There’s No Such Thing As a Good Stereotype
Stereotypes are bad. It’s a lesson we all learned in a 4th grade assembly through an excruciatingly uncool performance by a collegiate theater group. But though society does a nice job teaching the dangers of negative stereotypes, characterizations that might be considered “positive” stereotypes tend to elicit less vigilance. Sure, the 4th grade teacher always poses a provocative question about Asians being good at math, but for the most part people don’t expend social capital fighting non-defamatory generalizations.
In the esteemed words of Gob Bluth, we may have made a huge mistake. Because positive stereotypes seem relatively harmless, they are less likely to arouse skepticism and more likely to be accepted. Yet at the core of every positive stereotype there remains the toxic idea that group differences are biological, genuine, and static. The same idea resides at the core of all negative stereotypes. Might it be possible that positive stereotype reinforce this idea, and thus make it more likely that people will be open to negative stereotypes?
This was the reasoning behind a new study led by Duke’s Aaron Kay. In two initial experiments Kay and his team gave participants fake scientific articles that described how African-Americans were either more athletic (positive stereotype) or less intelligent (negative stereotype) than White people. The researchers found that articles establishing a positive stereotype were less likely than those establishing a negative stereotype to trigger skepticism and arouse a negative reaction. Using the same design, a third experiment (and a replication!) found that the positive stereotype was also more likely than the negative stereotype to make people believe the differences between African-Americans and Whites are due to biological factors.
But it’s the fourth and final experiment that was most telling. Participants began by reading another phony scientific article that either described how African-Americans are more athletic (positive stereotype), or more violent (negative stereotype). As a control, a third group read an unrelated article. Participants were then asked to rate a series of personality profiles, some of which were for people who had stereotypically African-American names. These ratings included items such as how likely it was that the people in the profiles would cheat or commit a crime. The researchers found that participants who had been exposed to the positive stereotype were more likely than those in the other two groups to say the African-Americans would cheat or commit a crime. The finding bears repeating. People who learned that African-Americans are athletic were more likely than people who learned that African-Americans are violent to say that an African-American would commit a crime. In other words, positive stereotypes are dangerous:
These types of stereotypes may be uniquely capable at reinforcing cultural stereotypes and beliefs that people explicitly eschew as racist and harmful – even more so than exposure to explicitly negative stereotypes.
The findings are troubling given society’s laissez faire attitude toward positive stereotypes, but it is possible to combat the influence of all stereotypes by propagating the understanding that nobody is a slave to their biology. In that sense the study ties in nicely to the bevy of research demonstrating the benefits of believing that people are capable of changing deep-rooted characteristics (i.e. having a “growth mindset”). I’ve belabored this point with regard to learning, but believing that people can change is also beneficial when it comes to losing weight and improving relations between different ethnic and racial groups.
The good news is that, as I’ve argued before, it’s not that hard to find ways to teach this mindset in school. No extra time or training in necessary — all we have to do is emphasize the lessons of growth and malleability that exist in stories and curricula that are already being used in schools.
Kay, A., Day, M., Zanna, M., & Nussbaum, A. (2012). The Insidious (and ironic) Effects of Positive Stereotypes Journal of Experimental Social Psychology DOI: 10.1016/j.jesp.2012.11.003