Stereotypes: Our dirty little secret

Have you ever met or talked to someone who says they don’t stereotype?  Do you believe them?  Of course, it’s impossible not to stereotype.  It is your ancient neurophysiology that dictates this behavior. Dr. Susan Fiske, a social psychologist (who knew there was such a thing?  Sign me up!) at Princeton University has been studying this phenomenon for years.  There are actual neural signatures for stereotyping.  Stereotyping does not automatically mean discrimination, but it often does lead to some pretty ugly actions.  Dr. Fiske has found that we initially label someone based on two qualities:  warmth and competence.    The range goes from pure antipathy (you really don’t care) to pure favoritism (you really, really do care).  So, poor people are generally seen as incompetent, with associated emotions of disgust and contempt.  Based on their situation (single mothers for instance) can be viewed more warmly.  Rich people are seen as competent but not so warm.  An emotion carried with stereotyping of rich people is envy.  Older people or people with disabilities are seen as warm but not so competent.   Emotionally, we view them with pity.  Any and all others we meet are ranked somewhere on this scale, regardless of where you live in the world.  Initial views of individuals may change, but we tend to still categorize groups in the same way.  In our medial prefrontal cortex, the area of social cognition, our emotions affect our decision making.   For better or worse.

Blah, blah, blah you say.  What does it all mean anyway?  It means the playground mentality comes with us as we age.  If you play what I want to play, I like you.  If not, I don’t.  If we are competing for the same toy, I don’t like you.  If the other kids like you, I like you.  If they don’t, I don’t.   We all have gut level preferences, even if we think we are immune.  So that means when I meet someone who has a beautiful home, I feel envious.  I think that because you have a beautiful home, you must be competent.  The spaciousness of your yard, the beauty of your decor and the vastness of your kitchen have a way of making me feel warmly about you.  You could have gotten it all by robbing a bank for all I know.  But I think you are just great.  You see, stereotypes are not rational.

Take then the example of politics.  I know, I get uncomfortable just thinking about it too.  Go back to the playground mentality.  Say you are a strong Democrat (you contribute campaign money, you put signs in your yard) and you meet someone who you find out later is a Republican (they are wearing a t-shirt advertising their candidate).  You make a subconscious decision that you can socialize, but will never be close  friends with this person based upon this perception.  You may actually be pretty similar on your ideas within each of your parties and you may actually be pretty like-minded about many of the same things.  Never mind, though.  You have officially closed your mind.  Stereotypes shape how we interact with the world.  The natural by-product of such thoughts and judgements is to treat others unfairly.  Your brain thinks it has gathered enough information.

These are simplistic examples of a very complex process that happens every day in suburbia.  The disparities are not as obvious as black and white or rich and poor.  It’s more like wealthy, not so wealthy.  Stay at home mom or working mom.  Very active in school mom and not so active in school mom.  Very educated and not so educated.   Someone who grew up here and someone who moved from somewhere else.  Granted, these are not as charged as other stereotypes, but they matter.  It’s important to know that you are not above stereotypes.  It’s okay, no one is.  But what can we do to keep the conversation relevant, to make a community and to move past it for the greater good?

It deserves mention to talk about what makes you more prone to compare yourself to others.  If you are a male, you are more likely to compare than women except when it comes to appearance, where men are pretty close with women.  This came as a shock to me, but it appears men compare based on how well they provide and how much money others have.  Women compare less than they actually judge themselves.  People who are happy and settled do not compare themselves to others as much, even if they are not as wealthy.   You have a good job, a satifying relationship and capable kids:  you’re good.   People who feel unhappy and out of control compare themselves to others at a much higher rate.  This is a little harder to pin down, you could have all those great things and been a victim of abuse earlier in life or struggle with a medical condition.  That is likely, initially at least, to put you on a path of comparison.   All this makes sense, but when is comparing ourselves to others unhelpful, even dangerous?

It turns out that as humans we frequently forget that we are all in this together.  It’s really important for me to remember that we really are all doing our best at that moment in time.  Sometimes the best you can do is lay on the couch after a long day at work with your coat still on as your kids ask a million questions and dinner needs to be made (okay that was me).  Just because someone is beautiful, rich, creative and witty does not mean that I am not any of those things or that I don’t have my own gifts to share.  It also doesn’t mean they are trying to take anything away from me.  It’s a struggle to be hard-wired to be close-minded and yearn to be open-minded.  This is a conversation worthy of each of us.  Try it on your spouse and try it on your kids.  What the hell, try it on your mother-in-law.   There are constantly new ideas, new people and new philosophies.  The universe is a fluid place, and I for one plan on riding the wave.

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