Are Stereotypes Accurate? You Know You Want To Know. Part One

May 28th, 2013 | Categories: Uncategorized

Lee Jussim in the psychology department at Rutgers University is well published in the area of stereotype accuracy. He suggests several reasons why people should care about whether or not stereotypes are accurate. You may appreciate some of these reasons too.

First, if we value, respect, and seek to understand how other people and groups differ from us then we would want to know in what ways they are different.

Second, determining whether stereotypes are accurate is, in theory, simple to do and simply a matter of testing whether each stereotype represents the majority of a sample of people from the target population.

Third, once we know about stereotype accuracy then we can make decisions based on these stereotypes with a firm scientific evidence based foundation.

For Jussim, with whom I had my first engaging theoretical conversation about stereotypes while studying at Rutgers, there is one caveat to studying stereotype accuracy. If stereotypes are to be studied to find out if they are accurate then political and social ideologies must be left out. Stereotype accuracy is an objective and scientific issue. Stereotype accuracy refers only to “the correspondence between a judgment and a commonly agreed upon criterion that is supposed to represent objective reality” (Leyens, Yzerbyt, & Schadron, 1994, p. 133). Political and social issues have nothing to do with it. Prejudice and discrimination, for example, have nothing to do with whether stereotypes are accurate.

When I studied how experts and non-experts define stereotypes (Kurylo, 2012), I concluded that experts have opted to remain agnostic about whether or not stereotypes are accurate. Sure, initially, ‘because they are accurate’ seemed like a reasonable explanation for why people stereotype. After all, if stereotypes are accurate they would help people make accurate judgments. Some scholars tried to find out whether certain stereotypes were accurate but ultimately the research was overwhelming and inconclusive. Eventually most experts decided it simply didn’t matter if stereotypes were accurate. Regardless, stereotypes still ‘do’ certain things that provide more substantial and predictable reasons for why people use them.

Unlike experts, non-expert participants in my study were invested in knowing whether or not (and in many cases assuming) stereotypes are accurate. For participants in my study stereotype accuracy was pivotal for determining whether or not they should use stereotypes.

If accurate, the stereotyper is simply making a reasonable decision based on probabilistic evidence.

If inacurate, the stereotyper is distorting reality in a way that is self-serving, provides a poor basis on which to make a decision, and is likely offensive to the target group.

Clearly, despite Jussim’s musings about the topic as an expert who has the luxury to not ‘know’ whether they are accurate, the issue of whether or not stereotypes are accurate matters to non-experts. This pivotal issue determines whether that stereotyper is a smart decision maker or … not.

Unfortunately, discussing the issue of stereotype accuracy in a clear, direct, and persuasive way takes more than one blog post. This initial post is just the beginning. Stay tuned each Tuesday through the series for more on this topic at The Communicated Stereotype.

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