On Stereotyping, Part 1 – Is it OK to stereotype people?

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It is a commonplace assumption that stereotyping people is a bad thing which we should do our utmost to avoid. Perhaps this is a position you would agree with, on the grounds that it is wrong to make generalisations since this can result in us misjudging people and potentially treating them unfairly. But I would like to suggest that, with a little further thought, this view can itself be seen to be a “stereotype.” Consequently criticism of those we perceive to be engaging in stereotyping equates to participation in the very behaviour we seek to criticise.

But, before we proceed let’s make clear what we mean by a stereotype. Generally this is understood to be an inadequately justified assumption or generalisation, in particular one made about the traits of a specific member (or members) of a group based on a characterisation we have in our mind of the group as a whole. The first thing that should be said before entering into judgements about the rights and wrongs of stereotyping is that the use of such stereotypes is not ultimately something we have a choice about: inherent in all human cognition is that it starts with a generalisation which can then be refined based on further evidence gathered.

Research by cognitive scientists over the last few decades into the working of the brain has confirmed that, despite our subjective impressions, cognition is much more of an active than a passive process, and that we are incapable of “knowing” what we are looking at or experiencing without first projecting an interpretation based on our prior experience and assumptions and then refining this based on a process of what is called prediction error minimisation (PEM). As neuroscientist Anil Seth explains in his seminal book on the subject:

It seems as though the world is revealed directly to our conscious minds through our sensory organs. With this mindset, it is natural to think of perception as a process of bottom-up feature detection – a “reading” of the world around us. But what we actually perceive is a top-down, inside-out neuronal fantasy that is reined in by reality, not a transparent window onto whatever that reality may be.

Anil Seth “Being You: A New Science of Consciousness” (Faber and Faber, 2021), p. 101.

In other words, the starting point of all observing and understanding is the deployment of a stereotype followed by a refinement process based on increasingly more specific stereotypes (or combinations thereof) until we reach a point where the mismatch between what we think we are perceiving and the evidence of our senses is reduced to a level where we are satisfied we understand the situation adequately. Even more problematically, the process of gathering and refining evidence is itself something we engage in actively based on a prior view of what is considered important, and furthermore with a view to confirming as far as possible the prior assumptions. This active engagement of the observer in the process of observation has led Karl Friston, who has emerged in recent years as the leading thinker in this space, to refer to his theory of cognition as Active Inference:

Under Active Inference, both perception and learning are active processes, for two reasons. First, the brain is essentially a predictive machine, which constantly predicts incoming stimuli rather than passively waiting for them. This is important as perceptual and learning processes are always contextualized by prior predictions (e.g., expected and unexpected stimuli affect perception and learning in different ways). Second, creatures engaging in Active Inference actively seek out salient sensory observations that resolve their uncertainty.

Thomas Parr , Giovanni Pezzulo, Karl J. Friston, “Active Inference: The Free Energy Principle in Mind, Brain, and Behavior” (MIT Press, 2022), p. 10.

The Active Inference paradigm of successively refining/updating predictions as a mode of understanding and learning operates not only at the level of individual cognition but is also increasingly understood to be operating in social processes:

Basic cognition concerns, for example, basic sensorimotor
activities, getting and eating food, perceiving and navigating
the environment and so on, but these activities are inherently
social: our environments are social, populated with others and
co-constructively developed by others and ourselves. This means that even the simplest basic cognitive activity is inherently social. The activity always unfolds in relation to the activities (or lack thereof) of others. This means that adopting an inferential account for one type of cognitive activity and not for the other would miss the point by implying that basic
and social cognition are two separate sets of activity in the
first place.

Inês Hipólito, Thomas van Es “Enactive-Dynamic Social Cognition and Active Inference” Frontiers in Psychology (2022), Vol. 13, p. 6.

Although the exploration of the consequences of understanding human and social cognition in terms of an Active Inference paradigm is at an early stage, attracting a rapidly increasing amount of research interest in multiple disciplines, it is by now clear that any attempt to stigmatise stereotyping, understood as viewing the specific through the lens of a generalised perspective, is effectively problematising normal human behaviour. As applied linguistics researcher Perry Hinton observed, the working assumption these days

… is that implicit stereotypes can affect everyone. This makes the use of the term cognitive “bias” problematic when it is universally applied, particularly as it contains the implication of an unconscious cognitive “failing” of the individual (a “cognitive monster” within them), especially given the unsuccessful attempts to correct it, noted above. There also arises the question of how an unbiased judgement can be defined.

P. Hinton, “Implicit stereotypes and the predictive brain: cognition and culture in “biased” person perception” Nature (September 2017)

So any criticism aimed at stereotyping behaviour should be aimed not at the process of thinking (which is essentially the same for all human beings), but at the rigour which is applied in refining initial assumptions and ensuring robust conclusions, which is what makes the difference between sound and flawed reasoning.

For example, someone may operate with a working assumption that people with Oriental appearance are Chinese. This is a not unreasonable assumption since 20% of the world’s population is Chinese. But if one is in Koreatown in Los Angeles a better starting assumption would be that the person is Korean. From there one might refine one’s guess based on cultural cues such as accents or names, but to do that requires cultural insights which many do not possess.

In the end, making an incorrect inference is really about how informed the guess was so, unless one classifies ignorance as sin (and many of course do), such error should not be subject to moral condemnation. And if it is so condemned, this probably says more about the character of the person making the criticism, insofar as they are problematising normal human behaviour in relation to one specific instance of inaccurate inference (in relation to something they see as important), while of course letting inaccurate inference pass unremarked in relation to myriad other matters. As I argued at the outset, this can itself be interpreted as a form of “stereotyping” whereby we see people as meriting censure if they fail to validate their assumptions adequately before reaching conclusions about things we see as important, something which, if we are honest, we all do at one time or another.

But this is only half the story. We cannot leave the discussion here without taking note of the fact that most criticism of stereotyping tends these days to be in the context of it either causing offence or else giving rise to some form of social injustice. Much could be said about the idea of offence and the degree to which it is given or taken. I shared some of my thoughts on this issue previously in The Culture Wars and the ‘Right to Offend’”. An Active Inference approach here would require both to be considered as part of a single process, premised on expectations set through moral constraints which themselves arise out of a process mediated by power structures embedded in society, and so on.

But ultimately, whether the offence taken merits greater consideration tends to be decided by viewing it through the prism of social justice, viz. if the person alleging offence can be deemed to be part of a relatively oppressed group, for example an ethnic minority. So the real issue at stake here is not “stereotyping” as such, but whether it perpetuates or gives rise to social injustice. This will be the subject of a follow-up article On Stereotyping, Part 2 – Should stereotyping be considered harmful?

By Colin Turfus

Colin Turfus is a quantitative risk manager with 16 years experience in investment banking. He has a PhD in applied mathematics from Cambridge University and has published research in fluid dynamics, astronomy and quantitative finance.

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