Orderly Germans, polite English, voluble Italians, and fighting Irish.
Stereotypes we all do them. Don’t deny it. They are the guilty habit that we all partake in, but prefer not to admit (is that a stereotype?).
Are stereotypes a bad thing? Are they unfair? This stereotypical blogger investigates.
Stereotypes are simply pattern recognition, something humans are very good at; they allow us make inferences or decisions from relatively little data. Although useful, such pattern recognition skills are prone to error. The reason that proofreading is so difficult (*cough* don’t I know that!) is because the same pattern matching that allows us scan an article, also allows us miss mistakes (e.g., missed or repeated words, misspellings or transposed letters). In most human affairs we lack complete information; we have to match prior experience to the current one, and look for some “match” to guide us.
Pattern matching is a probabilistic mechanism, it does not say “yes” or “no,” it says “more likely” or “less likely.” If groups display different characteristics, then over time, those pattern-matching mechanisms will engage and a stereotype will appear.
While stereotypes are, in the cosmic sense, unfair, I do not believe they arrive from nowhere. Early Irish arrivals to the United States had a reputation for violence and drunkenness. They had such a reputation because it was true. In recent times, despite the debauchery of Saint Patrick’s Day celebrations, few would hold that stereotype. While some humor still revolves around the Irish fondness for “the drink,” any claim that an Irish American (or even fresh-off-the-boat Irish) would likely be a violent drunk will generate quizzical expressions. The reason the stereotype died is that the underlying truth changed; under the influence of the Catholic Church and social reformers, the Irish civilized.
Even if they reflect an underlying truth, stereotypes are still unfair; even at their worst, not every Irish man was drunk and violent. Those sober law abiding Irish suffered under the stereotype. However, as life is often a probabilities game, it still makes sense for the holder of the stereotype to act as if it were always true.
Imagine a coin flip game with an unfair coin. If you know that the coin comes up heads 65 percent of the time then you should bet heads every time. It is true that you will be “unfair” (and lose) one third of the time, but to continually bet on tails is a losing strategy.
We suffer discomfort with stereotypes because while true for a group they are often untrue for an individual, yet they are often the best way to play.
Using the coin flip analogy I can see why some people might have difficulty seeing HBD described group differences. If you were playing a coin flip game and assumed the coin was fair, then it would take you a lot longer to change your strategy. A long run of heads is perfectly possible, so why would you assume an unfair coin. Because you would still see some tails it would take you a long time (if ever) for you to notice the pattern. If you suspected the coin might not be fair you would probably spot the pattern (bias towards heads) far quicker. Those who refuse to believe in group differences may be blind to the pattern in the same way the fair coin believing player was; they put pattern down to aberration. If open to the idea of group differences, the “player” is more ready to see the pattern.
Another unfairness with stereotypes is the lag between the underlying truth changing and perceptions changing. I suspect that at least one generation of law-abiding and sober Irishmen lived under the old stereotype, even after it no longer matched truth.
I realize that stereotypes can be manipulated (for good or bad) by cultural forces other than experience (i.e., the representation of that group in the news, books, or other media). Enough real-life experience can override such manipulations, but for many it will be enough to sway them against their limited real-life experience.
Yes, I deliberately stayed away from Black and White stereotypes. By focusing on the Irish, I was hoping to look at the processes while avoiding the tensions that arise in discussing contemporary issues. The faux Irish revelry of Saint Patrick’s Day aside, within the United States, the Irish count largely as a generic White group.