We all understand the peril of stereotyping. Judging any group by a single set of often negative characteristics ignores both the breadth of human experience evident in any group of people and the unique individuality of each member of the group. Yet, stereotypes persist. The problem seems to be how we exercise the human need to identify others by comparing them to ourselves — How is he like me? How is she different from me?
When those comparisons are used to generalize groups of people, we tend to emphasize how we are different from the group. By focusing on differences, often by accentuating negative traits, we build stereotypes by defining ourselves as separate from others. However, when we apply the same process of differentiation to individuals we meet in daily life, we tend to emphasize positive traits, looking not for how the individual is different from ourselves, but how he is the same. By emphasizing commonalities, we break down stereotypes.
Psychologists have theorized that stereotypes can be a self-fulfilling prophecy, that people internalize stereotype messages, living up – or down — to those expectations. In a recent study published in the journal Experimental Aging Research, psychologists at North Carolina State University in Raleigh tested the theory, using the stereotype that older people have faulty memories. Seniors aged 60 to 82 were given a recall test. Triggering the stereotype, half the group was told the test would examine the effect of aging on memory. The other half was assured that age-related bias had been removed from the test. Those in the first group performed remarkably, fulfilling the negative expectations of the stereotype.
Stanford psychologist Claude Steele calls this phenomenon “stereotype threat.” Numerous studies have shown that when a message purporting to define who and what we are is repeated, we internalize and come to believe it, whether or not it is true. The phenomenon affects widely diverse groups from African Americans to jocks to teenage girls. The same phenomenon can be used to effect positive changes in self-image. By changing their internal message from negative to positive, cognitive-behavior therapists can help patients improve self-esteem and decrease anxiety and depression.