AN AMATEUR OPINION ON THE PSYCHOLOGY OF STEREOTYPES

Psychologists argue that humans try to make sense of the people around them by fitting them into stereotypes. Stereotypes are certain markers, behaviour and traits ascribed to a social or cultural group. This bias stems from our inherent need to classify people in order to tailor our reaction to them. It is the evolutionary response of a predator to size up his prey-and vice versa -in the struggle for the survival of the fittest, and then react to attack (or flee) in response to that assessment. Thus you have the “Igbos are greedy money chasers” and “Yoruba guys are serial womanisers” tropes that are just a few out of so many stereotypes in this country based on ethnicity, gender and even educational background.

Stereotypes are convenient when making snap judgments. Doing business with an Igbo man? Be immediately on your guard and suspect every deal. Meet a new man and he’s Yoruba? Guard your fragile heart. Have a woman as a boss? Expect her to be unreasonable and fall into occasional hormonal rants.

The question then is this: do we subconsciously start to conform to a stereotype because it has been ascribed to our cultural group? Are there very nice, monogamous Yoruba men who cheat serially just because they subconsciously feel like they have to? Are there honest Igbo businessmen who are pressured into cutting nefarious deals because it is expected of them anyway? Are there black american teenagers who end up in prison just because the society expects it of them?

I am no expert, but one thing is sure: societal expectations are a huge pressure on behavioral patterns. We were taught that “nature” and “nurture” are the major factors that mould us all. Where nature stops, nurture starts.

Psychology agrees with me. Children pick up on these cues from their parents and the places where they are raised, in addition to what they see and hear happening around them. The racist, homophobic, xenophobic bias just grows as they mature: an excellent example is in the case of white policemen drawing their guns faster when faced with a black suspect, but are slower to resort to arms  and more are reasonable when the suspect is white.

What then? Are we who the stereotypes make us?

We are all of us human and are equally prone to violence, to cheat others, to be dishonest in relationships, to lose our temper. Stereotypes are a social construct that say nothing about the true personalities of the people involved, and we should learn not to tailor our responses to people based on instinct alone.