This article was written for The Psychologist in 1990 but was not accepted for publication
DO STEREOTYPES MATTER?
University of New South Wales, Australia
It has been contended that all ethnic stereotyping is harmful and should be avoided. It is shown that stereotypes do tend to have considerable truth value and, as such, could be useful. It is also shown that, in the course of interpersonal interaction, stereotypes rapidly become harmless as influences on the treatment of individuals. It is shown that the nub of the problem in inter-ethnic relationships is the fact that people tend to like most those who are most similar to themselves.
Certain "ethnic" jokes concerning Scotsmen appearing in The Psychologist sparked protests from certain readers (e.g. Leiser, 1989). In response, the editors of The Psychologist called for papers that addressed the issues involved. As someone who has been much involved in cross-cultural psychology, I would like to disagree with the reasoning behind Leiser's protest and support the publishing policy of The Psychologist. I might also note in passing that, as an Australian, I too am as subject to negative stereotyping in Britain -- stereotyping that seems to me to be just as bad as that directed at Scots. In fact the impression that many English people seem to have of both groups (Scots and Australians) seems pretty similar: "uncouth drunks" and the like.
Cross-cultural differences are real
What my cross-cultural research (like that of many others) has shown is that the impression all travellers have (that there are cross-cultural differences between various nations and ethnic groups) is an accurate one: There are such differences. I in fact even did surveys in Glasgow and London for the purpose of comparing Scots and the English on attitude and personality variables (Ray, 1978a & b & 1979a,
b & c). The differences I found were in accord with some of the popular images of Scots, although I had not explicitly set out to test any such.
Stereotypes have truth value
In other words, as has long been acknowledged (e.g. Allport, 1954; Triandis & Vassiliou, 1967; Bond, 1986) stereotypes do tend to have a "kernel of truth". They are not haphazard and need not be self-serving. This does not, of course, mean that they are always perfectly accurate. For instance, it seems to be a widely held belief among the English that Australians address one-another as "cobber". Yet in all my 46 years of living in Australia, I have never heard any Australian addressing anyone that way. Australians of all classes in fact address one-another just as the Cockneys do: as "mate". How the "cobber" myth arose I have no idea. Perhaps there was an awareness that Australians do address one-another in a distinctive way combined with an unwillingness to believe that it could be anything so ordinary as "mate".
In other words, it need not be so but it is nonetheless likely that any given ethnic stereotype does reflect some reality. To suppress use of such stereotypes would therefore be suppressing possibly useful information. That would hardly seem appropriate in a scientific journal. For instance, I have never bothered to check any statistics on the matter, but my various trips to London have left me with the strong impression that the English are a remarkably abstemious people in their use of alcohol. The idea that some Englishmen "sit on a pint" all evening (i.e. take all evening to drink one pint of ale) would be greeted with much hilarity by many Australians. Only some derogatory (and unjustified) reference to the poor quality of English beer could explain such a phenomenon. The converse of my impression, however, is the impression that many English people have of Australians -- i.e. that they drink too much. By English standards they do.
Only the individual matters
Surely the point of all this, however, is to ask what harm is done. English people who meet me in England can almost always tell by my accent where I hail from and they also find that I am a very enthusiastic drinker of English ale but I have never sensed any problem resulting from it. Quite the reverse, in fact. Because it happens
that I very much like Real Ale, I often seem to be regarded by many Englishmen as a person of remarkable good sense and discernment. It is almost like knowing the family secrets.
So what is the point of all that? The point is what many studies of stereotyping have shown (e.g. Bayton, McAlister & Hamer, 1956; Stein, Hardyck & Smith, 1965; Locksley, Hepburn & Ortiz, 1982; Braithwaite, Gibson & Holman, 1985/86; Galper & Weiss, 1975; McCauley, Stitt & Segal, 1980; Smith, Griffith, Griffith & Steger, 1980): That stereotypes are the most tentative of generalizations that cease to be any guide to action as soon as even a small amount of information about a specific person is obtained. In other words, people do rapidly come to judge you for what you are, not according to whether you are a Scot, Australian, or anything else. So if an Englishman happens to be a Real Ale fancier and the only other such in the room is an Australian, the Australian will be looked on with a distinctly kindly eye. The fact that most Australians despise all English beer (even I cannot find a good word for any English Lager) will be simply irrelevant.
"But how does that square with the various studies (e.g. Pettigrew, 1979) that have shown stereotypes as resistant to change?" someone by now will want to ask me. The answer could not be more simple. It does not matter whether they are or not. The only issue is whether attitudes to the individual are flexible, and that they generally are the studies cited above attest.
Stereotypes are harmless
In short, I am making the perhaps rather bold claim that stereotypes, of themselves, are essentially harmless. What is harmful are traditions or institutional arrangements (e.g. Apartheid) that prevent individuality being recognized. To say that blacks tend to be more aggressive than whites appears to be an empirically true generalization (Warr, Banks & Ullah, 1985; Lineberger & Calhoun, 1983; Jones, 1978 & 1979; Ray, 1985) but to think that all blacks are more aggressive is sheer madness. People who tend to think in the latter way must certainly be discouraged. One would hope that the educational system normally saw to that.
Where the problem really lies
Nothing I have so far said tends in any way to deny that minorities often do get short shrift from the majority. If I had the normal Australian attitude to English beer, my social success and acceptability in England would certainly be reduced and many of my countrymen, in my view, deprive themselves by not giving English beer more open-minded consideration. But everyone tends to like what they are accustomed to (Park, 1950) so they cannot really be blamed for that. It is just that they cannot reasonably expect to have it both ways: Either enjoy the comfort of familiar ways and thus experience rejection by the majority or adapt to majority ways and win majority
acceptance. That may seem a hard dictum but there is now an enormous amount of evidence that people do prefer others who are similar to themselves (Barnard & Benn, 1988; Bochner & Orr, 1979; Byrne, Clore & Smeaton, 1986; Byrne & McGraw, 1964; Davis, 1984; Fujimori, 1980; Insko, Nacoste & Moe, 1983; Lange & Verhallen, 1978; Liebowitz & Lombardo, 1980; Lydon, Jamieson & Zanna, 1988; Manheim, 1960; Mann,
1958; Moe, Nacoste & Insko, 1981; Moghaddam & Stringer, 1988; Newcomb, 1956; Park, 1950; Rokeach, 1960; Singh, 1973; Suzuki, 1976; Taylor & Guimond, 1978; Walker & Campbell, 1982) so I can see no other way that copes with people as they are. Proposals to change people into something that they are not are, of course, possible but the now acknowledged failure of the Communist experiment in Eastern Europe and
elsewhere would seem to make their probability of success very low.
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