Are Stereotypes Accurate? The Truth In Base Rates (Part Four)

July 23rd, 2013 | Categories: Uncategorized

The Communicated Stereotype has been exploring whether stereotypes are accurate in a series that began in May.

At this point we’ve discussed social and health reform and whether that proves that stereotypes are true since they are based on stereotypes sometimes. The answer was no. After all, these reforms can actually hurt the very groups the reforms are trying to help often because they inadvertently perpetuating the very same stereotypes they are based on.

We’ve discussed whether personal example and testimonials prove beyond reasonable doubt that stereotypes are accurate. The answer was no. After all, we can each find someone in our lives who fits a particular stereotype.

Statistics can assist in exploring whether stereotypes are accurate. To explore stereotype accuracy, let’s learn a new phrase shall we?


A base rate is a probabilistic representation. What this means is that it is a number that represents a probability. Keep in mind a probability is not a certainty. The math is simple. A probabilistic representation like a base rate demonstrates “the percentage of true cases over the total number of similar cases in the past” (Funder, 1996, p. 147). Base rates are frequencies that allow people to say 70% of people do x.

Base rates are “pre-existing, probabilistic representations of what people (or things) are generally like” (Funder, 1996, p. 143). Since base rates seem to be able to represent ‘true’ cases, then it seems reasonable that knowing more about base rates will help us to determine whether stereotypes are indeed accurate. In other words, a base rate can tell us whether there is a kernel of truth to stereotypes. The phrase kernel of truth refers to the idea that stereotypes exist with some realistic basis.

Because base rates can provide evidence that there is a kernel of truth to stereotypes, they can be used, in theory, to make predictions about the way people behave. Researchers have spent considerable time studying whether stereotypes are true based on the base rates produced from their research studies.

So let’s consider the stereotypes we’ve been discussing in this blog series. If base rates exist for a stereotype then they will show definitively, once and for all, whether stereotypes are true or not.

Well we’ve been discussing the stereotype that blacks and other minorities are menial workers. Indeed one base rate shows that blacks, men in particular, are unlikely to hold higher level jobs such that “only 0.6 percent of senior management are African American.” Blacks are also more likely to be unemployed altogether by almost twice that of whites.

Consider our stereotype example of Mexican being immigrants that we have been discussing in this series. Mexicans comprise the “largest wave of immigration in history from a single country to the United States.”

We also discussed the stereotype that the elderly are senile and incompetent. According to the Administration on Aging, “Almost three-fourths (73.6%) of those aged 80+ report at least one disability [physical or psychological].”

Yet another stereotype we have been discussing is that poor people are lazy. According to 1992 U.S. Bureau of the Census regarding Poverty, in 25% of poor homes in which adults are married and living with their children, the adults in the household did not work at all throughout the year compared to 3% in similar nonpoor households. When the motivation of children and marriage are removed, more than half of adults [16 to 64] in poor households without children, 54%, did not work at all throughout the year compared to 18% in similar nonpoor households.

Finally, we discussed the stereotype that men are naturally and innately sex animals. According to BBC’s Science and Nature feature on their website, “On average, men produce between 4 and 10mg of the hormone [testosterone] per day and overall they have about 20 times more testosterone than women.” According to the Swedish Medical Center, “this critical hormone works in the brain to stimulate [sexual] desire through a mechanism that is not entirely understood.” It is possible from this for one to conclude that it is biologically natural for men’s sexual desire to be much greater than women’s.


Clearly these statistics support the stereotypes that we have been discussing.

Despite that these statistics are obviously conclusive, some have raised objection to the use of base rates as evidence of stereotype accuracy. A recent example is an excellent article The Deceptive Data on Asians by Scott Jaschik. I must admit that skeptics and naysayers raise some interesting questions that should be asked about any base rate statistic:

• Where do these statistics come from?
• How were these studies conducted?
• What is the criterion used for measurement?
• Do these statistics give us all the information we need to understand the ‘truth’ behind the base rates?
• Who is sponsoring this research or promoting this information?

After all, I don’t think I would blindly believe statistics from the NRA used to make the claim that ‘Guns don’t kill people. People kill people.’

Is it possible that base rates misrepresent the ‘truth’ about stereotype accuracy? Stay tuned for my next post which will explore base rates further and once and for all get at whether they can be used to decide whether stereotypes are accurate.

Further Reading 😉
Funder, D.C. (1996). Base rates, stereotypes, and judgmental accuracy. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 19, 22-23.

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