The science behind stereotypes

Social stereotypes are common in our society:  Many have heard that women are inferior drivers, short men are socially aggressive, etc.

Not all stereotypes are easily recognized, as they all vary based on level of generalization and, ultimately, level of offense. Stereotyping can lead to misconceptions, impacting the way people are judged in society. Is there logic and evidence behind a lot of these stereotypes, or are they just an easy way to simplify social situations, and limit the amount of processing the human brain needs to do?

Certain studies in psychology try to answer this question. Saul Mcleod, a psychology professor at the University of Manchester, explains one potential benefit of having preconceived notions. “Stereotyping can enable us to respond rapidly to situations because we may have had similar experiences before.”

Lincoln psychology teacher Steven Lancaster agrees with Mcleod.  

“We all engage in stereotypical thinking because it is a mental shortcut that helps us feel like we know what is happening in our social world.  We do not have the time or the cognitive capacity to get to know each individual that we meet on a deep personal level,” Lancaster said.  

There are downsides to this trait.  Generalizations cause the human mind to block out observations that do not reinforce their preconceived notions.  Rather, we tend to focus on what supports what we already believe. Lancaster relates all of this to what is known as confirmation bias.  

“All stereotypes have a grain of truth embedded in them somewhere, in that a person can typically think of one or more examples from their own experience that fit the stereotype. Once someone is made aware of the stereotype, they will tend to be on the lookout for and notice more examples that fit the stereotype, which reinforces belief in the stereotype’s truth,” Lancaster said.

In 2007, University of Central Lancashire in the United Kingdom conducted research on the theorized “short man syndrome,” or Napoleon Complex to see if there was truth behind it. According to their results, shorter men were actually less likely to lose their temper than men of average height.

However, other experiments contradict this one, for example, a study by the University of Groningen in the Netherlands, concluded the opposite.  

Regardless of what any scientific evidence suggests, many people feel there is a bottom line when it comes to stereotyping.  Senior Blake Mcelroy stated, “I feel like some [stereotypes] may have logic behind them, but that doesn’t give anyone a reason to mention it or put someone down.”