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Friday 22 November 2019
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What we see when we look at other people

As the day my German exchange was due to arrive got closer and closer, I began to get more and more apprehensive. Not because I thought something would go wrong; the reason I was scared was that every time I mentioned a German exchange, someone would share a titbit of information that caused me to see the coming opportunity in a new light.

‘You know, I work with a German – he doesn’t talk much

‘Apparently, German girls are gossipy. That’s just what I heard.’

‘You’re going to have to be so organised – you know the Germans are known for their efficiency.’

It got so bad that I spent 15 minutes pacing outside the station, too nervous to go in. However, I was pleasantly surprised. Sophia is genuinely one of the nicest people I have ever met. She was kind, funny, and always up for trying new things. However, my collection of stereotypes could have limited what was one of the most amazing experiences of my life.

We all stereotype – even the best of us. Your first impressions of people are always an amalgamation of all the people who have gone before – your best friend from primary school, the aunt that always treated you like a daughter, your favourite teacher – they all contribute to how you judge others.

One advantage of stereotyping is that it enables us to respond rapidly to situations because we may have had a similar experience before. The use of stereotypes is a major way in which we simplify our social world; since they reduce the amount of thinking we have to do when we meet a new person. 

That’s okay. We all need a starting point. It’s when you start to take on society’s exaggerated caricatures as gospel that it starts becoming a problem.

Take police brutality in the US. In 2015 researcher Cody Ross found, “The racial bias observed in police shootings in this data set is not explainable as a response to local-level crime rates.’ 

Do you see? Stereotypes can lead to prejudice, which is a ‘preconceived opinion that is not based on reason or actual experience.’ You know, things like ‘Asians are good at maths’ and ‘women are better cooks’. Not only can it lead somebody to view certain people in a certain way and act accordingly; it can also pressure people into trying to become someone they aren’t.

In 1995, an experiment was conducted involving African American and White college students who took a difficult test under one of two conditions. In the ‘stereotype threat’ version, the scientists told them that their performance on the test would reveal their underlying mental abilities. For the ‘non-threat’ version, they were told that the test was simply a problem-solving exercise and was not indicative of ability. The results showed that African Americans performed worse than their white counterparts in the stereotype threat condition, but in the non-threat condition their performances were equal.

In another study, Asian women were subtly reminded of either their Asian identity or their female identity before taking a difficult math test. Results showed that women reminded of their Asian identity performed better than the control group and women reminded of their female identity performed worse than the control group. Leaning into the stereotypes, the women had adapted their performance to comply with the stereotypes the world had fed them about their identity.

Stereotypes of older people as “frail” and “dependent” are common in the media and can have a wider impact on the public’s attitudes. Life expectancy can be raised by up to 7.5 years just by thinking positively about age, according to Age UK, but how is that possible when ageism is everywhere?  These attitudes lead to the marginalisation of older people and have negative impacts on their health and well-being. Older people who feel they are a burden may perceive their lives to be less valuable, putting them at risk of depression and social isolation.

The first step is always identifying the problem. But what to do about it? Well, the average UK adult consumes 9 hours and 38 minutes of media a day, so if we want to change the way people think we must change the content they see. Film and TV producers are beginning to portray a wider range of characters on screen, with shows like atypical and this is us connecting with viewers who have been starved of people they can relate to on the screen. However, to do justice to the stories of people stereotyped by society, the backroom staff needs to be as diverse as the characters on screen. Although about 20 per cent of the workforce is disabled, only 2.3 per cent of those working in education are, which means that stories may not have the depth and genuineness to them that only experience can bring.

However, although the media have a responsibility, the changes have to start with us. We need to make a conscious effort to try to change our stereotypical mindsets and treat every new person we meet as a blank slate; a new opportunity to learn more about the world and the communities we live alongside.

I’ll leave you with a quote by one of my favourite authors, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. 

‘The problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.’




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