that requires the most courage is to go against social expectations when you know perfectly well it would upset your peers and make them turn against you. An act of obvious heroism is not as scary as going against your social environment. If you attack a robber, you might get injured, but you will be approved out of your mind by your environment. You disregard social expectations about you – and you will have to face (silent) disapproval from everyone, and on every day of your life, until you cave. For the human psyche, an angry dragon is less scary than losing the approval of his social environment.

Ultimately, even the resistant victim can internalize a stereotype by making up his own excuses why it is the right thing – and adjust his moral compass to that of the environment to restore social approval. Bonding with the things we cannot avoid (nor change) is the most basic human survival strategy.

The second best way to activate a stereotype: Enforcement

Stereotypes are more often enforced than not. It is essentially proof that stereotypes are not facts of reality that would happen anyway – but made-up characteristics that would be forgotten if left unenforced. And a meme cannot let that happen.

Enforcement can be very direct and obvious – but our first world experiences are watered-up in this respect. No mother beats up a daughter for doing math instead of learning to cook. Disapproval, eye-rolling, a heavy sigh, unspoken but understood apprehension are not as harsh and obvious enforcement mechanisms as people living in less fortunate regions of the world are used to. Female family members are not killed for not being modest, and no one legally kills or ostracizes a man for being gay. Our tools are now more subtle – and will hopefully eventually die off altogether.

When stereotypes need to be enforced, they are already weak. It has serious disadvantages (compared to smooth self-enforcement):

 1) It requires the enforcer to put in some effort. 

It starts with unconscious, benevolent, or passive aggressive methods.

A woman doesn’t give birth by a certain age? Ask about it gently. Talk about how women (as such) are nurturing. See if she explodes with helpless anger at your words. When she finally does, demand an explanation. Announce that her anger is proof (not of her helplessness to avoid enforcers like you, but that she really wants to act according to the stereotype). Play the compassionate card and grab her by her social ties and loved ones – you are doing this selflessly, on their behalf. Her grandparents would like grandchildren. You could totally live with her not having any kids, it is not your compulsion that makes you enforce a stereotype on her – you are doing this for her loved ones. But alright, it’s an example that is hard to relate to. No one has compassion for women, especially when they refuse to play their role. So let’s look at another one.

A German fails to complete a task on time? Act surprised. Repeat to him that Germans are pedantic and compulsively punctual, reliable and dependable – even though this one is obviously not, at least not right nor. Is there any chance he never heard of these cliches in his life? None. Does it make him irritated? Good. Feign surprise and tell him “don’t be so harsh”. You didn’t say anything insulting, right? It is a benign stereotype, not something negative. So demanding for his accurate and reliable service is not wrong or selfish at all. You were just surprised.

2) Enforcement makes the pressure explicit – thus undeniable. 

In the math test experiment, women fared worse just by being reminded about the stereotype about women and math indirectly (had to signal their gender on the test). Had that reminder been direct, they would have risked a backlash. (At least in the first world.) Had the researchers reminded the ladies not to emasculate the gentlemen in the room, they would have been outraged. Had the researchers said out loud that “women are not good at math”, the result would have been different. They might have risked a backlash. Resistance. Defiance. After all, when the question of their sex didn’t come up at all, those women fared as well as the men, so they clearly had it in them to prove the stereotypes wrong. But they were just reminded indirectly. Enforcement was subtle.

Again, those tests measured self-enforcement, not explicit enforcement.

3) Enforcement is more risky, because it may trigger resistance.

Especially when it’s very aggressive.

Enforcement by force

Only a beginner (or a lynch mob) tries to enforce a stereotype by force

Public shaming or having to beat someone up carries the risk of resistance, it costs you great effort, and others might disagree with your prejudice explicitly. Only a very stupid prejudiced person would resort to open enforcement. It exposes him to all sorts of resistance and disagreement. Stereotypes are best left unspoken. An eye-roll is a better carrier of the meme than a stake – but when it doesn’t work, burning stake it is.

