The Psychology Behind It: How Do We Deal with Stereotypes?

how to deal with stereotypes

After the conversation starters posted this week, MSM went to trusted and professional sources for information into what prompts stereotypes, why we believe them, what they say about US…the psychology of stereotypes.  Ingrid Herrara-Yee, Ph.D. has been a doctoral level Clinical Psychologist for 9 years. She currently works as a researcher at Joint Base Andrews and she teaches courses on diversity and stereotyping online. She is the Co-Founder of Military Spouse Mental Health Network, does volunteer case work with The Semper-Fi Fund and was a 2012 Army Spouse of the Year Finalist. Alisha Youch, 2013 AFI Navy Spouse of the Year has a Bachelor’s Degree in Criminal Justice and a Masters Degree in Clinical Social Work. She has worked in the mental health field since 1991.

Ingrid: I am so pleased that asked us to tackle this topic together.

Alisha: Oh, I am too! It’s a conversation that our community really must have. (Plus, I’m always glad to get to talk with you!) I know you’ve actually taught college courses on the psychology behind stereotypes. Why don’t you give us a little background information on stereotyping?

Ingrid: Stereotyping is when you judge a group of people without the benefit of knowing the individual who is the target of the stereotype. Stereotypes are a generalization – believing we know something about a person or thing we are not familiar with based on our knowledge of a similar person or thing.

Alisha: So, stereotyping is different from having an opinion – even a negative opinion – of someone you actually know?

Ingrid: Yes! Stereotypes are beliefs we hold about entire groups of people, without knowing all of the members of that group. While positive stereotypes can and do exist, most stereotypes are negative. Stereotypes are never legitimate.

Alisha: That’s not to say that opinions – even negative opinions – about people we have met are never legitimate. As long as we base our opinions on the actual qualities, characteristics, and behaviors of an individual, those opinions are legitimate.

Ingrid: Right. It’s important to be clear on the difference between fact, opinion, and stereotype.

Alisha: I know I wouldn’t want to be judged based on someone’s opinion about other people they consider to be like me. I’m sure no one else would want that, either. So, why do we create stereotypes?

Ingrid: Our ability to make judgements about people and things in our environment is essential to our survival as a species. Think about cavemen thousands of years ago who needed to quickly be able to identify some animal as being a threat or not. If those early humans had not been able to identify some large, growling animal as a danger – and then take that information and decide later that it was likely that all large, growling animals were a threat, we might not have survived.

Alisha: So those split-second judgements we all make – like about whether or not another driver sees you coming and might pull out right in front of you – are actually protective. And those are connected to stereotyping?

Ingrid: Absolutely! When we are able to take information from previous encounters and use it to make decisions today, it saves us effort and time – and in some instances can save our lives. It’s a powerful and essential skill that has been honed over thousands and thousands of years – which is why we ALL are prone to make quick judgements about people and to allow those judgements to fuel stereotypes.

Alisha: That’s so true. Even though I am very aware of stereotyping and try to avoid doing it myself, I sometimes find myself doing it anyway.

Ingrid: You know, we all do it, so don’t beat yourself up over it. They key is being aware of it and making an effort to roll back those inaccurate beliefs and replacing them with actual knowledge of the group.

Alisha: We’ve been talking a lot this week about how to deal with stereotypes about military spouses. One thing has really surprised me.

Ingrid: What’s that?

Alisha: The majority (okay, all) of my non-military friends and family were stunned by the list of Military Spouse Stereotypes that were posted on Facebook. They had no idea that these stereotypes existed, and they raved about how wonderful they thought military spouses were. It seems like a lot of the negative stereotypes about our own military spouse community come from our own members.

Ingrid: It does seem that way, doesn’t it?

Alisha: Yes, and I was also surprised that when military spouses commented on the list of stereotypes, a few responded by saying, “Well, THAT one IS true!” Even when faced with the reality that these beliefs are broad generalizations and do not apply to the community as a whole (or even to most military spouses), some people choose to cling to and attempt to justify the stereotyped beliefs instead of dealing with them.

