Why Do We Create Stereotypes?

Nov 14, 2014
Originally published on April 20, 2015 12:37 pm

Part 5 of the TED Radio Hour episode Playing With Perceptions.

About Paul Bloom's TED Talk

Psychologist Paul Bloom explains why prejudice is natural, rational and even moral — the key is to understand why we depend on it, and recognize when it leads us astray.

About Paul Bloom

Paul Bloom is a professor of psychology at Yale University. His "Introduction to Psychology 110" class has been released to the world through the Open Yale Courses program. Bloom also presents his research through numerous books and articles in The Atlantic, The New Yorker and The New York Times.

Many of the projects he works on are student-initiated, and all of them are interdisciplinary, bringing in theory and research from many different areas of psychology.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.



So up to this point we've been hearing about stereotypes, how we all make judgments about people based on how they look or talk and the assumption is that these things are all bad.

PAUL BLOOM: I think that's an understandable conclusion, but it's not right.

RAZ: This is Paul Bloom. He teaches psychology at Yale.

BLOOM: And I think that if you think of stereotypes as a flaw in our mind, some sort of pathology or cruelty, you actually won't understand them very well. You won't know how to combat them.

RAZ: Paul studies human behavior, in particular why we all make quick judgments about other people.

BLOOM: You know, you don't ask a toddler for directions, you don't ask a very old person to help you move a sofa and that's because you stereotype. Now, stereotypes then go awry in all sorts of ways and they cause horrible moral problems and horrible rational problems, but this is because a system that has been evolved to make generalizations in certain circumstances can go wrong in other circumstances.

RAZ: So when Paul explain this idea on the TED stage, he explained how the mind does this.(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

BLOOM: So you look at me. You know my name, you know certain facts about me and you could make certain judgments. You could make guesses about my ethnicity, my political affiliation, my religious beliefs and the thing is these judgments tend to be accurate. We're very good at this sort of thing and we're very good at this sort of thing because our ability to stereotype people is not some sort of arbitrary quirk of the mind, but rather it's a specific instance of a more general process, which is that we have experience with things and people in the world that fall into categories and we could use our experience to make generalizations of novel instances of these categories. So everyone here has a lot of experience with chairs and apples and dogs, and based on this, you could see these unfamiliar examples and you could guess - you could sit on the chair, you could eat the apple, the dog will bark.

Now, we might be wrong. The chair could collapse if you sit on it, the apple might be poisoned, the dog might not bark, but for the most part, we're good at this. For the most part, we make good guesses both in the social domain and in the non-social domain and if we weren't able to do so - we weren't able to make guesses about new instances that we encounter, we wouldn't survive.

RAZ: What assumptions do we make like, pretty much right away when we encounter somebody?

BLOOM: The big three that social psychologists talk about are age, sex and race so when you look at somebody, in a fraction of a second, you record a kid, an adult, an old person, man, woman, Chinese, American, black, white, whatever. You do this in a fraction of a second. It's unconscious. It's very powerful. And those generalizations show up as early as you can test them so babies like to hear their own language over other languages, they like to look at faces that are familiar over those that are unfamiliar and actually like to look at familiar races over unfamiliar races. So a white baby raised by white people prefers to look at white faces than black faces. Though, it's not the baby's own race so if the baby's white but raised by a multi-ethnic bunch, the baby will show no preferences.

RAZ: Ok so I mean, I get age, I get gender, but why are we wired to see race so differently when - I mean, didn't we all look the same in East Africa like, 40,000 years ago?

BLOOM: I think that's an excellent point and I mentioned the three generalizations, sex and age and race, but a lot of evolutionary theorists point it out that race is the odd man out for the reasons that you pointed out. Sex and age are always going to be relevant for any primate, but race is a novelty. It's a modern thing that's emerged only in recent history and so our focus on race then is less determined than our focus on sex and age and this fits very nicely with the data from children. So there's no experiment that's ever found that children don't care about sex and age when making decisions. They're always sensitive to it, but when kids pay attention to race it's not because they're biologically built to be intuitive racists, but rather it's because they've learned that race matters in a world we live in.

