Stereotypes

| By TMA World

 

“We don’t see the world as it is, but as we are.”

As someone teaching and writing about working across borders, I have used the quote above many times – usually, to start a discussion on how we see the world through our dominant cultural lenses.  The quote is sometimes attributed to Anaïs Nin, the essayist and memoirist, or to the book of Jewish law known as the Talmud.  Whatever the origins of the phrase, it so clearly captures how we are not passive observers of reality, but participants in its making. 

We all know that stereotypical biases can significantly influence how we think about others.  A stereotype is an over-generalized belief (positive or negative) about a group or class of people.  We can hold stereotypes about any group including races, genders, nationalities, and religions.  They are a superficial and dangerous shortcut to understanding others because they gloss over individual differences.  Consequently, we may perceive and relate to individuals in ways that are utterly false and harmful. 

We learn stereotypes growing up via our parents, relations, friends, teachers, and the media.  In the cross-cultural training field, we try to control the negative impact of stereotypes.  We do this using various strategies, such as:

• Helping people acknowledge they have stereotypes/biases (we all do)
• Recognizing dominant stereotypes we have been exposed to in our culture
• Identifying stereotypes others have about us
• Supporting people in analyzing their own self-talk about other groups through reflective thinking
• Developing mindfulness and strengthening curiosity
• Thought-stopping (to regain control over damaging thoughts)
• Challenging the use of stereotypes by others in a non-threatening way (being curious rather than furious)
• Shifting perspectives to see the world through different eyes
• Developing a growth rather than fixed mindset (seeing ourselves as being capable of change)

These are all very necessary and worthwhile training strategies, but what’s remarkable is how stubborn stereotypes can be.  As some researchers have said, they are insidious, meaning they develop in gradual, subtle ways until they appear to us as real. 

We know stereotypes shape our thinking about others which in turn influences our behavior toward them.  It can take a lot of concentrated self-examination and discipline to minimize their power over us.  I say ‘minimize’ rather than ‘eliminate’ because stereotypes may be even more insidious than we once thought – despite our very best intentions.  This is the conclusion reached by recent research in the Department of Psychology at New York University (NYU).
According to the NYU research, the neurons responding to such things as gender and race are linked by stereotypes which warp the way we perceive people’s faces – even before the visual information reaches our conscious brains.  Our brains distort our perception of faces to fit with existing stereotypical expectations. 

The researchers scanned the brains of 43 participants as they looked at images of faces: males and females of different races, as well as faces showing different emotions.  The brain scans demonstrated that stereotypical biases may become entrenched in the brain’s visual system, specifically in the fusiform cortex, a region involved in the visual processing of faces.  Using functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) technology, researchers saw that the neural activation patterns elicited by black male faces in the fusiform cortex were more similar to those elicited by objectively angry faces, even when such faces did not display any angry features (bias due to stereotypes of black individuals as hostile).  Neural activation patterns elicited by white female faces were more similar to those elicited by objectively happy faces, even when such facial images did not display actual happy features (bias due to stereotypes of women as appeasing).  Neuron activation patterns elicited by Asian faces were more similar to those elicited by female faces, regardless of the actual gender (bias due to stereotypes associating Asians with more feminine traits).  

The extent of the stereotypical similarity in the neural activation patterns (as described above) was correlated with the extent of bias observed in a second part to the experiment.  After the scans, the researchers sat participants at computers to rapidly sort the faces into categories: male or female, black, white or Asian, happy or angry.  What they didn’t tell the participants was that they were tracking every slight hand movement they made using the mouse.  What this allowed the researchers to do was identify where ‘instinct’ led the participants to go in the first hundred milliseconds after an image appeared; before they had time to process the face and consciously sort it.  Interestingly, the slight (pre-conscious) hand movements revealed the presence of stereotypical biases.  When presented with a happy male face hands were likely to dart toward ‘angry’ (males stereotypically being more aggressive than women).  Black faces of both genders were in the first fraction of a second seen as angry.  After the first instantaneous hand movement (when choices were more conscious) participants would self-correct and click on the opposite label. 

Our stereotypes are not hard-wired, but learned and intractable.  As the lead researcher, Prof. Jonathan Freeman, says, “Stereotypes can be like poison in the water we all swim in, and the brain, like a sponge absorbs them even when we don’t want it to.”
Given that stereotypes are learned does make it possible to unlearn them, although the unlearning may be more difficult than we once thought.  At the moment, we can at least make sure that we put in place quality training that helps us manage their effects.  Unfortunately, some cross-cultural training may reinforce stereotypes rather than weaken them.

The NYU research might lead to new initiatives to tackle stereotypes.  According to Prof. Freeman, “By better understanding the mechanisms that underlie these implicit biases due to stereotypes, the hope is that we can better develop interventions to reduce or possibly eliminate them.”

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