Get real real
Stereotypes & perceptions
By Poopak Taati
August 2, 2000
Many of us have heard stereotypical comments. We have heard, for example,
Americans stereotyping Iranian women as "uneducated homemakers,"
and Iranian men as being "sexually and emotionally aggressive"
toward women. These stereotypes are sometimes confused with prejudice and
discrimination and attempts at defamation of character. Interestingly,
however, Iranians are not free from their own stereotypes of Americans
either. Iranians stereotype Americans as "politically naïve,"
"unsophisticated," and "parochial," to mention just
Stereotypes are generalizations based on limited knowledge and/or hearsay,
and are very common in understanding peoples, situations, events, relationships,
and things. Perceptions, upon which our judgements and ideas and thoughts
and actions are based, are almost always drawn from stereotypes. Stereotypes
provide necessary tools in learning about "reality" -- logical
analysis of extensive information and first-hand experience. In the absence
of knowledge about reality, people often rely on stereotypes to make sense
of the world around them. Stereotyping is an important mechanism forming
Many Western missionaries and early anthropologists, for example, stereotyped
non-Christian and non-Western cultures as "naive," "child-like,"
and "innocent " when they first encountered them. These early
observations have been regarded as "sentimentalist" at best and
"ethnocentric" at worst. But, neither sentimentalism nor ethnocentrism
can explain such "optimistic" views. As these early anthropologists
and Western missionaries became more familiar with "natives,"
they turned pessimistic and "cynical, this time describing them as
"subversive," "immoral," and "problematic."
Stereotyping almost always involves "positive" or "negative"
thought processes instead of any real analysis of experiences and information,
including an analysis of one's own analysis.
To be sure, Western missionaries and early anthropologists were not
the only naïve observers of cultures. Many of us tend to do the same
when we know very little about others. For example, Tehranis often stereotype
people of the south and north of Iran, for more than just humor. New Yorkers
stereotype Southerners and mid-Westerners. Men and women, although living
in close proximity, have almost perpetually stereotyped each other's cultures,
values, norms, behavioral patterns, and material goods.
As human beings, many of our perceptions, at least in their early stages,
are formed by stereotypes. For example, in choosing a restaurant to have
dinner, if we have never eaten there, we must rely on some stereotypes
in assessing and judging it. So, we might say we would enjoy the food and
the atmosphere in that restaurant, basing our assessment on what we have
heard about the physical setting, location, price, and other factors. In
this example, stereotypes are necessary tools to help us to make a decision.
Without them, we probably could never choose which restaurant to go to.
After eating in that restaurant, we might have a better idea of the
place and have a bit more realistic assessment than before. But, we still
are stereotyping if we assume that we will always enjoy the food there.
If we eat in that same restaurant over and over again, we are more likely
to have a better judgement based on our real and true experiences tested
over time. But, even then, our analysis of reality will depend on our unique
backgrounds, tastes, experiences, willingness to try new things, etc.
Many of us can remember instances where after once eating in a restaurant,
we have wondered why anyone would ever like to eat there? Also, many of
us can remember instances where it took us more than once or twice to figure
out that the quality was not up to our standards. Of course the opposite
is also true: we might eat somewhere despite the bad recommendations only
to find out how great the place was and how we might have missed an opportunity
if we had never tried it.
The above simple example about the role of stereotypes in our early
perceptions can indicate why we need extensive interactions before we could
have any claim over "reality" of a place, let alone peoples and
situations. This example also indicates that before having a true understanding
of people and situations and things, we are bound to rely on stereotypes.
A real knowledge of people and situations and things usually comes about
through intense interactions, over a long period of time, in good and bad
times. In studying human beings and their societies, sociologists and anthropologists
spend years in the "field" immersing themselves in lives of those
whom they study, their "organizations," and social situations,
in order to understand them and grasp their realities.
To clearly see how our perceptions operate, we can think of a dating
process. When we go on a date, we make preliminary assessments about an
individual and their trustworthiness, their character, their emotional
and intellectual abilities to relate to us, etc. We are likely to eliminate
some from the process early on due to negative stereotypes we might have
about their hair color or their dress style or their job, etc.
Those whom we choose to visit, because of some positive stereotypes
we attribute to them, we are giving a chance to "prove" themselves.
