The Science of Stereotypes

When you look at the history of human conflicts, it sometimes seems as if most of them can be boiled down to battles of “us versus them”–however the relevant combatants are defining “us” and “them.”

Anyone who is, or has ever been, part of a group marginalized by a particular society knows the sting of the stereotype: In the U.S. it has been”scheming” Jews, “sissy” gays, “shiftless” blacks…In our trips to Europe, Spanish people have warned us against “thieving” Moroccans, a Hungarian expressed disdain for “dirty” Gypsies, and in a small town in Northern England, we were told to beware of people from Yorkshire.

Anyone with two brain cells recognizes how ridiculous it is to apply sweeping generalities–positive or negative– to any group of people. That said, it is clear that even nice people have implicit preferences for those with whom they identify. That undeniable human tendency raises two questions: why? and how do we overcome a deep-seated trait that–whatever its original utility– is increasingly counterproductive?

A recent article in The Conversation looked at the science of stereotyping.

As in all animals, human brains balance two primordial systems. One includes a brain region called the amygdala that can generate fear and distrust of things that pose a danger – think predators or or being lost somewhere unknown. The other, a group of connected structures called the mesolimbic system, can give rise to pleasure and feelings of reward in response to things that make it more likely we’ll flourish and survive – think not only food, but also social pleasure, like trust.

But how do these systems interact to influence how we form our concepts of community?

Implicit association tests can uncover the strength of unconscious associations. Scientists have shown that many people harbor an implicit preference for their in-group – those like themselves – even when they show no outward or obvious signs of bias. For example, in studies whites perceive blacks as more violent and more apt to do harm, solely because they are black, and this unconscious bias is evident even toward black boys as young as five years old.

Brain imaging studies have found increased signaling in the amygdala when people make millisecond judgments of “trustworthiness” of faces. That’s too short a time to reflect conscious processes and likely reveal implicit fears.

These studies, and many others like them, can help us understand distrust and fear of the “other.” They also explain the innate preference for people with whom we identify:

As opposed to fear, distrust and anxiety, circuits of neurons in brain regions called the mesolimbic system are critical mediators of our sense of “reward.” These neurons control the release of the transmitter dopamine, which is associated with an enhanced sense of pleasure. The addictive nature of some drugs, as well as pathological gaming and gambling, are correlated with increased dopamine in mesolimbic circuits.

The good news is that biology is not destiny.

Even if evolution has tilted the balance toward our brains rewarding “like” and distrusting “difference,” this need not be destiny. Activity in our brains is malleable, allowing higher-order circuits in the cortex to modify the more primitive fear and reward systems to produce different behavioral outcomes.

Research has confirmed that when diverse people work together–in business, or on a common problem–they are more innovative and productive than more homogeneous  groups. When people of different backgrounds socialize, they stretch their frames of reference and reduce their instinctive suspicions.

Of all the damage done by Trump voters, perhaps the very worst has been their willingness to reward political candidates–including legislators–who appeal to crude stereotypes and enthusiastically encourage fear of “the other.”

Humans can learn. To be human is to have a choice. We can tame our destructive instinctive responses. But in order to do that–in order to be more humane and less primordial–we need leaders who model our preferred behaviors and call on us to be the best version of ourselves.

Those are the people who deserve our votes in November.


  1. “…in order to be more humane and less primordial–we need leaders who model our preferred behaviors and call on us to be the best version of ourselves. Those are the people who deserve our votes in November.” Ah, if only. Candidates for Senator from Indiana, and for Represtative in my District are already chosen. What if none of them resemble “the best version of ourselves”? Or, why if a majority of the populace have a preferred behavior detrimental to the welfare of many?

  2. “As in all animals, human brains balance two primordial systems. One includes a brain region called the amygdala that can generate fear and distrust of things that pose a danger – think predators or or being lost somewhere unknown.”

