Why do we label people and what effect does it have on society?

Why do we look at people who are not like us and automatically classify them into one or other ‘type’?  This process of categorisation is a fundamental human process: it is the manner in which we simplify our complex worlds. The world is too complex to take in all its features at once – imagine trying to remember every detail about each person you meet! Social categorisation is a way of simplifying information about individuals through focusing on common features such as skin colour.

Social categorisation can lead to prejudice. When we link a social category (white people) to a judgement that applies to people in this category, we have a ‘stereotype’: ‘they’ are all like this. For example, ‘they’ look like that and we know people who look like that cannot be trusted..

Basically stereotyping is a preconceived and over-simplified idea about a specific group of people. Once we have this fixed stereotype in our minds, we tend to make all sorts of assumptions about individuals in the group, and this often leads to racist, sexist, or homophobic behaviour. Our negative thoughts and reactions are triggered very easily when we encounter a member of a group about whom we hold stereotyped negative views; our response is almost automatic because these views are ingrained in us – we don’t even have to think about them.  This is known as confirmatory bias – what we see is what we expect to see.

Stereotypes have their origins on the attitudes that prevail in our society and the people we associate with. We learn them as we grow up within our families and among our peers. They become beliefs that are ‘normal’, and taken for granted as they are shared by the group.  “Women are bad drivers.” “People from that village are rude.”

If someone thinks that women aren’t as clever as men, then they are making an assumption about all women. Edith Stern, an American woman born in 1952 had an IQ of 200 and is considered one of the brightest people in computing. Einstein, the most famous scientist of the 20th century had a reported IQ of 160. Of course IQs tests are problematic in themselves but it still counters the stereotype that women aren’t as clever as men. And of course there are many stereotypes about men that are not fair – not all men are messy! Some are and some aren’t!

Of course racial stereotypes are really nasty and can cause all sorts of problems in a society. In South Africa we know them all too well, and so does the rest of the world. After the 9/11 attacks that happened in New York in 2001, some Americans stereotyped all Muslims as terrorists, a very dangerous stereotype that continues to cause social breakdown in the world. Notice how I wrote, ‘some Americans’ – not all Americans – otherwise I would be guilty of stereotyping myself. Americans are not free from being stereotyped either. In fact, none of us are! We need to be conscious of our own unconscious biases and make an effort not to stereotype others.

Advertisers know, though, that we recognise stereotypes and they’re happy to exploit this in getting us to buy products. Gender stereotyping has been an especially prominent in adverts, although this in not as acceptable to society as it was in the past. Having a young girl in skimpy clothing leaning over your expensive brand car is no longer seen as a desirable way to make sales! Common stereotypes seen in advertising include the housewife, the businessman in a suit, blonde hair and blue-eyed girl, the suburban family – mom, dad, two kids.

Nando’s is a well-known South African chicken takeaway brand that is known for its funny but relevant adverts. Some of their adverts show how South Africans typically stereotype each other based on their appearance, accents, habits and tastes. Their adverts are often hilarious but they also play a role in showing how hypocritical South Africans can be in ‘othering’ people. One of their campaigns was called – “You people” – a common phrase of stereotyping! “You people always…” When we are able to laugh at ourselves and realise how nonsensical some of our stereotypes are, then we are more likely to have conversations about how ridiculous these stereotypes really are.

Luckily, research has shown that stereotyping can be reduced or eliminated. This is not easy precisely because we are social beings, and breaking ranks with one’s peers, and disagreeing with their beliefs, means that you may risk be rejected by the people you value. However, prejudice reduction programmes can be effective. Many such programmes promote contact between people of different groups in order to promote understanding between them and reduce negative attitudes. Researchers have found that contact is crucial but alone it is not enough. To be successful, this contact must take place in a supportive environment, it must involve meaningful cooperative engagements between members of the two groups, members of the groups should be of as equal in social status as possible, and the contact must occur frequently over some time. Also important is for members of the two groups to learn to see beyond group characteristics to the positive features of each individual.

We are constantly in contact with people who are different from us. The less we stereotype them, the better society is able to function for the good of each individual.

Thanks to Andy Dawes for help with the development of this article.