RAZ: And Paul says the problem is that racial stereotypes are often flat-out wrong.


BLOOM: There was a fascinating study prior to the 2008 election where social psychologists looked at the extent to which the candidates were associated with America, as in an unconscious association with the American flag and in one of their studies they compared Obama and McCain and they found McCain is more thought of as more American than Obama. And to some extent, people aren't that surprised by hearing that - McCain is a celebrated war hero and many people would explicitly say he has more of an American story that Obama, but they also compared Obama to British prime minister, Tony Blair and they found that Blair was also thought of as more American than Obama even though subjects explicitly understood that he's not American at all.


BLOOM: But they were responding, of course, to the color of his skin.

RAZ: That is amazing to me, that people would say that and you think about it and you think, well, I wouldn't say that but then you think, well, maybe I would.

BLOOM: So that's right - so there's so many social psychology experiments showing - and this is really the pernicious side of stereotypes - that even in cases where we know a stereotype doesn't apply or we know it's mistaken, we're guided by it anyway and these are done for the most part, I think, by well-intentioned people who would never dream that they'd be racist, but we are influenced by factors we don't know about.

RAZ: You know, earlier Jamila Lyiscott was talking about language as a conveyor of stereotypes, right, about how being called articulate for example, is a code.

BLOOM: Yes, I think Joe Biden slipped up and called Obama articulate in the primaries.

RAZ: Yeah. I mean, this has real-world consequences. I mean, this is a real thing that happens everywhere all the time, every day, every second of the day.

BLOOM: It's as if you called an elderly relative lucid, you know? Thanks, thanks a lot.

So you're right, language often reveals your expectations. To call somebody articulate is, in some way, reflecting the intuition that this is a surprising fact. Or, to say somebody's clean or composed or, you know, non-aggressive, it would be an odd thing to say, unless you believed or had some reason to believe that they weren't.

BLOOM: So now that we know about this, how do we combat it?

And there are different avenues. One avenue is to appeal to people's emotional responses, to appeal to people's empathy and we often do that through stories. Stories can turn anonymous strangers into people who matter and the idea that we care about people when we focus on them as individuals is an idea which has shown up across history. Psychologists have explored this. For instance, in one study, people were given a list of facts about a crisis and it was seen how much they would donate and another group was given no facts at all, but they were told of an individual and given a name and given a face. And it turns out that they gave far more. It's possible that by extending our sympathies to an individual, they can spread to the group that the individual belongs to.

RAZ: I mean, it's almost - it's like a case for making a conscious choice and decision to reach out to people who are different from you.

BLOOM: It really is - so you can't change implicit biases by just sitting in your room and concentrating and saying, I'm not going to be racist, I'm not going to be racist, but what you can do is you could actively expose yourself to real-world instances, which give you maybe a more accurate and more fair representation of these groups.


BLOOM: I think prejudice and bias illustrate a fundamental duality of human nature. We have gut feelings, instincts, emotions and they affect our judgments and actions for good and for evil, but we are also capable of rational deliberation and intelligent planning and we can use these to, in some cases, accelerate and nourish our emotions and in other cases staunch them and it's in this way that reason helps us create a better world.

Thank you.


RAZ: Paul Bloom is a professor of psychology at Yale University. He has two fascinating talks up at ted.com.


GEOFF BARTLEY: (Singing) We're all alike, we're all alike. We all know the difference between wrong and right. We all put the baby in the cradle at night. We all need love and that's all right. We're all alike.

RAZ: Hey, thanks for listening to our show this week, Playing With Perceptions. I'm Guy Raz. You've been listening to Ideas Worth Spreading on the TED Radio Hour from NPR.


BARTLEY: (Singing) We're all alike, we're all alike.

JACK WILLIAMS: (Singing) We're all alike, we're all alike. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.