    There can be no “Science of Stereotypes” of sexual predators for they encompass all races, ethnic groups, ages and now even evangelicals must be included in their group due to their support of this wide-ranging group of humanity. Or are there separate groups of Republican evangelicals vs. Democratic evangelicals which we have yet to hear from. We are watching it at the top of our political chain of command; at the national level and here in Indiana. Will the lofty position of Rev. Pence keep Indiana Attorney General Curtis Hill in good stead with the Indiana Republicans to aid him in maintaining his job – the highest level of seeking justice in this state. Talk about the “fox in the hen house”!!!

    Trump defies categorizing in any stereotypical group because he is active at high levels in all of them and his supporters appear to be forming an entirely new stereotype, yet to be classified. They fit the current Republican stereotype and they are both members of the sexual predator stereotype; Trump a “pussy grabber” and Hill an “ass grabber”. “Different strokes for different folks.” Their victims are known to them on some level; Trump’s a wide range of celebrity connections and Hill’s on the job-site which happens to be within the Indiana State House. Can Science categorize them? They defy the generalization of sexual predator being a creepy-looking low-life strangers. They cannot be found in the animal world other than a separate class of humanity as yet identified; our founding fathers didn’t or couldn’t conceive of needing to protect Americans from their leaders regarding sexual abuse. And those who should be providing this protection ARE the abusers who appear to becoming a new stereotype.

  3. We for sure are, “pleasure seekers” and “pain avoiders”. We are also driven by the emotions of love and fear which are responses to our mental activity.

    As a society, we need strong morals or we become self-seekers. What prevents us from invoking our attractiveness to pleasure all day?

    Many of the studies today about income inequality in the USA are making the connection to our opioid and suicide crises. People striving for meaning go to work at low paying dead end jobs…most of them have two or three of those just to survive. You get to the point of dread.

    Dread is where hopelessness has taken over…and when you start asking the question, “What’s the point of this?”, you are heading down a slippery slope.

    And why are we living instinctively? Survival mode.

    Maslow’s hierarchy of needs has always helped me understand people. If you are stuck at step at physiological and safety all the time, you are basically in survival mode. And I think Americans are stuck in this mode and have been for too long.

    The government made a conscious decision after WWII to abandon a society of informed citizens for a society of consumers who can drive the economy. We work to consume. Day in. Day out.

    Even our measuring sticks are based on growth in our economy. Our local economists and national economists point to the stock market as a leading indicator and GDP. Is double-digit growth in the private prison population a positive?

    What’s really telling is there are two additional metrics out there: 1) social progress index and 2) Happiness index.

    Would it surprise anyone if we don’t score highly on either one of these indices?

    In fact, we are a second tier country for social progress and we rank almost 20th for happiness.

    We were told that working makes a person feel good about themselves which gets us into the 3rd and 4th levels of Maslow’s hierarchy.

    Just the mere fact that our systems aren’t progressing us forward and are making us unhappy should be enough to want the entire country to change its underlying systems. We aren’t even questioning our systems.

    I would love to see a month-long network programming about Scandinavian Countries. How can a society pay such a high level of taxes and consistently lead in education results, happiness, and social progress?

    We are way off track as human beings because we’ve become pointless human doers.

  4. For some time now I have noticed in myself a kind of hypocrisy that has given me reason to question my own motives for the animosity I have towards some people but not others. The label Republican plays a role in this as does my lofty expectations of the behavior of others. It has become too easy to sit on high and look down on those I am actually jealous of by labeling them with “Republican” while dismissing their many good qualities. At the same time I have embraced people who’s actions and inactions are not to be admired only because I could label them “Democrat”.

    Oh, to be human!

  5. We won’t address these individual “problems” until we each admit that we have them. After that, it takes work to change ourselves. Most of us won’t admit we have a problem and most of us won’t do the work required to bring about individual change.

    One of the things that creates the dopamine effect is being in a crowd of like-minded people at a rally and yelling as a chorus something like “Lock her up!” Even the mesolimbic system betrays mankind. We have such a very long way to go.

