Could stereotypes come from word of mouth?

Could stereotypes come from word of mouth?

Accountants are boring, students are lazy and blondes have more fun – that is if stereotypes are to be believed anyway. The British Science Festival heard today (Tuesday September 4) about Aberdeen research being conducted into how stereotypes form.

Irrespective of whether we believe them to be true we all have extensive knowledge of societal stereotypes. But how does this information become associated with certain groups in the first place?

Dr Doug Martin, who leads the Person Perception Laboratory at the University of Aberdeen, said: “One intriguing possibility being examined by our team is that stereotypes have formed and evolved unintentionally over time as information is repeatedly passed between people.  If we are right, the formation and evolution of stereotypes is the inevitable and unintentional consequence of human interaction and as a result stereotypes are slowly but constantly changing.

“The last decade or so has seen some groundbreaking research examining how other knowledge systems, such as languages, change as information is passed from person to person.  Here in the Person Perception Lab we have begun to examine if stereotypes form and evolve in the same way as languages do.”

Stereotypes help us make sense of the world around us, according to researchers.  While stereotypes have strong negative connotations because of their relationship with prejudice, they are also fundamental to the way we organise, store and use information about other people.

Meeting someone for the first time and discovering that they are a librarian means we automatically have instant access to the stereotype knowledge that librarians are quiet, timid, shy and introverted.  We might not believe this stereotype to be accurate and could quickly discover that this person doesn’t possess these qualities but until that point stereotypes give you some basic information to help you form an impression.

Dr Martin continues: “Stereotypes also have an impact on the way we perceive ourselves. For example, my parents are in their early sixties and when they forget something they tend to attribute it to getting older, whereas as someone in his thirties when I forget something I tend to attribute it to being busy at work. In reality there might be no difference in the actual number of memory lapses we have but merely in our stereotype-driven explanations of these.”

To try and discover how stereotypes form, Dr Martin’s team are running innovative lab experiments where they ask people to remember information about novel ‘alien’ characters and then pass this information from person to person. Like the game ‘Chinese Whispers’, they expect the information to change as it travels down the chain of people.

If Dr Martin and his team are right, their research could not only illuminate how stereotypes form but also how they change. As strange as it might seem to us today, less than 100 years ago the colours pink and blue had very different gender connotations – in 1918 the Ladies’ Home Journal carried the entry:  “The generally accepted rule is pink for the boys, and blue for the girls. The reason is that pink, being a more decided and stronger colour, is more suitable for the boy, while blue, which is more delicate and dainty, is prettier for the girl.” 

Dr Martin added: “If we can understand how stereotypes form and evolve then we can begin to predict how they might change in the future and possibly even manipulate this for the benefit of society.”