Apparently there’s a debate in psychology about the accuracy of stereotypes.
Lin Bian and Andrei Cimpian write:
In his book Social Perception and Social Reality, Lee Jussim suggests that people’s beliefs about various groups (i.e., their stereotypes) are largely accurate. We unpack this claim using the distinction between generic and statistical beliefs—a distinction supported by extensive evidence in cognitive psychology, linguistics, and philosophy. Regardless of whether one understands stereotypes as generic or statistical beliefs about groups, skepticism remains about the rationality of social judgments.
Bian and Cimpian start by distinguishing what cognitive psychologists call “statistical” and “generic” beliefs about categories. This is pretty cool. Here they go:
Consider the statements below:
(1a) Fewer than 1% of mosquitoes carry the West Nile virus.
(1b) Mosquitoes carry the West Nile virus.
(2a) The majority of books are paperbacks.
(2b) Books are paperbacks.
Statements (1a) and (2a) are statistical: They express a belief about a certain number or proportion of the members of a category. Statements (1b) and (2b) are generic: They express a belief about the category as a whole rather than a specific number, quantity, or proportion. . . .
The fact that generic claims – and the beliefs they express – are not about numbers or quantities has a crucial consequence: It severs their truth conditions from the sort of statistical data that one could objectively measure in the world. . . .
This point is illustrated by the examples above. Both (1a) and (1b) are considered true: Although very few mosquitoes actually carry the West Nile virus, participants judge the generic claim (that mosquitoes, as a category, carry the West Nile virus) to be true as well. . . .
In contrast, even though (2a) is true – paperbacks are indeed very common – few believe that books, as a category, are paperbacks (i.e., [2b] is false). . . .
Bian and Cimpian continue:
These are not isolated examples. The literature is replete with instances of generic claims that either are judged true despite unimpressive statistical evidence or judged false despite overwhelming numbers . . . the rules that govern which generic beliefs are deemed true and which are deemed false are so baroque and so divorced from the statistical facts that many linguists and philosophers have spent the better part of 40 years debating them. . . .
And to return to stereotyping:
All of the foregoing applies to beliefs about social groups as well. . . . The distinction between statistical and generic beliefs is operative regardless whether these beliefs concern mosquitoes, books, and other categories of non-human entities, or women, African Americans, Muslims, and other categories of humans.
And, the punch line:
Generic beliefs about social groups, just like other generic beliefs, are typically removed from the underlying statistics.
Statistics vs. stereotypes
Bian and Cimpian follow up with two examples:
More people hold the generic belief that Muslims are terrorists than hold the generic belief that Muslims are female. However, there are vastly more Muslims who are female than there are Muslims who are terrorists. . . .
Compare, for instance, “Asians are really good at math” and “Asians are right-handed.” Many more people would agree with the former generic claim than with the latter, while simultaneously being aware that the statistics go the opposite way.
OK, let’s unpack these. Here the statistics are so obviously counter to the stereotype that there has to be something else going on. In this case, I’d say the relevant statistical probabilities are not that Muslims are likely to be terrorists, or that Asians are more likely to be math whizzes, but that Muslims are more likely than other groups to be terrorists, or that Asians are more likely than other groups to be math whizzes. Maybe these statements aren’t correct either (I guess it would all depend on how all these things are defined), but that would seem to be the statistics to look at.
The stereotypes of a group, that is, would seem to be defined relative to other groups.
This does not tell the whole story either, though, as I’m sure that lots of stereotyping is muddled by what Kahneman and Tversky called availability bias.
Bian and Cimpian continue—you can read the whole thing—by discussing whether stereotypes should be considered as “generic beliefs” or “statistical beliefs.” As a statistician I’m not so comfortable with this distinction—I’m inclined to feel that generic beliefs are also a form of statistical belief, if the statistical question is framed the right way—but I do think they’re on to something in trying to pin down what people are thinking when they use stereotypes in their reasoning.
P.S. I sent the above to Susan, who added:
The issues you’re raising are ones that have been discussed a fair amount in the literature. Some of these ideas have been studied with experiments, but others have not (i.e., they’ve been discussed but not formally tested).
I agree that statistical info goes beyond just P(feature|category) (e.g., P(West Nile Virus|mosquito). As I think you’re saying, one could also ask: what about distinctiveness, which is the opposite — P(category|feature) (e.g., P(Mosquite|WNV)? Although distinctiveness can make a generic more acceptable, generics need not be distinctive (e.g., “Lions eat meat”; “Dogs are 4-legged”; “Cats have good hearing” are all non-distinctive but good generics). There are even properties that are relatively infrequent (i.e., true of less than half the category) and are non-distinctive, but make good generics (e.g., “Ducks lay eggs”; “Goats produce milk”; “Peacocks are colorful”). Finally, there are features that are frequent and distinctive but don’t (ordinarily) make good generics (e.g., “People are right-handed”; “Bees are sterile”; “Turtles die in infancy”).
I think that people are doing some assessment of how conceptually central a feature is, where centrality could be cued by any of a number of factors, including: prevalence, distinctiveness, danger/harm/threat (we have data on this as well — dangerous features make for better generics than benign features), and biological folk theories (e.g., features that only adults have are more likely to be in generics than features that only babies have — e.g., we say “Swans are beautiful”, not “Swans are ugly”).
This in turn gives me two thoughts:
1. Why we think swans are beautiful . . . that’s an interesting one, I’m sure there’s been lots written about that!
2. “People are right-handed” . . . that’s a great example. We are much more likely to be right-handed, compared to other animals (which generally have weak or no hand preference). And the vast majority of people are righties. Yet, saying “people are right-handed” odes seem wrong. On the other hand, if 80% of cats, say, were right handed, maybe we’d be ok saying “cats are right handed.” I guess there must be some kind of Grice going on here too.
P.P.S. In comments, Chris Martin points to further responses by Jussim and others.