  6. Since we all have unconscious bias and even conscious bias (Republicans, Democrats, Evangelicals, Christians, Atheists, Mormon, Catholic, Muslim, Gays, LGBTQ, Me Too, Black Lives Matter, Pro Choice, and on and on), one solution comes to mind. In a perfect word, we would not put you in a group, label you, and then refer to you by said group further developing stereotypes based on behaviors we see from members of that group. I am guilty of it too, but I increasingly see myself and others discounted or discounting based on groups we have been assigned to unconsciously or consciously. For me I think it comes down to making what is different familiar. How do I do that? Go outside of my comfort zone and meet people different from me and get to know them. It is too easy to keep doing the same thing and never step outside of that familiar routine. If your preaching to your choir, your not really going to make change that is lasting. We need to get back to common ground we can agree on. This President doesn’t appear to care about that, but I can still look toward the future in a positive light. I am uplifted by the grass roots efforts of newcomers running for office. I want to hear what they are going to do.

  7. Todd @ 8:02 am, I have also thought of humans as individuals and as a society in terms of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.
    They are below:
    1.) Physiological needs (including, Water, Food,Sleep,Clothing, Shelter and Sex)
    2.) Safety needs (including, Personal security, Emotional security, Financial security and Health and well-being)
    3.) Social belonging (including, Friendships, Intimacy and Family)
    4.) Esteem (including, recognition, status, importance, and respect from others)
    5.) Self-actualization (including to accomplish everything that one can, to become the most that one can be, a person’s basic needs must met before self-actualization can be achieved.)

    When our political-economic system is delivering low wage, dead end jobs, it is easy to understand why millions of people are stuck in the first two needs. A booming stock market does little to alleviate this economic pain.

    Our political system has always been designed to deliver wealth to the 1%. It was hidden in the past. “Trickle Down” was a method to trick the 99% into believing the 1% would share their wealth. This Trickle Down turned out to be myth. The latest mirage is the Agent Orange tax cuts, but it has as it’s core belief Trickle Down. I have always thought of Trickle Down as the 1% urinating on the 99%.

    A villain or villains must be identified to divert the attention of the masses. Ethnocentrism, Racism, Sexism, and Religion are among the triangulation strategies, used. This strategy has been a tried and true method for the !% to keep the 99% fighting among themselves for scraps.

    A quote attributed to Louis the XV of France, is meaningful “Après moi, le déluge” (“After me, the flood”). Even though President Agent Orange epitomizes the privileges of wealth, his followers are deluded into thinking and believing, Agent Orange is all that stands between them and the “others” – the flood.

    The Trumpters, that is the followers of Agent Orange derive their Social Need (need number 3) from Team Trump and Esteem (need number 4) from Agent Orange.

  8. George Lakoff would be delighted with Sheila’s choice of topic today, and how even a wired brain can loosen its wiring with higher order thinking. I am all for such discussion of how we got this way and possible escape routes, but my particular brain quickly leaves the academic for the practical, i.e., O.K., we’re stuck with wiring and how it dictates our sociological being, but what about wage inequality, giveaways of our efforts to the rich, authoritarian treatment of the poor and immigrant etc. etc. etc.? I think liberal Democrats did not invent the “us v. them” game that has been around for thousands of years but that Trumpist Republicans have brought this social divergence to the fore in a sea of ignorance and lust for power, so if it’s “us v. them” and our democracy is at stake, I’m ready (figuratively) to go out in the back alley and take them on.

  9. Excellent commentary, today, stimulated by a blog that cuts to the core of our being. I’ve mentioned Rebecca Costa’s fine book, “The Watchman’s Rattle” several times. She points out the dichotomy of an organism (humans) living in a complex, divers society of their own making while still harboring those basal instincts described above. Being aware of this dichotomy certainly helps to overcome the fears.

    That all said, we are in a bare-knuckle brawl and bar fight with a political organization, the GOP, that doesn’t give a damn about decency, fairness and working together. They are only about power. Their masters, corporate/banking America expect only one thing from their bribed lackeys in government at all levels: WINNING NO MATTER THE COST. Why? For more profits. They will play on any fear, defy any “norm” and exclude any group as long as that action wins elections and increases profits. THAT is what happened after WW II, and we, the liberal thinkers let it happen.

