Are stereotypes that harmful for us? Keeping in mind, the various stimuli we receive every day and the plethora of social interactions we face during our lifetime, stereotypes are mandatory for the simplification of our social world. In their first scientific description by Lippman (1922), stereotypes were considered simplified mental images, that worked as a model to help interpret the extraordinary diversity of the social world. But when and how did stereotypes took on a negative connotation and even became a starting point for deadly incidents in the historical period?
Definition of stereotypes
A brief definition of stereotypes refers to a: a widely held but fixed and oversimplified image or idea of a particular type of person or thing (Oxford English Dictionary). In general, stereotypes are simplified and generalized beliefs or perceptions about a particular group of people, often based on characteristics such as race, gender, religion, and socioeconomic status. They can be formed from personal experiences, cultural norms, media portrayals, and even evolutionary influences that encourage categorization for quick-decision making. Stereotypes become even stronger and more aggressive through changes, when social conflicts occur between groups. Most scientists agree on the fact that stereotypes are formed at a really young age, most of the time ,before the kids even have the necessary knowledge for the teams that are being stereotyped.
On the other hand, when a stereotype (a cognitive phenomenon) acquires emotional intensity, it is renamed a prejudice. Prejudice is a double-sided social and psychological phenomenon. It involves the feelings of people about others and their actions towards them, along with being guided and defined through the teams to which we belong and the historical circumstances these specific groups experience. Each of us has experienced a form of prejudice in some way, from unimportant assumptions that people make about us, to more extreme displays of racism and violence. One of the worst aspects of prejudice, includes physical violence and genocide.
The impact of stereotypes and prejudice on social and psychological level
As we all know, stereotypes and prejudice have a significant impact on society. First of all, they contribute to social divisions by creating ‘us vs. them’ mentalities. This can lead to hostility and conflict between different groups. Discrimination fueled by prejudice and stereotypes perpetuates inequality, by limiting opportunities for marginalized groups. This can affect access to education, employment, healthcare, and more. In a more psychological aspect, stereotypes can become self-fulfilling prophecies, where individuals from stereotyped groups internalize these beliefs and consequently underperform due to low expectations set by society. On top of that, targets of prejudice often experience stress, anxiety, and a reduced sense of belonging.
After all, can we eliminate stereotypes ?
On a more positive note, although stereotypes have some kind of inertness, they are not static. They respond to social contexts and socially constructed atomic incentives. As Oakes, Haslam, and Turner (1994) have stated in the past, changes in the social context are able to affect the content and expression of stereotypes. Some effective changes involves, promoting diversity and inclusion programs in workplaces and educational institutions. On top of that, teaching individuals literacy skills, is required to critically analyze media messages and recognize when stereotypes are being perpetuated. But most importantly, anti-discrimination laws and regulations have the most power to make it clear, that prejudice and stereotypes are not acceptable.
To sum up…
In conclusion, despite their contribution to saving time for cognitive processes, stereotypes can become dangerous for social welfare. By understanding their origins, causes, and consequences, we can work towards dismantling these harmful constructs. Although stereotypes are hard to change, they are far from immutable. Their change is based on long-term efforts, so patience and persistence are mandatory. Even though interventions in the social context are obligatory, self-reflection and empathy play a key role in changing stereotypes from the inside out. All in all, let’s not forget that we are society. We affect society, and then society affects us…