HBD: Stereotypes


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.

This is one of a series where I discuss issues and elements of what is referred to as HBD. Similar to my Random Thoughts series these posts will be more personal and less scholarly. If you want deeply footnoted reference work, please look elsewhere. Disclaimer aside, I do hope to give a passable overview of the subject.

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.


10 Responses to “HBD: Stereotypes”

  1. sdaedalus Says:

    good post… I wince every time I see drunken Irish abroad.

    I have a blog post coming up on the lengths (quite literally) to which the sober law abiding Irish would go to dissociate themselves from their rowdier compatriots.
    [DU: I look forward to your post.
    In the US the upwardly mobile Irish were sometimes called the “lace curtain” Irish. Some have claimed that it was Irish women working as maids (“in service” as they called it – in our less innocent time that description might raise an eyebrow) who brought the middle class habits they experienced at work to their own lives.
    I spent a year or so in London in the mid 1990s. The impression I got was that the Irish their had become more acceptable; either they had moved up and moved on, or the more recent arrivals were tended to be from professional classes. That and the fact the IRA were quieter during that time seemed to have blunted the fighting Irish stereotype (I imagine some of the earlier flows were of the rougher types).
    I suspect that some of the English feel the same way about their own compatriots in foreign parts; The Brits have a rowdy reputation when abroad.]

  2. Hope Says:

    Stereotypes apply quite well to countries and subcultures, and less well to entire “races,” which are truthfully too broad. When we say “white,” we really generally refer to American Christians of mixed European heritage, but there are so many sub-categories of white.

    SWPL or WASP can be more meaningful as stereotypes.
    [DU: I agree that White does cover a broad range of peoples, however despite their different heritages, in the US at least, there remains something you could call White. As you say, smaller sub-groups are naturally more stereotypeable; SWPL (upper middle class, urban) and redneck (rural and working class) are probably great examples; you might find it difficult to give an all encompassing description, but you would surely know it when you saw them. It would also be true to say that many upper-middle class urbanites and working class rural folk would not match the stereotype. Different experience can influence stereotypes: Americans may assume the British are reserved and polite (those BBC dramas), while the Spanish assume they are all “hooligans” (from the sometimes violent soccer fans, or the young ones who head there on cheap flights and get sunburned and drunk).]

  3. David Foster Says:

    One thing that probably helps keep stereotypes going is the psychological phenomenon known as “confirmation bias”…ie, the tendency to seek out data supporting the hypothesis one already holds. It is a phenomenon well-known to accident investigators.

    In ethnic stereotypes: Someone who held the “Irish are drunks” stereotype would be likely to notice the Irishman standing at the bar, swaying a bit and singing a maudlin song; less-likely to notice the Irishman talking politely at the intermission of the classical music concert.
    [DU I suspect that the decline in stereotypes takes a generation. The father experiences many drunk Irish and bias-confirmation means he misses the polite opera attendee. The son not having experienced the drunken type (due to a change in Irish behavior), notices neither because in his experience the Irish are neither particularly drunk nor particularly opera lovers. Over time, the father’s experience might start to outweigh bias (“you don’t see as many drunk Irish these days, what happened”), and the stereotype would loosen its grip.]

  4. dream puppy Says:

    What is so offensive about stereotypes is that they are usually true: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Alcohol_consumption_per_capita_world_map.PNG

    [DU: As I said, stereotypes will exist until the underlying behavior changes, and rarely exist in the absence of such behavior.]

  5. Lily Says:

    ‘Lace curtains’ are frightfully LMC (Lower Middle Class) though seems this is disappearing. Funnily, the Daily Mail’s readership doesn’t seem to be waning.
    Have you ever seen the funny Keeping up Appearances?
    [DU: I am aware of it, but have never seen it. It is surprisingly quite popular here. I suspect that “lace curtain” applied to Irish that were moving from the working class (maids and manual labor) to the lower middle class (typists and clerks), so the LMC designation makes sense. I see the Daily Mail linked to quite a bit, and from non-English sources. They seem to have perfected the respectable tabloid genre.]

  6. Lily Says:

    I’ve always wondered why the Irish don’t get a mention in ‘Heaven is where the police are British, the cooks are French, the mechanics are German, the lovers are Italian and it is all organised by the Swiss. Hell is where the police are German, the cooks are English, the mechanics are French, the lovers are Swiss, and it is all organised by the Italians”.’
    [DU: Where would the Irish fit in that Heaven and Hell list? Hell=cooking, lovers (sorry SD/AnPlayer), organization? Heaven: hospitality, literature, butter?]

  7. Lily Says:

    *seems this is disappearing.
    By ‘this’ I meant the LMCs (along with the MMCs and UMCs) as everyone is middle class now, rather than net curtains unfortunately. You can spot these if you visit the right areas.

  8. David Foster Says:

    Lily…heaven & hell joke…well, why don’t you improve the joke by adding “in heaven the Irish are XXX” and “in hell the Irish are YYY”??

  9. Lily Says:

    Alas, I am not well versed enough in the habits of the Irish, despite my soft spot for a good tale.

  10. Lily Says:

    ..from an Irish male.

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