The Evolution of Stereotypes

A short but well-written BBC article, about a controlled experiment on the evolution of stereotypes, finds that when a jumble of personal characteristics (assigned to funny-colored “aliens”) is passed down a communication chain, the information is streamlined as stereotypes emerge, “so much so that the people at the end of the chain were far more knowledgeable than those at the start.”

Stereotyping is simply an extremely effective way of organizing information into categories. When the information that originally formed the stereotype changes, stereotypes move as well – more slowly, I am sure, but they do move. When was the last time someone tried to hide their Irishness because employers stereotyped the Irish as drunken louts? Now it’s all “Kiss me, I’m Irish” shirts for sale every St. Patrick’s Day (and you don’t even have to prove your ancestry to buy one!) An amusing example from the article: in 1918, pink was for boys and blue was for girls. In another hundred years, it may well have switched to green and red, or some such thing. (Especially since Christmas seems to be slowly switching to blue and silver. I’m not going to mention pink and purple. Those colors on Christmas decorations are an abomination. It’s terrible, I tell you! Just terrible! Pinks and purples are for SPRING, obviously!)

So here’s two takeaways: stereotypes emerge from actual information. Stereotypes also evolve and change over time. Figure out what information a stereotype you don’t like is based on – and then instead of trying to get people to stop categorizing things (they won’t; it’s built into the hardware), change the foundation of the stereotype. It might take a while, but it’s easier to change what color is for boys than it is to stop people assigning colors to the sexes entirely! (Hey, it’s hard to tell what sex a newborn baby is, and calling a new parent’s child “it” is totally going to get you into trouble. LOL)

I vote that girls take back blue. And give boys red instead! 😉


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