Critical Thinking and Learning Site

Stereotyping: judging a book by its cover



There is a high possibility that you have seen some maps like these:

Europe according to Spain stereotyping


The World According to Americans Stereotyping

Different groups tend to categorize other groups of people. We have specific characteristics in mind, and we tend to apply them to groups or individuals. These characteristics could be centered, among others, around gender, race, age, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation and many many others.

What we believe

We believe that we have a clear opinion about the world, about people’s characteristics and how they act. A lot of individuals think that Asian people are smart and good at maths, that women are more suitable for particular kinds of jobs and men for other. For example, a lot of people expect a woman to be a nurse while a man to be a doctor; a woman is better at tending the household and cooking than a man, who is more suitable for non-domestic work. And many times we are passing judgment, and we are making decisions based on that beliefs.

What is the Reality

Although we have a clear picture of those different groups of people in our minds, this generalization is false and misleading. The fact that mangas are widely favorite in Japan doesn’t mean that all Japanese people read them. It is not to say that refugees from poorer countries are criminals, that women are not as good as men in Maths. Stereotyping is part of our thinking process. It helps our mind’s resource management. But on many occasions, it works in a biased way. We cannot infer the general characteristics of a person or a group of people based on a trait like ethnicity or gender. The Halo Effect and the Horns Effect are some forms of stereotyping.

How it works

Stereotyping is a cognitive shortcut, meaning it is a process our mind follows to reduce the amount of time it spends making deductions about people. We attribute several and general characteristics to groups of people and believe all members of a particular group to have them. On the one hand, this is good; this helps us establish some traits in the absence of accurate data. When a woman looks at a man, she doesn’t have to grab his balls to figure out that he is a man (she infers that he is a man by his general features, she doesn’t need to harass him sexually to do so). So from the looks of a man, she can conclude that most probably he is a man. Imagine what would happen if that wasn’t the case. What if we couldn’t deduce someone’s gender by his/her appearance; this could cause all sorts of misunderstandings.

Or, to give another example, a doctor wouldn’t have to worry whether a woman had prostate cancer.

So from one point of view, stereotyping makes our life more comfortable.

 Why does that happen? As I mentioned before, people tend to categorize other people; by doing that, our thinking process is more efficient.

On the other hand, because our mind finds it hard to categorize the so significant number of people we might interact with, or just come across (think how many different people we see every day at work, on the street, on tv, and on the internet), stereotyping helps us to categorize them. Categorizing people and giving them characteristics using, for instance, their ethnicity practically is not working. But this way is more comfortable for our mind. Otherwise, it would have to create a vast number of categories, something that our brain cannot handle.

Still, when the advantages of stereotyping stop, the disadvantages begin. We tend to make much more generalizations from specific traits than actually exist. Judging that a woman is a woman by her appearance is one thing, but believing that a woman is not suitable for managerial positions is a whole other story.

Stereotypes, however different, are related to prejudice and discrimination. Prejudice is an opinion or a judgment about a group or individuals of a group;  this can have both a positive and negative function. Discrimination, on the other hand, is an act of behavior towards members of a group, as a result of them being part of this particular group.

How Stereotypes work in Groups

We use stereotypes on different occasions.

People belonging to a group create stereotypes to excuse their actions against a different group. “Europeans stereotyped Turkish, Indian, and Chinese people as being incapable of achieving financial advances without European help. This stereotype was used to justify European colonialism in Turkey, India, and China.” (Source Wikipedia: )

Also, people attribute stereotypical characteristics to other groups to differentiate their  group from the rest.

How are stereotypes formed and why they prevail

One way that stereotypes are created is from our environment at our young age. Our family, friends, teachers, and other influencers can affect how we perceive groups of people.

Stereotypes may also take root by an individual’s participation in groups. Like its members, we are inevitably affected by the group’s beliefs and opinions. Another fact that influences the formation of stereotypes is the behavior between different groups, how those groups relate to each other and as a result affect their members.

Stereotypes based on Illusory Correlation

Illusory correlation is what happens when we believe that there is a relationship between two events when in reality no such relationship exists. Let’s examine, for example, the following chart

Illusory correlation

(source: )

By this chart it becomes evident that the number of pedestrians killed in a collision with two- or three-wheeled motor vehicles and the number of lawyers in American Samoa have declined almost identically from 2007 to 2010, leading to the -otherwise unsubstantiated- the fact that there is a correlation between the two. Of course, you see the chart; there is a similarity, but one event does not affect the other.

How does this affect stereotypes?

If you leave in a country where, for example, refugees are a minority, and you interact with them, this is something infrequent. Also, let’s say a crime is committed, which is something not frequent too. Those two events happening together is more easily imprinted in mind (availability heuristic), so we overestimate the possibility of a particular event occurring. As a result, we create a stereotype of refugees conducting crimes; we believe that this happens more often than it actually does.

Stereotypes as a self-fulfilling prophecy

Unfortunately, the people who feel that the group to which they belong is labeled with some stereotypes can actually be affected. This works a little bit like a self-fulfilling prophecy.  

“Word, Zanna, and Cooper (1974) demonstrated the effects of stereotypes in the context of a job interview. White participants interviewed black and white subjects who, prior to the experiments, had been trained to act in a standardized manner. “Analysis of the videotaped interviews showed that black job applicants were treated differently: They received shorter amounts of interview time and less eye contact; interviewers made more speech errors (e.g., stutters, sentence incompletions, incoherent sounds) and physically distanced themselves from black applicants. In a second experiment, trained interviewers were instructed to treat applicants, all of whom were white, like the whites or blacks had been treated in the first experiment. As a result, applicants treated like the blacks of the first experiment behaved in a more nervous manner and received more negative performance ratings than interviewees receiving the treatment previously afforded to whites.” (Source:  Wikipedia

Stereotypes everywhere

Unfortunately, negative stereotypes tend to take root in our everyday life and affect our thinking and decision-making process in various ways. To name just a few, there are gender, race, age, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, income, dress, country of origin, language, clothing, favorite teams, marriage or single stereotypes.