Ingrid: A lot of people try to justify stereotypes with a theory known as the “kernel of truth” theory – the notion that stereotypes exist and persist because, at their heart, they are somewhat accurate. Research has actually debunked that theory repeatedly.

Alisha: Wow. I’ve been guilty of spouting that theory. I had no idea it was inaccurate. Oops!

Ingrid: It’s not so much that it’s inaccurate. It’s just that it’s not the whole story. There may be a “kernel of truth” that supports a certain stereotype, but there are just as may “kernels” that are the complete opposite.

Alisha: So it’s not so much that those “kernels” are not true as that there are just as many examples that would not support the stereotype?

Ingrid: Exactly!

Alisha: I have a hard time believing that people who buy into a stereotype just don’t notice those examples that don’t support the stereotype.

Ingrid: It’s not that they don’t notice them. It’s just that they notice them less than they notice the other cases that do support the stereotype, if that makes sense.

Alisha: Because they don’t want to see them?

Ingrid: Yes. Because seeing them would challenge the stereotype they have created and bought into. It challenges their sense of reality.

Alisha: Maintaining one’s sense of reality is an awfully powerful incentive to continue to believe something that isn’t true.

Ingrid: Oh, it is! And that’s the other reason why stereotypes are so difficult to challenge. The beliefs we hold about others are very closely connected to the beliefs we hold about ourselves.

Alisha: So, challenging our beliefs on one side of that equation would require us to also challenge our beliefs on the other side, as well, which might not be so comfortable, especially if some of those stereotypes we believe are actually due to projection.

Ingrid: Definitely! Projection is a psychological defense mechanism by which we take our own qualities or feelings that we consider unacceptable and ascribe or attribute them to other people. In simple terms, it means that the unpleasant beliefs we hold about other people can actually be the things we fear are true about ourselves. So, if we are buying into a stereotype of another group that says that group of people is lazy and unambitious, it may be that we are subconsciously anxious about whether we are lazy and unambitious.

Alisha: What I’m wondering is why we, as military spouses, have so many stereotypes flying around out there. I mean, you don’t hear stereotypes about lawyers’ spouses, or plumbers’ spouses, or Computer Software Engineers’ spouses Why military spouses?

Ingrid: That is strange, isn’t it?

Alisha: It is strange – especially when the public has such a generally positive perception of military members.

Ingrid: You know, I wonder if part of the reason we have bought into our own internal negative stereotypes as military spouses is due to stress – including the stress placed upon us by the public’s positive regard for us. The public has preconceived notions and expectations of who we are and how we are, and that puts pressure on us, whether we realize it or not. The pressure to live up to those notions creates cognitive and emotional stress for us, and it is a natural response to turn our focus outward (onto other military spouses) rather than deal with the emotions that pressure brings up for us personally.

Alisha: It’s like our mothers always told us: people who bully or name-call are doing it because they feel badly about themselves. It’s unfortunate that we don’t grow out of that. Acknowledging our own doubts and anxiety would be such a fantastic opportunity for growth.

Ingrid: Not only that, but in believing stereotypes about others, we limit the likelihood that we will interact with those “others.” We cut ourselves off from potentially positive interactions and opportunities with individuals with whom we share such a significant connection.

Alisha: And we undermine relationships with people – and whole groups of people – who have the potential to be among our most important and valuable supports!

Ingrid: We do! And that undermines the group as a whole, which can become harmful when there are real world consequences. The consequences of stereotyping have the potential to be far-reaching and long-lasting. Researchers at the University of Toronto (2010) conducted a study looking at the long-term effects of stereotyping. They found that many of their participants had trouble making decisions after experiencing stereotyping; still others were found to be more likely to be overindulging on unhealthy foods, and were more likely to become more upset, angry and unable to cope. Stereotyping can be harmful and damaging, and it can impact us on a very personal level.

And on that note, it’s important to remember that we are not defined by stereotypes. There are ways in which we can avoid stereotyping and improve the ways in which we view ourselves and others. We can deal with stereotypes!

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