How to Be Surprising
By Robert L.Heilbroner
ARE criminals more likely to be dark than blond? Can a person’s nationality be guessed from his photograph? Does the fact that a person wears horn-rimmed glasses imply that he is intelligent?
The answer to each of these questions is obviously, “No.”
Yet, from the evidence, many of us believe these and other equally absurd generalizations. Aren’t all Latins excitable all Swedes stolid all Irish hot-tempered? Think about any group of people-mothers-in-law, teen-agers, truck drivers bankers-and a standardized picture forms in our heads.
These stereotypes by which we commonly picture professions nationalities races religions, are closely related to the dark world of prejudice-which means prejudgment. We prejudge people before we ever lay eyes on them.
In a demonstration of this tendency, a group of college students were shown 30 photographs of pretty but unidentified women and asked to rate each in terms of “general likability,” “intelligence,””beauty.” Two months later the same students were shown the same photographs, this time with fictitious Irish Italian Jewish and “American” names attached. Right away the ratings changed. Faces that were now seen as representing other national groups went down in looks and still further down in likability while the “American” young women suddenly looked prettier and nicer.
This irrational stereotyping begins early in life. The child, watching a TV drama, learns to spot the Good Guys and the Bad Guys. Some years ago a psychologist showed how powerful these childhood stereotypes are. He secretly asked the most popular youngsters in an elementary school to make errors in their morning gym exercises. Afterward he asked the class if anyone had noticed any mistakes. Oh, yes, said the children. But it was the unpopular members of the class-the Bad Guys-they remembered as being out of step.
As grownups we are constantly having standardized pictures thrust on us-by the stock jokes we hear (does the mother-in-law ever come out well?),the advertisements we read, the movies we see, the books we read.
Stereotypes save us mental effort; they classify into a convenient handful of types the infinite variety of human beings whom we encounter. Thus we avoid the trouble of starting from scratch with each and every human contact in order to find out what our fellow men are really like.
The danger, of course, is that stereotyping may become a substitute for observation. If we form a preconception of all teen-agers as “wild,” for example, it doesn’t alter our point of view to meet a serious-minded high-school student. This is “the exception that proves the rule,” we say.
Moreover, quite aside from the injustice it does to others, stereotyping impoverishes us, too. A person who lumps his fellow men into simple categories, who type-casts all labor leaders as “racketeers,” all businessmen as “reactionaries,” all Harvard men as “snobs,” is in danger of becoming a stereotype himself. He loses his capacity to be himself, to see the world in his own unique and independent fashion.
Instead, he votes for the men who fits his standardized picture of what a candidate “should” look like or sound like, buys the goods that someone in his “situation” in life “should” own, lives the life that others define for him. The mark of the stereotype person is that he never surprises us, that we do indeed have him “typed.” And no one fits this strait jacket so perfectly as someone whose opinions about others are fixed and inflexible.
Stereotypes are not easy to get rid of Sharp swings of ideas about people often just substitute one stereotypes for another. The true process of change is a slow one that adds bits and pieces of reality to the pictures in our heads, until gradually they take on some of the blurredness of life itself.
Little by little, we learn not that Jews and Blacks and Catholics and Puerto Ricans are “just like everybody else”-for that, too, is a stereotype-but that each and every one of them is unique, special, different and individual. Often we do not even know that we have let a stereotype lapse until we hear someone saying. “All so-and-so’s are like such-and-such,” and we hear ourselves saying, “well-maybe.”
Can we speed the process along? Of course we can. First, we can become aware of the standardized pictures in our heads in others people’s heads in the world around us. Second, we can be suspicious of all judgments that we allow exceptions to “prove.” (There is no more chastening thought than that, in the vast intellectual adventure of science it takes but one tiny exception to topple a whole edifice of ideas.) Third, we can learn to be chary of all generalizations about people.
Most of the time, when we typecast the world, we are not in fact generalizing about people at all. We are only revealing the embarrassing facts about the pictures that hang in the gallery of stereotypes in our own heads.