Objectively, you know nothing other than the fact that someone posed for the picture. But take a second to notice what is going on in your head as you look at this picture. The picture is essentially a blank slate, and if you slow down and pay attention you will probably notice that your mind is frantically working to project meaning on onto it. Our brains are built to categorize information and make assumptions, and one of the primary ways that we do this is with social information relies heavily on the use of stereotypes.
Stereotypes, in and of themselves, are not necessarily bad. Living in large groups, it is virtually impossible to treat each individual that you meet as the entirely unique individual that they actually are. You have to find differences in appearance and behavior that allow you to make inferences and assumptions.
Take a second to take conscious control of this process. First, notice the individual’s age. What inferences does your brain naturally want to make based upon this information? What traits do you assume this individual has? Your brain is activating its age-related stereotypes, and it is probably trying to get you to assume that this individual will be patient, caring, and wise. You might find yourself wanting to assume that this individual wakes up early, or does not use Facebook regularly.
Now take a second, and focus on the individual’s gender. Notice how your perceptions shift. Your brain may try to get you to assume that this individual is nurturing, empathic, and warm. You might find yourself making the assumption that she knows how to cook, and that she may not know how to change the oil in her car.
Notice that all of this is what you are projecting onto the photograph based upon your stereotypes. You have never met the individual in this photograph, and you have little to no empirical data to support any of the assumptions listed above. Rather, you are basing these assumptions on either a limited set of personal experiences, or on the biased portrayal of social categories in the media you consume. Furthermore, most of the time these assumptions are made without your realizing that you have done so.
A famous study highlights the fact that stereotypes constantly, automatically, and unintentionally influence our thinking in social interactions. In it, participants were asked to do a simple word completion task. You can do it right now- try filling in the blanks: Ri_e, s_y. They found that when the experimenter administering the task was Asian, significantly more individuals gave the answers “rice” and “shy”. When the experimenter was not Asian, significantly more individuals gave neutral answers such as “ride” or “say”.
In this example, the stereotypes were rather harmless, and the impact of these stereotypes was trivial. But it is easy to see how the impact of negative stereotypes across millions of people and billions of interactions could be a lot more problematic. Assuming that you are “color/gender/age blind” because you don’t use vulgar words or actively discriminate when making hiring decisions does not mean that the negative stereotypes that abound in our society have stopped influencing your thinking or behavior.