This means that, especially during those early interactions, we search
for "reality" of the person to see if they match our stereotypes.
By actively looking for information "given" and "given off,"
we use these moments of "information" gathering to find proof
or disproof of our held stereotypes.
However, most of us, after a certain level of familiarity, stop testing
our stereotypes. That is not because we feel we know the other person well
enough, but because in social relationships, we need to rely on others,
we need their cooperation, and we need working with others. So, after an
initial satisfaction, we grant them our trust, at least a working trust.
In other words, the utilitarian in us, rather than the analyst, decides,
rather than perceives, that we should trust or let go.
In all of our new encounters, be it a job interview with an employee,
first few days in a classroom with a new professor, the first few times
in the office of a doctor, or a dating situation, we are testing our "stereotypes"
against the "reality" as we see them. So, we are ears and eyes
on these first interactions because we need to have some grasp over the
reality of the situation.
But, far from a "reality check", these early information we
gather are more likely to be influenced by our prior experiences and backgrounds
than anything else. Projection -- unconscious attribution of characteristics
and desires to others -- is very common in early interactions. We have
a tendency to see in people and situations and things, what we see in ourselves
or in our previous experiences. So, we make mistakes in choosing friends,
partners, doctors, professors, etc.
Whether perceptions are based on an analysis of reality (later stages
of learning about peoples and things and situations) or on stereotypes
(early stages of learning process,) they almost always compete with different
and contrary perceptions. No two persons perceive things in the same way
as no two person's experiences, abilities, desires, values, etc., are the
same. That is why works of art, pieces of music and writings, movies, organizational
politics, or even interactions between two individuals are often interpreted
differently by different people and even by the same person at different
times and situations of their lives.
Macro-level perceptions (e.g., perceptions of nations, organizations)
are subject to the same processes as micro level perceptions (e.g., perceptions
of individuals, interactions.) We start perceiving things using stereotypes,
we test our perceptions against the reality, and we come to some kind of
conclusion about a situation, a person, or a thing. Even when we don't
come up with a conclusion, that is a decision we make.
There are always people who strongly believe that they never judge.
These individuals view judgements with distaste. But, they make judgements
like the rest of people everyday. They choose their dress style, decide
on the type of food they eat, initiate friendships and end relationships,
decide on whom to smile to and whom to avoid from, select which books to
read, etc. In all of these actions and interactions, they are making judgements
and doing so on the basis of their perceptions.
Some people believe that negative stereotypes, for example stereotypes
held by two genders against each other or stereotypes held by a region
against another or by a nation against the other are malicious in intent.
Proponents of this idea argue that such stereotypes tend to control those
with less power by making them doubt themselves, their own judgements,
and their own wholeness.
Stereotypes of course can and do sometimes serve purposes beyond innocent
attempts at learning about the world. In personal as well as national and
organizational interactions, there might be cases where intentional, planned,
coordinated, and concerted attempts are made to create negative stereotypes
against a person, a thing, or a group. Many times, perpetrators do not
believe in such stereotypes, but they use them to advance their hidden
In such cases, the trouble is not with stereotypes: it is with the intent
of the perpetrator and worse, with the unquestioning "group thinking"
that often follows. We could say, there a "decision," not a perception,
is formed to "destroy," "eliminate," "abuse,"
and "discriminate" for political, economic, social, and/or psychological
purposes. This "utilitarian" decision is then justified in terms
of perceptions. It must be said that although people of relative power
tend to use stereotypes more, such abuses are not in monopoly of the rich
Knowing how perceptions are formed and how stereotypes are necessary
but, preliminary tools for coming to an understanding of human beings,
things, and situations, we can then appreciate the limitations of our early
observations and others' and thus help with the process of bringing perceptions
closer to reality. Stereotypes as invalid as they are in the long term,
they will always exist and will always guide many of our perceptions.
We need to recognize stereotypical forms of thought processes in ourselves,
and in others, and be aware of their temporal nature. As stereotypes are
often innocent attempts for acting upon the world and for understanding
things and peoples and situations, they cannot be misunderstood with prejudice
and discrimination. Perceptions evolve: they are not fixed entities.
Poopak Taati, Ph.D., is a professor of sociology in Washington DC.