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Why Stereotypes Can Be Rational

Why Stereotypes Can Be Rational

Few terms get worse press than stereotype. We are constantly told that it is bad, bad, bad and never, ever justified, in any situation.

And yet it is a deeply innate element of human reasoning. Even when you try to force people to stop doing it, they do it anyway. This likely means it must have long offered some advantage in the aggregate to those who did it, as otherwise we would not see it as such a ready part of our behavioral arsenal. And indeed, it is not hard to see how stereotyping of many kinds is advantageous to those who stereotype.

An example: I’m walking down a city street at night, and a group of young males, wearing the “urban tough guy” uniform (everyone who’s ever been in a city knows what this looks like), acting rowdy (i.e., loud, taking up a lot of space on the sidewalk) is coming toward me.

I have a choice: I can stereotype, in the interests of my own safety and, if I’m accompanied by friends or families, the safety of loved ones, and cross the street well in advance of the point at which they reach me, or I can insist on not judging them before I have individual-level data on them (which will never happen in this situation) and just keep on walking.

Look around a little bit online, however, and you will find examples of what kinds of things often happen to people who decide not to cross the street.

Now, what harm do I do to them or to the social fabric by relying on stereotypical information and maximizing my distance from them? How are they in any significant way harmed by that? If they feel I am unjustly and incorrectly judging them—that is, if they want people not to be afraid of them and not to cross the street or otherwise keep their distance—the solution is neatly in their grasp. They have only to dress and behave in such a way in public that gives people confidence that they are not likely to be a threat. Just as you and I do all the time.

Another example: If I were in the market for a babysitter for my kids, and I had two candidates whom I did not know well personally and whom had no previous babysitting experience to reference to (so little or no individual-level data), and one of them has no tattoos and no facial piercings while one has a full-sleeve tattoo and a nose ring, whom should I choose? Stereotyping tells me that the tatted-up individual is relatively more likely to be the kind of person I would want to avoid giving unsupervised access to my children. Just as in the above example, perhaps most multi-tattooed, nose-ringed individuals will not comport themselves in ways harmful to my children, but there exist data to support our relatively greater suspicion of this category of person. That is to say, stereotyping is actually a helpful behavior for us in situations like this, where we do not have individual-level information.

Now, an individual parent is certainly free to ignore such evidence in the absence of any individual-level data that might mitigate it and pick the tatted up babysitter in an effort to be an open-minded, unbiased person in the view of those who consider stereotyping to be taboo in all cases. And in some—perhaps most—cases, that will go okay.

Most people, though, are interested in increasing the likelihood of good outcomes as much as possible when it concerns their kids—that is, they want to get “most cases” as close as they can reasonably get it to “all cases,” and they do well to choose differently. And all of this is perfectly reasonable.

We are apparently moving in a direction as a culture that looks down on the kind of decision-making I’ve just outlined. What was once a commonsense way to make necessary snap decisions is now culturally taboo. Instead, it is fashionable to get caught in knots over ideology instead of relying on rationality.

Fortunately, we all have the power to rely on our own common sense and reject such ideological posturing, and in cases like the ones I explain above, we will all be safer for that commonsense.

Image credit: Unsplash

Alexander Riley
Alexander Riley

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  • Avatar
    Raymond E Burby
    May 24, 2024, 4:06 pm

    Speaking from an employers view in the construction trades, personal appearance is an absolute deal breaker in contract negotiations. I have no tattoos, piercings, or excessive facial hair. That being said, I've had several employees over the years that have. The difference is the air of ease that I put forth to the customer. After years of being in the business, one gets a sixth sense about potential clients, and can put them at ease prior to starting a project. I always carried out a thorough background check on my employees prior to hiring, as they often have access to the interior of the home. I would also try to put the homeowners at ease by joking about the appearance of some of my crew by saying outright that, if you seen these guys approaching you while walking your dog, you would probably cross the street. We would laugh a little and I would assure them that they would be in good hands and let them know that I ran background checks on my employees. I never had a problem in the 40 years of running my business with any of my guys and gals. But as the front man, my clean cut, all American boy image paid off.

  • Avatar
    May 26, 2024, 10:53 pm

    You are afraid of black men. Don't beat around the bush by saying "urban tough guy." We all know what you mean.

    Also, "Babysitters and child care workers only accounted for about 3.8% of abusers according to the Children’s Bureau article. They are the least likely to abuse the children they are watching. " Source: https://www.yourcheck.co/child-abuse-crimes-and-babysitters/

    Every statistic and study shows that the most likely abusers of children are family members or people close to the family. That is very concerning and parents should be aware! Do these statistics ever get broadcasted? Nope!

    It's a difficult pill to swallow but that is reality. Do even a little research and you'll find it's sadly true. Are you going to write an article about it? Of course not. Because it does not fit your liberal-bashing narrative. This site and its writers don't give a flying fart about childrens safety. So I guess you have no other option than to keep blaming black men you think are scary and people with tattoos. Good job.

  • Avatar
    Marjohna Madsen
    May 28, 2024, 10:43 am

    People choose how they look and they know the effect it has. I think it is very “racist” to assume someone using the “urban tough guy” description means black people. I was coerced by urban tough guys who were large, tough, white women “asking for money,” and one scrawny urban white guy I could likely have overpowered, but knew I wanted rid of asap. I absolutely do not want people who at the very least have such poor judgement as to have tattoos and piercings around the children, in my home or serving me food. I don’t care any more about their feelings than they do about mine. They get to choose and so do I.

  • Avatar
    Andrew Jones
    May 28, 2024, 8:25 pm

    You're walking the city streets at night? Why are you placing yourself in that situation?
    None of these situations are excuses for stereotyping. You shouldn't put yourself in these situations to begin with. If a woman gets assaulted while jogging by herself through Central Park at 2AM, while wearing earbuds, she put herself into that situation. No, she shouldn't be blamed, but she should know better.


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