Problematic Stereotypes: Even Positive Stereotypes Are Wrong
by Isabel Oberlender
This article is a part of a new column series called Problematic Stereotypes, which offers new insights on the effects of predisposed opinions based on race, gender, sexual orientation, or other social categories.
Have you ever heard someone attribute a rather favorable characteristic to a group, race, or culture? Very common examples of these stereotypes include the belief that women are nurturing, Asian-American people are good at math, and African-American people perform well as athletes. To the vast majority, these sweeping generalizations are more compliments than they are stereotypes. It is easy to assume that these “positive” stereotypes are not discriminatory or offensive because they seem to be flattery, but several studies suggest that they might be worse.
One study conducted by Aaron Kay, a psychologist at Duke University, centered on fake articles purporting to show evidence for three of the most common stereotypes about African-American people: that they’re less intelligent than others, that they are prone to violence, and that they are better at sports. In the experiment, Caucasian participants were exposed to these articles with faulty “evidence.” Unsurprisingly, seeing the “proven” articles made the participants more likely to believe the stereotypes. What shocked the study’s evaluators were the differences between people exposed to the negative stereotypes and the “positive” one.
The conclusion showed that the article claiming that African-American people are better at sports than other races was more likely to be unquestionably accepted as valid. The “positive” stereotype also seemed more likely to lead the study’s participants to believe that differences between African-American people and Caucasian people were biological in origin (which is a blatantly false notion). At the close of the experiment, the participants were presented a series of common names employed by African-American people and were asked to estimate the probability of a hypothetical person with each name committing a crime. People who read about the “positive” stereotype rated that possibility as higher than did the participants exposed to the articles on the negative stereotypes. Being recently introduced to the “positive” stereotype (“good at athletics”) in turn led to stronger negative beliefs about African-American people than the negative one (“less intelligent” or “prone to violence”).
In a paper by Alexander Czopp, Aaron Kay, and Sapna Cheryan that was recently published in the journal, Perspectives on Psychological Science, a number of studies demonstrating the harm that “positive” stereotypes causes is discussed. In one study the paper addresses, Asian-American participants listened to a remark (from someone who wasn't Asian-Americans) that did or did not include a positive stereotype about Asian-Americans. In closing, the participants who heard the stereotypical remark were more likely to assume that the speaker also held negative stereotypes about Asian-Americans.
In another study, participants viewed a friendly interaction between an African-American actor and a Caucasian actor. Half of the participants watched a version in which the Caucasian actor endorsed a positive stereotype about African-American people and the other half did not. After watching the interaction without the stereotype, Caucasian and African-American participants found the white actor equally likeable. In the interaction where the white actor did endorse the stereotype, the African-American participants -- but not the Caucasian participants -- found the white actor significantly less likeable and also more prejudiced. Presumably, due to the fact that the stereotype was “positive,” the Caucasian participants failed to see any foul play.
While it is known that negative stereotypes are harmful, positive stereotypes are rarely seen as such. The research presented definitely concludes that positive stereotypes may be equally, if not more, pernicious, but these types of stereotypes may be more difficult to quash. All in all, stereotypes are harmful in every respect regardless of what is being commented on. The only way to create progress is to be aware.