Sunday, September 19, 2010

On Stereotypes

One of the kindest, most generous people I know is a homosexual, atheistic skeptic. I mention this not because I'm an atheist (I'm not, certain people's claims to the contrary aside) nor because I'm gay (I'm not), nor because I'm a skeptic (this, at least, I am). I mention this because "kind" and "generous" are very much not part of the stereotypes surrounding atheists, homosexuals, or skeptics.

Despite the stereotypes, however, he is all of these things. In fact, the entire list of traits works together quite well: his skepticism, for instance, means that he investigates charities before he gives to them and tries to make sure that his donations actually go to the people he's supposed to be helping. He's skeptical about the charities he donates to precisely because he genuinely cares. I cannot say the same for many people who donate to religious charities, who often care more about appearances or ideology than genuinely helping.

The prevalent stereotypes, however, would pidgeonhole him as the exact opposite of who he is: atheists are often seen as prototypical sinners, untrustworthy and criminal. Skeptics are seen as cynics at best (true skeptics are anything but). Homosexuals... let's not even go there.

Many of the people who know me will know precisely who I am talking about. There is even a possibility that the person I wrote about will read this blog entry some day. I am not, however, writing this to flatter him.

I am writing this to illustrate the point that stereotypes are often misleading. Worse, they are often wrong -- that is, they very often don't even have a genuine basis in fact, but rather are based solely on prejudice or incomprehension.

If this is the case, why do we persist in stereotyping? Especially now, as we're becoming increasingly aware of the manifold harms and errors perpetuated by this sort of thing -- why do it?

The sad truth of the matter is that, as best we can figure it out, stereotyping is the result of normal, adaptive cognitive mechanisms being used in ways that just don't make sense. People, in general, categorize other people in ways that just don't make sense... and then use these categories to reach conclusions that make even less sense.

While I sadly know the answer to why we do it (it's tied up into the normally-adaptive cognitive processes most people rely on to function), the fact of the matter is that we should be smarter than this. We can be smarter than this.

Just question yourself -- repeatedly. Be careful of over-generalization. Realize that in-group differences almost always exceed between-group differences. Keep in mind that people are people, regardless of anything else. Understand that you can misunderstand. Question yourself -- it bears repeating. Understand that statistical significance and practical significance are very different. Realize that "groups" of people -- however they're defined -- are almost always "fuzzy" statistical constructs. Watch out for logical fallacies. Don't expect perfection, mind... but always try to be right.


  1. There is a blog I am starting to really enjoy which talks about just some of these normally adaptive mechanisms which are used, which don't make sense:

    Not so smart

    And it was interesting to know more about apatheism. It seems to be more about the doing than the believing.

  2. "atheists are often seen as prototypical sinners, untrustworthy and criminal."

    is that really true where you are? it certainly does not reflect attitudes here in the UK

  3. Dinah,

    "Often" does not equal always. Having ties to the local atheist community (I regularly attend a FLASH get-together), I'm aware of the way they get stereotyped and the stigma attached. Florida is very much a conservative state with a strong theistic presence, and the theistic stereotypes are pretty strong.

    Atheists are confused with Satanists; portrayed as insensitive, immoral cynics; etc., etc. There's a rather interesting set of discussions at ; a more detailed discussion is available at . Note that, by Smith's definition, I qualify as an atheist (it would be nice if people would settle on a single, unified definition of "atheist"...).

  4. Wow, Alex.
    Well written.
    This hit home to me really hard, and reminds me of a moment when I realized I'd stopped using one stereotype.

    About a year ago, I was waitingo on the street for a friend and a man was waiting along side. A stranger. We stood there for a while and I looked up at him, smiled, and looked back down the street (you know, typical NT behavior - gotta stick to those social expectations, ya know ;-) Anyway, the man didn't respond at all. In fact, he looked away, rocked a little, but never looked up to greet me, acknowledge my presence with a nod, smile,...nothin'.

    I'm a southener. You know, sweet, slow, and social, raised in a highly social family.

    Now (as sad as it is to write) a year before that moment, the thoughts in my mind would have been like this:
    "well, he's grumpy" or "he's rude". "What's wrong with that guy?"

    but now my first thought is
    "I wonder if he's uncomfortable with social cues?
    Does eye contact cause him pain?
    Maybe he's not even aware of the social expectations."

    Knowledge really changes perspective and stereotypes. And as a Christian, the realization of how often I stereotype can be painfully humbling.