“Stereotype” is an ugly and unpopular word, linked to bias, prejudice, racism and irrationality. However, if synonyms are substituted in its place (“categorize”, “label”, “tag”), these words don’t carry the same connotation or significance. That’s because if people take the word for what it is — an “oversimplified idea of a person or thing” — it becomes easier to recognize it as an essential everyday mental process.
The function of stereotypes, as this paper titled “Relationship between Knowledge, Stereotyping, and Prejudice in Interethnic Communication” puts it, is “reducing the complexity of incoming information, facilitating rapid identification of stimuli, and predicting and guiding behavior.” It can undoubtedly be used to unfairly box people into categories that don’t reflect them, but it’s also a way for our brains to make decisions based on limiting factors such as the absence of sufficient information or time.
There are many cases in which society generally agrees that stereotyping isn’t appropriate, such as judging individuals. When meeting someone, it’s fitting to treat that person as an individual rather than by their ethnicity or sexual orientation. These categorizations don’t define the person because they’re all a product of chance rather than choice.
Treating people as equally as possible without regard to the circumstances of their birth means one can adjust for factors that may contradict what that person’s racial or sexual identity might indicate. It doesn’t, as some would suggest, deny one’s experiences or reject their culture. Doing otherwise is a disservice to anyone who is their own person with their own set of attributes that make them unique.
However, stereotyping is something that can be appropriate when it comes to judging groups. This is because when an individual willingly joins a group, they’re choosing to be associated with the common factor that brings the group together. While it’s still useful to try different clubs and organizations with an open mind, a lot of them can be judged more broadly.
There is little need to pretend like social frats don’t focus more on partying and that political science majors aren’t on average more likely to share their strongly held opinions. It’s not coincidence that people who play sports are more athletic. These examples show that many organizations naturally select for a behavior, and the makeup of said organization tends to reflect the filter.
For those who are vehemently against stereotyping in all cases, the point of contention tends to occur when such people object to the stereotype being all encompassing. Exceptions are brought up and then used to invalidate the existence of the rule. The counter-argument is that while not everyone embodies the traits and behaviors of the stereotype, the general trend still exists. In many cases, the exception proves the rule, meaning that if someone has to point out an exception to disprove the rule, it demonstrates that the existence of the rule.
Trying out organizations on a case-by-case basis is still the most optimal way to account for these exceptions. Unfortunately, there isn’t time in the word to talk to every single person and try out every single organization. Students then pick and choose which organizations to try out by canceling out the ones they wouldn’t enjoy based on stereotypes made from past experiences.
To stereotype is to be human. As it turns out, humans have always stereotyped everything. If someone doesn’t like group settings, they’ll probably prefer small intimate gatherings to large parties. If someone has despised loud music their whole life, they probably won’t enjoy a rock concert. Technically, that person is engaging in a stereotype. After all, they might enjoy this particular rock concert, but it’s unlikely. These statements are obvious, but they’re obvious because they support a trend that most people see and recognize.
The human brain is pattern recognition machine that quickly classifies things based on their characteristics to make quick decisions based on limited data. It takes this cognitive shortcut because it is impossible to consider every factor. The average person uses this in their day-to-day life when they know not to eat food that smells off because they might get sick or to tread carefully on glossy sidewalks because of slipping hazards. We hardly think about this process because it tends to be correct almost all the time. Stereotyping is just a way for our brain to efficiently and quickly make decisions, whether or not they are used in a positive or negative way is up to the individual.
Apurva Shrestha is a sophomore international affairs major. Contact Apurva at email@example.com.