But in the long run, you want to reach the point when an eye-roll or a heavy sigh is sufficient because killing everyone who resists your explicit demands on their character will leave the meme without carriers. If you burn someone at the stake, they won’t stay to carry the meme, let alone to sing your praise and join your army of enforcers. They won’t even boost your headcount of silent obedience.

But then again, if the victim explicitly rebels, she is better killed.

The psychological need to hold prejudices 

The real spectacle here is not the truthfulness or accuracy of stereotypes, but people’s spectacular insistence to keep using and enforcing them.

Whether they apply to any single individual or not, stereotypes are the safety blanket for people, who otherwise claim to be grown-up and courageous. They veil over the debilitating fear of the unknown and makes fear look like loud, brave common sense. For the fearful it provides the illusion of knowledge, where there is none. Prejudice should be deemed more dangerous, not less so, than embracing that we don’t know things in the world – except that it is a self-fulfilling thing.

It is called the ‘stereotype threat’ for a reason – and not a ‘stereotype potential’. Stereotypes are always negative. No one needs to be prepared for positive traits in others. No tribal elder wastes his breath on warning youth of how friendly the other tribe is, how glorious independent life was, or how good it is elsewhere. No one bothers to enforce independence and the sense of integrity on you – because that wouldn’t serve them. Instead, we enforce social roles and functions on each other, and warn each other of negative traits of the unknown. And stereotypes and cliches are the means to that end.

Stereotypes give a false sense of security. Or insecurity. Or paranoia. And when it comes to enforcing them – we are essentially creating the world that we fear. We make the world a worse place by “wisely” applying (and enforcing) negative stereotypes. We quench human potential by forcing individuals into poorly designed cliches – rather than letting them experiment with new ways –  just to feel comfortable in our false sense of knowledge.

On a hopeful note, according some research, in the presence of evidence, people tend not to apply the stereotypes.

people tend to switch off some of their stereotypes – especially the descriptive ones – when they interact with individuals. It appears that descriptive stereotypes are a crutch to lean on when we have no other information about a person.

Jussim, L., Cain, T. R., Crawford, J. T., Harber, K., & Cohen, F. (2009). The unbearable accuracy of stereotypes. Handbook of prejudice, stereotyping, and discrimination, 199-227.

Still, why bother with the stereotype, when saying “I don’t know yet” is perfectly accurate and actually more safe?

How prejudice harms prosperity

According to a rigid interpretation of the hierarchy of needs, for instance, the willingness to let go of prejudices and thinking without stereotypes is on the highest level of the pyramid – it belongs to the desire to know and understand. A metamotivational need that (according to the dumb but prevalent interpretation of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs) ought to be neglected until all other, lower-level needs are safely secured. But thatcannot ever work. Because prejudice damages those very same lower-level (more pressing) needs. It results in a general decline in prosperity. In other words, it negatively affects the bottom of the pyramid.

The Wold Development Report uses stereotypes as a textbook example of mental models used by a social group. Prejudices based on easily recognisable traits, such as gender, race, social class, etc. are sticky because they provide an illusion of knowledge, even when they are completely dysfunctional or damaging.

The specific mechanisms by which stereotype threat harms performance is not well-understood, probably because it acts through multiple channels. Stereotype threat produces several different consequences, each can contribute to decreased performance (Steele, Spencer, & Aronson, 2002).

The Report provides the example of schoolchildren in India from two different castes taking a test. Similarly to the women taking math test, they were either reminded of their caste or not. By naming their own caste (privileged or lower caste) pupils fell prey to the stereotype threat, because they were reminded how they are supposed to fare. (See stereotype threat, Baumeister 2005)

  1. When tested without reminding them of their caste, pupils fared evenly.
  2. When tested in the same room, with reminder of caste, the lower caste underperformed substantially.
  3. When tested separately, but with a reminder, even the privileged, upper caste children underperformed. According to the Report, reminding them of their privileged status and that they would perform better anyway made them not even to try.

In other words, prejudice stifled performance for every group (privileged and underclass).

caste and performance stereotype WBR

Source: World Bank WDR 2015 Page 12

Considering the rigid interpretation of the Maslow pyramid, where absence of prejudice and the willingness to accept facts and let go of dysfunctional beliefs is near the very top of the metamotivational needs, we can see the problem with that interpretation.

