Valid Stereotypes?

Arguments about stereotypes are common in the world today. In the United States we have worked very hard to push back against stereotypes by bringing them into view so that we can address them directly to dispel incorrect and harmful prejudices. In the circles I am usually a part of, eliminating stereotypes is universally applauded, and people who reveal an inner stereotype, even if harmless, are often castigated for applying a characteristic or trait to an entire group of people and failing to recognize diversity and randomness within a group of people.


What I almost never hear, at least among the circles I am a part of, is that stereotypes can have validity and help improve some level of judgment. However, Daniel Kahneman in Thinking Fast and Slow suggests that maybe we should acknowledge some valid and helpful stereotypes. He writes,


“The social norm against stereotyping, including the opposition to profiling, has been highly beneficial in creating a more civilized and more equal society. It is useful to remember, however, that neglecting valid stereotypes inevitably results in suboptimal judgments. Resistance to stereotyping is a laudable moral position, but the simplistic idea that the resistance is costless is wrong. The costs are worth paying to achieve a better society, but denying that the costs exist, while satisfying to the soul and politically correct, is not scientifically defensible.”


I have a couple of thoughts in response to the quote from Kahneman. First, is about the way in which rejecting stereotypes that helps with judgment makes society more cohesive, and the second is about how we can use stereotypes to actually make the world more inclusive.


First, Kahneman states that society has become more equal and more civilized with stereotype rejection. The benefits of rejecting stereotypes comes from rejecting invalid stereotypes – prejudices that outcast other people and groups as inferior and inadequate. When we throw out stereotypes, we eliminate a lot of barriers from prejudices, even if it makes some roles and interactions with people who are not like us a little more challenging. The cost, as Kahneman notes, of abandoning stereotypes is that we have a little more friction in some of our interactions with others, but through deliberate effort this can be overcome and reduced.


The second note, is that embracing some valid stereotypes can help us have a better world. My initial thought in this regard is bright colored sand-paper strips at the edge of stairs. Many public buildings will add a strip of sand-paper like material, often bright yellow or a contrasting color, to the edge of stairs in public walkways. We might stereotype senior citizens or people with vision disorders and assume they need extra help walking up stairs, and we might be correct in these stereotypes. The stereotypes can become valid if they enable us to build a better world and accurately reflect the reality of the people we are making assumptions or pre-judgments about. The end result, if we embrace the stereotype instead of dismissing or ignoring it, is that we build staircases that are more safe and actually better for everyone. Able bodied young people will also benefit from stairs that are responsive to stereotypical concerns about the elderly. Perhaps this isn’t what Kahneman is referring to in his thoughts of valid stereotypes, perhaps this is just good design of the built world, but I think it can be considered a way of using stereotypes in a positive direction.


In most instances, our stereotypes have been negative factors that outcast people who are not like us, and serve to create more social animosity among people. Certainly these stereotypes should be discarded, however, Kahneman would argue that some stereotypes can be valid, and we can use them to construct more inclusive and overall better worlds for ourselves and others. There is a cost to ignoring all stereotypes, even if ignoring the vast majority of stereotypes actually is helpful for our societies.

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