Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Why do stereotypes exist?

In contrast to a way of thinking which has roots in Renaissance ideology and liberal humanism (Pinker, 2002), stereotypes are not the product of society; rather, they are one more tool the mind uses to navigate its complex environment (Lee et al. 1995). Indeed, arguably the most intricate and important ability the mind needs is to be able to perceive others. How is this achieved? Theorists have argued that rather than perceiving people according to their idiosyncratic characteristics, they might do so according to their social category (e.g. German, grandma) and in so doing reap the information about that group (e.g. efficient, slow) from memory without having to perceive it firsthand (see Macrae and Bodenhausen, 2000), which may be an altogether less effortful process (Britton and Tesser, 1982). Such structures also sensitize perceivers to invariant features (e.g. the messy German, the punk grandma) affording the perceiver flexibility as well as predictability (Johnston and Hawley, 1994). As Gilbert and Hixon (1991) have commented, the ability to use the past as a guide to the present is a very handy tool.

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