Conditional morality – Another way stereotypes hurt

Another point where received wisdom has proved to be wrong is the issue of conditional morality. Similarly to conditional stupidity (Steele – Aronson, 1995), when people can be rendered stupid (worse at math than they really are) by reminding them of the applicable stereotypes – people can also be rendered immoral in the same way.

Conditional morality means that people can be rendered immoral because they expect either of these two things:

  1. That others are immoral (prejudices against others) so one cannot afford to be moral, or
  2. that they themselves are supposed to be immoral (prejudice against them).

Paradoxically, in order to create trust, one must deserve it and grant it at the same time. It is created by simultaneous effort, but it can be demolished unilaterally, by either party. Distrust thus creates its own reason.

To disprove assumptions about others being immoral, let us look at the pervasive assumption that people always act rationally, and only in their own self-interest – the way economic models routinely assume (and get a Nobel prize every time they find out that not always, and not like that). If the assumption were true, it would translate into free riding economic behaviour, every time the option to free ride is available.

Reality, however, is always a bit more complicated. In a public goods game conducted across eight countries, people proved to be overwhelmingly neither free riders nor unconditional co-operators. The majority turned out to be conditional co-operators. (Henrich et. al 2001, quoted by World Development Report, 2015) Free riders were never in the majority in any group measured.

conditional cooperation

Everyone would love to live in a society where one can leave a bicycle out without chains – but no one dares to go first. The phenomenon applies to a range of other things, from smiles and optimism through trust and cooperation. Conditionality in human behaviour is more prevalent than simplistic models like to assume. And the same goes for simplistic stereotypes.

We should evidently start to incorporate the notion of conditionality – or reflexivity – in our calculations about human behaviour.

By letting go of notions about (a fixed) human nature as such and moving on to the question of how to facilitate cooperation, morality and trust on societal level, in a conditionally moral and conditionally cooperative environment, we can ask better questions. The World Development Report argues that economics has come full circle since Adam Smith and John Maynard Keynes staging rational individual against animal spirits, followed by Samuelson and his completely rational players, to the present where we revisit old concepts and reconsider human decision-making, making room for experimental results and conditional behaviour. “After a respite of about 40 years, an economics based on a more realistic understanding of human beings is being reinvented. But this time, it builds on a large body of empirical evidence—microlevel evidence from across the behavioral and social sciences. The mind, unlike a computer, is psychological, not logical; malleable, not fixed.” (WDR 2015:5) We should also factor is prejudices, perceptions and beliefs about one another when we try to reverse the spiral of mistrust, fear, and helplessness in a society.

Why is stereotype threat prevalent in authoritarian thinking?

Stereotype threat also applies to the way we assess each other’s political attitudes and behaviour: “I would stand up to the excesses of power but others wouldn’t and I would be left alone. So it would be irrational.” Dismissing others as authoritarian and therefore not standing up against an autocrat is a case of motivation loss by internalising the stereotype we have about others.

And at the end of the day, what is the difference between submission because I am submissive, and submission because I assume everyone else is? To the emerging dictator it truly doesn’t make a difference – neither does it to the world that we create.

Certain mechanisms postulated to transmit stereotype threat may shed light to the roundabout ways society disenfranchises itself. Steele and Aronson (1995) speculated that distraction, narrowed attention, anxiety, self-consciousness, withdrawal of effort, or even overeffort might all play a role and they are interconnected as some might have guessed. So can physiological stress, performance self-monitoring, and attempted emotional regulation, exhausting the available cognitive resources to a task and creating a debilitating self-consciousness. Lowered performance expectations may definitely contribute – in self and in others, so do “self-handicapping” (offering psychological protection by providing an a priori explanation for failure) and underpreparation can also produce a self-fulfilling prophecy. But stereotype threat may very well be at work in non-performance related and less quantifiable fields, such as inclinations and views of the world. In other words, people may like what they are supposed to like and think what they are supposed to think.

The way out of this trap is not simple – just as the problem is not as simple as it looks like.

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