    Why? Because we tend to be decent, ethical and cooperative people. The Republicans are none of these. Our fight, this time, will be dirtier than ever, more disgusting than ever, but we will retain our dignity and social decency when it is all over and WE have won.

  10. I’m always searching for simple models of complex things because Engineering taught me the essential wisdom of the Pareto Principle that 20% of causes explain 80% of effects. So here’s me and you in a nut shell.

    We are born with certain attributes and into a complex stew of an environment.

    From that inauspicous beginning we develop common sense which is the sense from our five senses about threats and opportunities in our space and times and about how things work. One such common sense is culture which is how we observe those who we deem to be like us behaving in different circumstances.

    Then of course there are those feelings we get from body chemistry that motivate our reaction to and memory of threats or opportunities as they appear.

    Finally based on that stuff we see to the degree that those other things inform us the value of purposeful learning – the absorption of the human body of knowledge largely from the words of others, written, spoken and virtual.

    Stir that mix for a lifetime and marvel at how many different and distinct possibilities emerge. Diversity defined.

    Social scientists (like Maslow) love to measure and analyze and catagorize that stuff and one such effort is what’s become known as the “political compass” that locates our political leanings relative to others on orthogonal axies going from liberal to authoritarian in one and left leaning to right leaning on the other. (I always find left vs right somewhat undefined and here is what Wikipedia says about that. “The left–right political spectrum is a system of classifying political positions, ideologies and parties. Left-wing politics and right-wing politics are often presented as opposed, although a particular individual or group may take a left-wing stance on one matter and a right-wing stance on another; and some stances may overlap and be considered either left- or right-wing depending on the ideology.[1] In France, where the terms originated, the Left has been called “the party of movement” and the Right “the party of order”.[2][3][4][5] The intermediate stance is called centrism and a person with such a position is a moderate or centrist.” Liberal to authoritarian is a little easier to grasp.

    So one of the outcomes of this process of becoming has to do, as Sheila points out today, with our chemical and cognitive reaction to those obviously different than we are. First, are they a threat or opportunity? To what degree? What informs us of that?

    Too often the answer to those questions comes from culture and not education.

  11. Perhaps we need an additional measure which I will define because I can as the O/T ratio. (Opportunities X Consequences) /(Threats X Consequences). I believe that I personally and we Americans generally have chalked up some record O/T numbers and that makes us feel entitled to even better numbers.

    The right believes that the right strategy is to stop progress in order to lock in that entitlement while the left feels spreading the good fortune to additional others is both possible and beneficial for all.

    Liberals believe that spreading the good fortune is a matter of enhancing freedom to self actualize while authoritarians believe that stopping progress takes additional order and structure with power tilted their way.

    We are now met on a great battlefield of that war.

  12. “Humans can learn. To be human is to have a choice. We can tame our destructive instinctive responses.”

    The cognitive programs of the brain are determinitive. They exist because they are evolutionary produced behavior in the struggle to exist and and reproduce. They becomes mutable through natural selection, not by learning and choice.

    We cannot will our way out of the “other”.

    In some respects, this belief in “choice” is no more rational that the belief in “god”.

  13. Pete,

    “We are now met on a great battlefield of that war.”

    It doesn’t have to be a dirty battle, or a battle at all. It’s an EQUILIBRIUM problem. There is no organized COUNTERVAILING FORCE representing the interests of DEMOCRACY. That’s why things have gotten out of hand.

  14. we need leaders who model our preferred behaviors and call on us to be the best version of ourselves.

    Gotta admit, Drumpf has emboldened racists and white supremacists. They are free to come out and be all they can be.

  15. Marv, I’m hoping for a democratic battle instead of a military battle too but recognize that the “other” side makes that choice.

  16. Pete,

    The choice that the “other” side makes is based on its assessment of our capabilities. They will continue to take advantage of our lack of an EFFECTIVE COUNTERVAILING FORCE. It’s our choice whether or not to change things.

    If we don’t have the will power to do it, they will then continue to take as much as they can. That’s the way the world has worked for thousands of years. Unfortunately, I don’t think we can change it.

