On Stereotyping, Part 2 – Should stereotyping be considered harmful?

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In Part 1 of this article where I asked Is it OK to stereotype people?, I pointed out how modern cognitive science, understood in particular in terms of the paradigm of Active Inference, leads us to conclude that stereotyping is intrinsic to all observing, understanding and learning. So any attempt to stigmatise people for engaging in stereotyping (rather than just advising them that they are inadequately informed) is tantamount to problematising normal human behaviour. Selective calling out of particular stereotypes (about things we care about) but not others says more about our value system than it does about the other person’s.

So, for example, calling a person racist because they have participated in what is perceived as a race-based stereotype is more likely to be a marker of the desire of the person doing the labelling to burnish their anti-racist credentials, than of actual racism. The fallacy here is that for a view to be a classed as a stereotype, it has to be widely held and have some evidential basis. So to heap moral condemnation on the head of an individual for showing themselves merely to have been influenced by such a view has to be considered uncharitable if not downright unfair.

I concluded Part 1 by suggesting that, rather than stereotyping itself, what is generally the basis of criticism against “stereotyping” is a belief that the view being expressed engenders or reinforces some form of social injustice, within the understanding of the person making the criticism. And usually this is taken these days to mean engendering offence or harm in relation to members of some group which is deemed to be relatively oppressed (for example an ethnic minority) usually by a larger group deemed to be relatively privileged.

It should be noted here that it is not alleged that those who experience such “harm” do so because of a greater likelihood of being stereotyped. As might be expected following our observation that stereotyping is normal human behaviour, the evidence does not suggest negative stereotyping to be any more likely than positive; nor is the likelihood influenced by the size of the group, either of the stereotypers or of the stereotyped. The main reason that negative stereotyping of minorities tends to be given greater focus in social policy discussion is because it can be more obviously associated with “harm.”

The other question which naturally presents itself here is whether the social injustice perpetrated against those deemed to be members of groups oppressed by power structures in society results from an undue amount of negative stereotyping or of negative impact from stereotyping generally. This is a difficult question to address but it can certainly be observed that it is the negative impact of stereotyping which is much more the focus of recent research and social policy discussion.

Such negative impact is commonly addressed these days in terms of stereotype threat, a concept originating with Claude M. Steele and Joshua Aronson some 30 years ago:

Stereotype threat is a situational predicament in which people are or feel themselves to be at risk of conforming to stereotypes about their social group. It is theorized to be a contributing factor to long-standing racial and gender gaps in academic performance. Since its introduction into the academic literature, stereotype threat has become one of the most widely studied topics in the field of social psychology.

Stereotype threat, Wikipedia

What is interesting here is that the alleged harm to members of the social group is not from those outside of the group acting on the basis of stereotyped thinking but from the thought processes of the group members themselves:

According to the theory, if negative stereotypes are present regarding a specific group, group members are likely to become anxious about their performance, which may hinder their ability to perform to their full potential. Importantly, the individual does not need to subscribe to the stereotype for it to be activated.


In other words what is being claimed here is that it is a stereotyped view members of the group have of themselves which causes the disadvantage or harm. Alternatively it is a stereotyped view that they have of everyone else holding the original “harmful” stereotyped view which impacts negatively on them, causing anxiety, poor performance, loss of confidence or conformity to the stereotyped behaviour.

Notice also that this phenomenon is not restricted to minorities or marginalised groups. While it has been publicised in relation to disadvantaged minority groups, this is mainly because it has been used as a tool to help explain such disadvantage where it arises, as evidenced say in performance gaps. It has been observed also that a common stereotype threat faced by members of relatively empowered majority groups is of their being the cause of stereotype threat to minorities. This is similarly disempowering and can lead to disengagement from minority groups for fear of resultant censure.

When those in the non-minority group experience stereotype threat, it has an adverse impact on their performance as well. Triggering a “white racist” stereotype threat has been shown to increase anxiety and have negative cognitive and behavioral consequences in whites including fidgeting, avoiding eye contact, impaired working memory caused by regulating behavior to avoid appearing prejudiced.

This stereotype trigger can also make things worse as they may seek to distance themselves from those in the marginalized set. As a result, communication and collaboration suffer.

Prevent Stereotype Threat (Identity Threat) from Undermining DEI Success

It becomes questionable therefore whether any benefit accrues from castigating those who are alleged to hold the stereotyped view. Insofar as attempts to address this situation through implicit/unconscious bias training are, as I have argued in Are We Biased in Our Attitude to Bias?, likewise tantamount to problematising normal human behaviour, they are at best ineffective and potentially counter-productive. But even if such training were effective and helped to discourage the holding of stereotypical views of minority groups, the impact of talking about the stereotype as being so widely held as needing to be addressed by special training would likely be perceived by members of the minority group as a reinforcement of the stereotype threat they faced (Prevent Stereotype Threat (Identity Threat) from Undermining DEI Success).

A more fruitful approach has been to focus on those who are the subject of negative stereotyping. Indeed studies have found that doing precisely this can mitigate significantly the impact of stereotype threat:

An experiment was performed to test a method of helping students resist these responses to stereotype threat. Specifically, students in the experimental condition of the experiment were encouraged to see intelligence—the object of the stereotype—as a malleable rather than fixed capacity. This mind-set was predicted to make students’ performances less vulnerable to stereotype threat and help them maintain their psychological engagement with academics, both of which could help boost their college grades. Results were consistent with predictions. The African American students (and, to some degree, the White students) encouraged to view intelligence as malleable reported greater enjoyment of the academic process, greater academic engagement, and obtained higher grade point averages than their counterparts in two control groups.

J. Aronson, C. Fried and C. Good (2002) “Reducing the Effects of Stereotype Threat on African American College Students by Shaping Theories of Intelligence” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 38:113-125.

By the same token, it follows that pursuing a policy of avoiding censure of those who are suspected of harbouring stereotyped views is likely to reduce anxiety on their part and be conducive to more fruitful and wholehearted engagement with minorities, which is likely to reduce tensions between groups and increase trust: this is seen by Dr Steele himself as one of the most important mitigators of stereotype threat:

I’m really fascinated now by the notion of trust and the effort to build trust …that once we do come to trust people, stereotypes and these things tend to fade away because they’re just not as relevant.

Breaking free of stereotype threat with Claude Steele, Interview podcast, January, 2023

In conclusion, while we have found that there is evidence of harm caused by negative (and occasionally positive) stereotyping resulting from stereotype threat, we are led to conclude this harm is mainly incurred through the influence of the stereotype on the thinking of the stereotyped group. Also we have seen that stereotype threat can impact negatively both on marginalised minorities and on members of relatively empowered majority groups. The suggested way forward is to empower and instil greater confidence and self-belief in the minds of those affected by stereotype threat; also to promote interactions which increase trust on both sides rather than looking to apportion blame.

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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