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Prejudices Are Harder to Shake Than You Think

Psychologist Heidi Grant Halvorson delves into the brain to identify how prejudices and stereotypes are developed.

Heidi Grant Halvorson: One of the most surprising things I think that people learn when you study perception and you look at the research is that we can be influenced as perceivers by stereotypes that we don’t even believe are true. So you don’t have to be a racist or be a chauvinist or be any kind of a bad person to be influenced by stereotypes. It turns out all you need to do is know the stereotype to be influenced by it. Stereotypes really are an example of categorization. Brains have evolved. Human brains have evolved to be very rapid categorizers of things. It’s what allows us to interact with our world so smoothly and effectively, right. So you can go into a room and see a chair for the first time and you know that it’s for sitting and not for eating or climbing because you identify it as a member of the category chair.

Stereotypes are categories of people and sometimes they’re actually very helpful. So we have stereotypes of what police officers or librarians or nurses are like and those stereotypes allow us to fill in the blanks a little bit and know without even talking to a member of that profession something about what their job is, how I’m supposed to interact with them, what it’s reasonable to ask of them, you know. How our interaction is probably going to go. The problem of course is that every stereotype is a generalization that never applies completely accurately to any one person. And sometimes stereotypes are just flat out wrong. They’re just absolutely unnecessarily negative and completely untrue. And yet we are affected by them because again that’s one of these phase one perception things that the activation of stereotypes in the mind is relatively automatic. For example, I’m a female scientist and there are stereotypes about women not being as capable in science and mathematics, so I like to get right out in front with people and, you know, show them, demonstrate my expertise in science and math so that I can counter that stereotype before it has a chance to negatively affect their view of me.

Really when it comes to any of the initial assumptions that people make about you whether they’re based on confirmation bias or the primacy effect or whether it’s stereotyping or the halo effect, which is the tendency for people to think that if you have one good quality you have a lot of other good qualities. They all tend to be pretty robust and they all really require you to really engage with your perceiver in a way to break them because these are — they’re all relatively equally potent biases and they all really influence the way you are perceived, particularly when the perceiver isn’t really motivated to be accurate about you or is only getting really a kind of a quick glimpse of you and they’re really kind of busy thinking about other things. That’s when all of these things are at their sort of the highest danger of influencing and getting in the way of being seen the way you really want to. So as the person who's being perceived really what you want to be able to do is get that other person to really want to see you accurately. The best way to do that is to get that person to work with you in some way or to get that person to notice that you can help them reach their goals. That’s another really great way to get people to kind of get past the initial assumptions and really take a second look at you. So be someone who’s instrumental in helping other people reach their goals and they’re going to be much more likely to try to see the real you.

 

Can stereotypes be useful? Sometimes they can be, even though a lot of the time they're not. Psychologist Heidi Grant Halvorson, author of No One Understands You And What To Do About It, walks through the science of stereotypes and explains how they affect much more than you may realize.

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