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The power of stereotypes

Alan Braunholtz
Vail CO, Colorado

The seasons are a big part of what makes Vail such an interesting place to live. It’s not only the weather, either, but for some of us everything changes: Jobs, friends come and go, the guests we meet vary in income, culture, and our playmates change with the seasonal sports we choose. Add in a constant flux of workers and there’s good exposure to all types of people we’d otherwise only know through stereotypes.

Our brains seem to be hard-wired to create stereotypes, a way of creating simple patterns to try and make sense of a complex world. Not always a bad thing.

You assume a doctor knows medicine and has your best interests at heart ” it’s a stereotype. Likewise you’d make certain assumptions about a firefighter you saw running through your hotel and forget about any need for familiarity and taking the time to know someone personally, etc.

Without stereotypes most films would be slow moving. No need to explain a character’s motivation when you can just plunk the right stereotype down instead. Action films are the best/worst at this so there’s little to distract from the violence and special effects. Sometimes the more interesting and culturally revealing part of a blockbuster is listing the stereotypes employed.

Films that explore, add nuance or challenge a character’s stereotype don’t need as many explosions. The destruction of your subconscious prejudices is entertaining and often frightening enough.

Businesses spend a lot of time creating public stereotypes for their employees, hoping (and training) the individuals they employ will fit them to prevent disillusioned customers. Their employees probably will conform because stereotypes aren’t only descriptive, but prescriptive, too. One study found that if Asian-American women were subtly reminded that they were Asian, they did better in a mathematics test. If reminded that they were women they did worse. Both results fit into popular stereotypes.

Prescriptive effects are good for a service company, not so great for marginalized minorities in society. Ethnic stereotypes quickly lead to pre-judging individuals or prejudice. Even positive stereotypes can be upsetting as it takes away from you being you, but most are negative.

Race and gender stereotypes are partly responsible for the achievement gaps between outside groups and the dominant one in society. A critical stereotype threatens your self worth, creates anxiety and threatens performance. It’s tough to perform well when stressed; its unpleasant and tempting to give up.

You can see this on the mountain with beginners when they get scared, frustrated, cold, tired, etc., especially if they think they’re not fit, young or coordinated enough to be a skier or snowboarder. Giving people the confidence to challenge these stereotypical views is a big part of teaching. One advantage of being an older, less Adonis-like instructor is you smash one stereotype without saying a word.

The same goes in education as social psychologists are finding that simple exercises aimed at helping students believe in themselves have remarkable results. Geoff Cohen of the University of Colorado provided a list of values to 12- and 13-year-old African Americans and asked them to choose which ones mattered most to them and then write a paragraph explaining why. This simple act enabled these students to deal with subsequent failures better than their peers. It reduced the gap between them and white students by 40 percent.

Other experiments produce equally startling results, showing both the smothering power of negative stereotypes and how simple it could be to turn on a student’s abilities if we prevent ourselves and themselves from pre-judging what they can do.

A more controversial example is the exercise created by a teacher named Jane Elliot after Martin Luther King’s assassination in an attempt to explain why anyone would want to do such a thing to the children in her class.

In her “blue eyes/brown eyes” exercise children with different eye colors are given a hierarchy with those at the bottom given negative stereotypes.

After one day the hierarchy and stereotypes are reversed. Jane Elliot saw it as a chance to inoculate them from any racism or prejudice they’d encounter later in life.

She also found that dyslexic students could suddenly read and spell when in the top group and good students fell to pieces when in the bottom group.

After the exercise the kids learned to live up to their abilities and not another’s prejudices.

Vail’s diversity of people provides a chance of familiarity with so many complex, idiosyncratic individuals that generic stereotypes feel ridiculous and wrong even if we can’t completely rid ourselves of them.

Stereotypes are notoriously long lasting, unfortunately.

Alan Braunholtz of Vail writes a biweekly column for the Daily.


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