  17. The recovery from a market crash such as the one in 1929 and the resulting high-rise leaping lemmings may solve some of the problems of pride, obscene wealth and income inequality.
    Rid of the jumpers, the rest of us may survive if we prevent the GOP from screwing with our hard-won modest social safety net.
    Yeah, Trump, hardly trying you may get the ball rolling unexpectedly down hill or is that part of your plan after the mid-term elections of November, 2018 if you can keep the GOP majority in Congress?

  18. OMG,

    “Rid of the jumpers, the rest of us may survive if we prevent the GOP from SCREWING with our hard-won modest social safety net.”

    Thanks for providing us with the key word: SCREWING. To be a little more specific, we’re being for the lack of a better word……. ROYALLY SCREWED.

    Some of you might remember HECKLE AND JECKLE. From Wikipedia:

    “Heckle and Jeckle are postwar animated characters [Magpy birds]created by Paul Terry. Unlike Bugs Bunny, who retaliates against against an antagonistic foe only after repeated provocation, their comic aggression, is often unprovoked.”

    “While both are basically brash, cynical and antagonistic, Heckle may be more openly confrontational, and Jeckle slightly more devious. Both may deliberately annoy their mutual foils with insults, slapstick violence and rudeness, but Heckle is more likely to make his intentions clear from the outset. Conversely, Jeckle often treats enemies politely at first, in order to lull them into a false sense of security before unleashing magpie mayhem. They are alternately cast as a pair of conmen actively out to swindle an unsuspecting dupe—or just freeloading opportunists, idly in search of a free ride or mooching a meal. However, even when they’re gainfully employed (as in “The Super Salesmen” or “Pill Peddlers”), there’s often a hint of hucksterism or prankishness involved. In “Sappy New Year” (1961), they’re a couple of inveterate, compulsive practical jokers trying (unsuccessfully) to turn over a new leaf.

    The characters’ cheeky personas occasionally extended to impromptu song routines, such as “Give Us a House to Wreck” in “House Busters” (1952), and “Come to Our Diner” in “Blue Plate Symphony” (1954). In “Taming the Cat” (1948), they stop the action just to perform a lively version of “Get a Couple of Songbirds Today” on piano, in the style of Jimmy Durante. Other impersonations of Hollywood and radio favorites included Humphrey Bogart, Hugh Herbert, Bert Lahr, Walter Winchell, Edward G. Robinson, and Groucho and Harpo Marx.

    The high point of any Heckle and Jeckle cartoon was arguably the climactic chase sequence, often interspersed with witty banter between the two magpies. The duo bested their foes by outsmarting them, all the while indulging in wry commentary that made their adversaries appear even more stupid. Heckle and Jeckle often received their comeuppance before the fadeout, however, as they were usually the instigators of the conflict in the first place. Although they’ve wound up inside a jail cell on occasion, for some (usually unspecified) offense (“Out Again In Again”, “Free Enterprise”, “A Merry Chase”), other episodes portray the pair ostensibly on the side of law and order (“The Hitch Hikers”, “‘Sno Fun”, “Hair Cut-Ups”), instead of fleeing from it.

    In the short “Blind Date” (1954), Heckle is able to forcibly disguise the unwilling Jeckle as a girl, which might indicate that Heckle is physically stronger than Jeckle. However, in that same short, Jeckle actually overpowers Heckle and throws him into the arms of an amorous suitor. This would suggest that Jeckle is not necessarily weaker, but simply more reluctant to resort to brute force. In “The Power of Thought” (1948), it is Jeckle who self-reflexively discovers the unlimited possibilities of being a cartoon character, although Heckle is quick enough to go along when this is pointed out to him.”

    It might help as a starter to think……President Donald Trump as Heckle and Vice-President Mike Pence as Jeckle. Or better still, TRUMP/BANNON AS HECKLE and PENCE/BUSH AS JECKLE.

    We’re dealing with two separate MALADIES. Only treating one, will get us NOWHERE. That is exactly where are today, the day before the announcement of the, all important, nominee for Supreme Court Justice.

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