Stereotyping often occurs in everyday life, and cannot be avoided. The word derives itself from a pairing of Greek words that mean "firm impression". Stereotyping as a concept is not simple, and quite complicated. Many people have different ideas and connotations of what stereotyping is, and it is our goal here to help you understand, in broad strokes, the pros and cons of stereotypes, their effects in the field of psychology and human psyche, what kinds are harmful, and what kinds are helpful, and maybe even help you see the word in a new light.

Stereotyping can be explained as having preformed opinions, or "firm impressions" of a broad group, that are based on a small sample, or even no sample at all (ingrained through others). Most of us do judge on first appearances to some extent, even if we know it is wrong. Therefore, stereotyping is quite common in our daily lives.

Common Societal Stereotypes (which ones have you heard?):

  • People with glasses are more responsible
  • Men with long hair listen to rock music
  • Two or more black teenagers together equal a gang.
  • Asians are smarter
  • Old people are wiser (or young people are foolish)
  • "Tea Partiers" are extremists
  • French people are more romantic (and Italians are better lovers)
  • People who are (insert US political party) are intolerant / uninformed (or any other negative word)
  • Gay people can teach heterosexuals about non-monogamy (somehow implying that gay people and monogamy don't mix).
  • White people have no rhythym
  • Atheists have higher reasoning than theists (or the reverse: atheists have no true morals)
  • Christians are bigots (or homophobes, etc)
  • "You live in Montana and listen to country music? You must be a redneck...I'll bet you drive a dirty pickup truck."
  • Black people are better athletes, white people are better executives.
  • Librarians are old, grumpy women with their hair in a bun
  • Muslims are (or approve of) terrorists
  • Irish people are drunkards
  • College professors are all liberals
  • Women can multitask better than men

The list goes on, and on, and on. Sometimes a stereotype might have some statistical merit (for example, it is an objective fact that most college professors in the US are friendly to left sided politics), and sometimes a stereotype is based on fear, racism, or prejudice and can cause hurtful discrimination and great harm.   But also, sometimes a stereotype is healthy. Lets cover both kinds.

Healthy Stereotypes

Sometimes stereotyping is healthy and appropriate. We should not stereotype all stereotypes and assume they are always wrong. For example, if you are out in public and you see a person wearing what you recognize as a doctors uniform, you immediately apply certain attributes to that person, and it may even generate particular emotions of safety within you that are the result of a stereotype, even though you know nothing about the actual person wearing the uniform.  Your assumptions and emotions are entirely the result of a preconceived notion that is built into the familiarity of the external uniform. And you know what? Yes, this is a good thing, and it is the entire reason why a uniform is worn by police officers, doctors, firefighters, store is to encourage you to make a stereotype. Isn't it nice when you are in a store looking for something that you see someone wearing a "may I help you" shirt, you immediately determine "yes, that is the person who will assist me...and not just that, this person should assist me, because I am a customer, and if they don't help me, I may not be too happy with this business". This entire thought process was the result of a healthy stereotype, one that the store wants you to have.

It can be said that without stereotypes, society wouldn't function very well. Society requires us to identify emergency personnel, for example, and feel safe, knowing that person wearing that uniform is someone we can go to if we are in dire need of help. Imagine a person wearing a police uniform outside in public who then stands by and watches a person steal a purse and giggles and continues walking. In this case, the person in the uniform did not conform to the stereotype of what a person in a police officer uniform is expected to do. This kind of thing would damage a society, as people need to have healthy stereotypes they can switch on so that they can live and function freely and without fear. We stereotype certain settings such as a clothing at 'formal' events vs 'casual' events. In many ways, the entire field of diagnostic psychology is based on stereotypes. For someone to be diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder, for example, they need to exhibit certain external criteria, and from those external criteria (without even really knowing the person), science puts a "label" on it. Of course, one could make an argument that this kind of labeling is not healthy, but that is for another debate. The point here is that stereotyping is a very complex concept and we should not be too quick to simply say "all stereotyping is wrong".

However, situations do arise in which stereotyping becomes more serious and can be quite harmful. This is generally the case if the stereotype is voiced, or if it results in physical actions. Harm can be caused to both individual victims and groups, and also, in some cases, the perpetrators of stereotyping. If you are concerned that this might apply to you, do not hesitate to talk to someone about the difficulties you are facing.

How Stereotyping Can Harm Us

Stereotyping can be hurtful. If an individual receives verbal abuse as a result of a stereotype, it can cause low self-esteem and confidence issues. If the abuse is on-going or severe it may lead to problems like agoraphobia, other anxiety issues, or depression. Sometimes stereotypes can create physical violence, which is obviously very dangerous and might possibly lead to posttraumatic stress. Stereotypes can encourage individuals to self-harm or, in extreme cases, commit suicide. For example, let us look at bullying in school. This can stem from a stereotype; maybe the victim is overweight, spotty, or vulnerable in some way. Bullying can result in long term mental health problems for the victim. As well as affecting individuals, stereotypes can cause harm to groups of people, often minorities. If there are widely held stereotypes about certain groups, they may face tensions within local communities, or find themselves with reduced opportunities for employment and achievement. This is harmful, because people will begin to feel dejected and hopeless. Again, this can cause depression and other problems. Those people who hold strong stereotypes can also be harmed. Stereotypes may escalate into discrimination, for example racism. It can lead to psychological issues such as agoraphobia and xenophobia. If stereotypes are affecting you negatively, it may be time to seek help.

Stereotyping and External Relationships

Stereotyping has a significant impact on our relationships. It affects our initial judgments when we meet new people. Fortunately, most of us can re-think stereotypes upon talking and engaging with the person in question. However, for some people, stereotypes are more embedded in their way of perceiving others, and are harder to overcome. Perhaps such individuals may only forge friendships and relationships with people similar to themselves. They might avoid talking or communicating with people who they have formed an initial negative judgement about. They might be missing out on valuable friendships, and this means that the stereotype does not change, it gets reinforced. In some situations, we have no choice over who we mix with, this can cause tensions. As we have already discussed, school is an example of this, as is the workplace. Disagreements and bullying can occur in such places because of stereotypes. For example, perhaps a project manager in a workplace has, for whatever reason, stereotyped one of the workers as lazy and stupid. They will only assign mundane and boring tasks to this person, and will not give them responsibilities or important decisions. This damages the relationship with that employee, who could become resentful and frustrated. In response the employee might complain, not give 100%, or quit. This is likely to damage the morale of the whole team, and could lead other members to lose respect for the project manager. Stereotypes have a significant effect on our daily relationships. Unfortunately, this effect is usually harmful.

How Therapy Can Help

If issues of stereotyping are affecting your life you may need to speak to a professional to help overcome the issues. This is certainly true for individuals and group members who are negatively stereotyped; it can bring people down and cause serious psychological health difficulties. However, it is also true for those people who are rigid in their opinions and take stereotypes as facts. This can be equally as damaging if these feeling are extreme. Anxieties and hateful thoughts may become particularly problematic. Therapists and counselors are there to help. They will not turn anyone away, and can provide a useful and impartial ear with which to confide. If you are negatively affected by stereotypes, do not hesitate to get help.

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