Behind stereotypes: The interplay between culture and cognition

Our predictive brains absorb ideas from our surroundings, but fighting bias is still within our power

Writer: Karolay Lorenty
Editor: Ebani Dhawan
Artist: Lauren Troy

In the last few months, the death of George Floyd has sparked a worldwide roar demanding justice. While prejudice may be widely regarded as unacceptable, injustice still prevails. Terms such as ‘systemic discrimination’ allude to the magnitude of the problem, but we cannot forget our individual participation. We’re all guilty of holding implicit biases that furtively influence our perception of someone; snap judgements are embedded in our brains. 

Humans have a natural urge to reduce uncertainty, and social situations are no exception. The psychologist Oriel FeldmanHall explains that our dislike for social uncertainty leads us to make assumptions on the little information we have available. First impressions have a purpose, she says: “In general, another person’s motivations, desires or beliefs are hidden, so we have to figure out how to navigate through the world when we’re interacting with other people without that knowledge”. This process is called ‘automatic inference’ and results from a rapid integration of incoming information with prior knowledge. Where is our predictive brain getting its inputs from?  

Mass media is an easy scapegoat. It is no secret that TV and cinema use blatant stereotypes to make us laugh. The popular sitcom The Big Bang Theory has been harshly criticised for its dependence on negative stereotypes. Although the main characters embody ‘the nerd’, they have been accused of using their ‘adorkable’ nature to propagate misogyny. In 2018, the New Statesman referred to the show as “a plague on society” - the label may be questionable, but researchers are now discovering the influence that the media can have. Even short segments of shows displaying gender stereotypes can increase their endorsement by children. Besides perpetuating gender roles, exposure to sexualised media can increase self-objectification in women, which has been associated with decreased cognitive performance. 

Although charging at mass media is tempting and can have its place, many stereotypes have deeper roots - our brains are not blind to reality. The professor of social psychology Lee Jussim announced: “The evidence is clear. Based on rigorous criteria, laypeople’s beliefs about groups correspond well with what those groups are really like. This correspondence is one of the largest and most replicable effects in all of social psychology”. Although not all of them are correct and there are individual differences, in statistical terms, some stereotypes can be more accurate than we would like. For example, the Colour of Power revealed that only 4.7% of influential roles in the UK are held by ethnic minorities. It makes sense then, that when judging a random person, our brains can make a reasonable prediction of their position in society based on the colour of their skin. 

The cause can be traced back to systemic racism, but few people can escape from these observations. Ethnic minorities are not exempt; acceptance of the racial hierarchy can lead them to question their own worthiness and competence. Albeit arising from unjust realities, internalised racism can build invisible barriers that perpetuate them. In the absence of role models, Black students can absorb the negative perceptions of their racial group, growing ashamed of themselves and diminishing their academic achievement. Despite the obscurity of this distressing phenomenon, it is far from uncommon. In South America, nuances of skin pigmentation can be a matter of dispute between friends. With their characteristic colour-coded social stratification, lightness is praised - it is seen as a sign of beauty and status. 

As we come to understand how our observant brains can be accomplices of the injustice we are fighting, the battle turns inwards. While we push for creating balance in society, we can practice social learning - updating our predictions in light of new evidence in spite of the mental effort it requires. We can actively look for counter-evidence against our speculative beliefs, or confront uncertainty until we can see beyond the group identity, and within the person. We have the power to unlearn and retrain ourselves, until our culture changes.

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