Examples of Stereotypes

Ethnic stereotypes

The examples of ethnic stereotypes are a lot. As I explained, different groups of people have various stereotypes for other groups, as you can see in the case of the maps at the beginning of this article. Those stereotypes of maps could vary for different ethnicities. In the US, there is a significant percentage of people that see Hispanics as illegal immigrants and hard laborers, while African-Americans are supposed to be dangerous, violent, and good at sports.

Generally speaking, Asians are considered smart and tech geeks. The thing is, as I will explain later on, that according to some experiments, these perceptions can actually influence people.  

Gender Stereotypes

It is easy to see how differently most of us perceive men and women. We regard women as more organized, shy, and tidy. Also, men are supposed to be more aggressive, lazy, and not so well organized. Women are expected to do housework and be better at raising children, whereas men are the providers, not so good at housework, and have a smaller part in child upbringing.  

The thing is that all those stereotypical impressions are reinforced and nurtured from a young age. Parents buy pink clothes, dolls, and household toys to little girls (supposedly more suited for females), but blue clothes, cars, and robots to boys (supposedly more manly toys). (Check this video where a girl complains about girls having princess dolls and boys have superhero toys).

Women take jobs such as nurses or secretaries, whereas men assume more managerial positions. Men are supposed to be good at math, while women are supposed to be good at literature.

As I mentioned earlier, all these can sometimes become a self-fulfilling prophecy.


In a research conducted by Daniel Kate and Kenneth Brady (Racial Stereotypes of one hundred coulee students, 1930 p280-290) students of Princeton were asked the most characteristic trait of each of ten groups; German, Italians, Negroes (It was a 1930s research; I do not support this expression), Irish, English, Jews, Americans, Chinese, Japanese and Turks.  You could see students characterize the African-Americans as superstitious, the Turks cruel, the Jews shrewd. On the contrary, the Americans were viewed as more industrious and intelligent, the Italians as artistic and impulsive, the English as smart and sportsmanlike.

Blue-Eyed and Brown-Eyed people

The day after Martin Luther King was killed, a teacher conducted an exciting classroom experiment. She separated the students into two teams, to blue-eyed and brown-eyed, announcing that the blue-eyed children were superior to the brown-eyed ones. Blue-eyed kids were supposed to be better people, smarter, and were allowed certain privileges, such as having five extra minutes of recess, or using the drinking powder while the brown-eyed the paper cups. Also, the brown-eyed kids could not play with the blue-eyed ones, because they were not as good as the blue-eyed. The children wore color collars to be distinguished.(You can check the film “A Class Divided”). In just a few minutes, children started arguing among themselves, as the teacher mentioned:

“I watched marvels wonderful cooperative children turn into nasty, vicious discriminating little third graders in the space of fifteen minutes.”

The next day, the teacher reversed the roles. She declared that she had lied the previous day, and in the end, those brown-eyed children were actually better than blue-eyed children. The distinction also affected the children’s performance in the games the teacher created: the second day, it took the brown-eyed children half the time to finish the game than it did the first day/ The only thing that changes, according to the teacher, is that the brown-eyed children felt superior the second day. On the contrary, the blue-eyed children needed double the time for the same game from day one to day two. That showed that children were actually influenced by this type of stereotype and discrimination. It worked like a self-fulfilling prophecy.

How the Media affect stereotypes

The Media play a significant role in stereotyping.  Just check the advertisements on TV. You can see how a woman or a man are presented. The woman should be sensitive, elegant, beautiful with a beautiful body, while the man should look more studly, tall and dynamic. The same goes for terrorists. Images of Muslim terrorists with beards and turbans on their head strengthen the stereotype that there is a significant percentage of Muslims being terrorists.

In movies, filmmakers use stereotypes abundantly. It is an easy way to create a character. The Italian mafia guy, the Greek party lover drinking ouzo, the blond women who are dumb, the athletic African-Americans, the super cop, and/or the fat eating donut cop.

You can see that even in children movies from Disney. The princesses in Disney are fragile, poise, they do not speak so much, they are always beautiful (or they end up with a top-to-bottom makeover).  However,  this is a trend that has been changing lately. 

How to avoid it

The first thing to do is to recognize that stereotyping exists, and try to figure out if you are a victim of it. To do that, I would suggest taking the Implicit Bias test.  This is a test that measures how biased someone is in some categories, like gender, sex, weight, sexuality, and others.

Once you take the test, if you are biased admit it, it is not so hard, life goes on. Because the test measures some specific categories stereotypes, try to think in which other areas you might fall victim to stereotyping.

Once you admit your biases and the stereotypes you are victim to, try to slow down and recognize them in your everyday life. When you think about some people from a foreign country, do you tend to characterize them, even though you have never met any of them? When you describe groups of people, have you ever come across any of them, and if yes, is one or two people characteristic of that group?

 Try to get involved and mingle with those groups of people that you have stereotypes in your mind. If they are Asian, try to get to know them and cooperate in a way with them; if they are refugees, the same. By interacting with people, you will see that the stereotypes you have in mind will steadily fade.

About the author

By Plato
Critical Thinking and Learning Site

Latest Stories