Psych: Differentiating Stereotypes

Author’s note: I used the term “meditation”, in the subtitle, deliberately. This evolved from a stream-of-consciousness journal entry for a course called “Cognitive Development”. As I more deeply considered my rambling thoughts, I found that a genuine exploration was necessary. This turned into a complex examination of the nature of categories. I am aware that this will not be an easy read for some, which is why I included a list of terms at the bottom of the page. This may be a helpful reference. I would suggest the reader attends to the terms before embarking on the article. As always, I appreciate those who are interested in what I have to write. If you enjoy reading this even half as much as I enjoyed writing it, I'll consider it a success. Thank you.


A Psychological Meditation on the Nature of Categories


Throughout the year, and while listening to lectures on Cognitive Development, I noticed a pattern emerging. At first the vibrant notes were lost in the cacophony of information, but as time drew on I began to parse the signals apart. Within the symphony was a series of instruments I could bring into focus. When I did this, it was as if I could hear the individual signals above all the noise, and as a result, I noticed that two of the signals I detected were different in pitch, not in kind. These two signals were stereotypes and categories.

It seems to me that the use of stereotypes in children, and perhaps adults also, exist as low-resolution categories, meaning, a limited framework that is used as a rough estimation. In order to construct a general-sex/gender (for example) category, a child first witnesses the differences in behavior and appearance. These differences are formed by witnessing impressions of the subject, noting the pattern of impressions, how one pattern relates to another, and where they diverge. Patterns are conjoined and then, by amalgamating the patterns between individuals, a mean-individual is developed as a category. Then, when approached by a new member of a sex - an unknown - the general category is first employed to limit the infinite number of potentials inherent in the anomaly.

This same categorization is necessary for animals and objects. What is a dog? A category used as a baseline reference to focus infinite potentials, and a means of predicting behaviors. In other words, it is a way of distinguishing a dog versus a cat, and predicting how that dog will act. In this way, it is both a negative (limiting of possibilities; reduction of information) and positive (assertion of expectations; addition of information) process, used to orient the subject relative to the anomaly.

When the individual subject forms a reference, they can then determine how to act in relation to the object. I believe this is why categories are necessary and why stereotypes are also created: in order to orient oneself relative to an object or individual. The necessity of ordering our experience creates two elements I will call Malicious Stereotypes and Functional Categories, each containing their own positive and negative sub-elements.

In the malicious stereotype, which is closely associated with the connotation of stereotyping, the individual is conformed to the stereotype. The low-resolution category is assumed to be true for all individuals, in rigid fashion. The sub-elements of Malicious Stereotypes differentiate into a negative (disregard of individual differences) and a positive (inflation of adverse traits) element. This is a top-down process, where the category is a priori and the individual is conformed to the category.

...the mean-individual assimilates new information, the category becomes more complex.

In a Functional Category, the category acts as a baseline assumption, referenced only generally and with the explicit intent of updating the category. In this case, the individual is first perceived, categorized, and then assimilated (or accommodated) into the category. The sub-elements eliminate unlikely potentials (e.g., threat; negative) and simultaneously add fortunate assumptions (e.g., trustworthiness, cooperability, ability to communicate; positive). This is first a top-down process, the employment of the category as a reference, then a bottom-up process, the individual’s unique qualities inform and update the category, increasing its resolution.

As the low-resolution categories are exposed to more samples, and the mean-individual assimilates new information, the category becomes more complex. This may be why preschoolers are more likely to stereotype than adults - their categories are lacking sufficient exposure and complexity compared to their adult counterparts.

After sufficient exposure to the individual, a concept - a schema dedicated to an individual, in this case - is born. This occurs when the information surrounding the individual exceeds the amount of information provided by the category. The category fails to be an adequate reference when compared to the abundance of information contained within the conception of the individual itself. In some sense, the individual can no longer fit inside the category. Like mitosis in cells, the individual splits off from the category, forming a new schema specifically in reference to the individual.

... the prime tragedy of Malicious Stereotypes: the loss of human connection.

Upon meeting the individual, an Internal Working Model (IWM), the conceptualization of the relationship between the subject and the individual, is formed. The more complex the conception the subject has of the individual, the more complex their IWM can become. Eventually, the IWM contains the framework for the Attachment behaviors necessary for a healthy romantic relationship, such as seeking comfort from the individual to whom one is attached.

From this, two things become evident. The first is that malicious stereotypes aren’t functional. They are too rigid to assimilate the individual, let alone incorporate enough information to divide the concept from the category. This is perhaps the prime tragedy of Malicious Stereotypes: the loss of human connection. The second is that there is a developmental path from Functional Categories to friendship, and even romantic attachment.

Given this, a question arises: What differentiates the malicious stereotype and the functional category in the initial stage, if both are used as low-resolution references? It boils down to the intent from which the aforementioned consequences emerge. If the intent of the subject is to place the individual within a category without the desire to update that category, to categorize for categorization’s sake, then they are employing a Malicious Stereotype. If the subject is attempting to better understand the individual and use the category only as a conceptual starting point, then they’re employing a Functional Category.

A paradox manifests; the only way to tell which strategy a subject is employing is by updating one’s own concept of them. So one must get to know someone, in order to know if they are worth getting to know. I find this to be a particularly salient point. Much of life is based in this. I can still remember when, during my childhood protest against new food, my parents informed me that “you can’t know if you don’t like it, unless you try it first.” This leap of faith occurs all across the human world, and sometimes, we find that reality we had hoped for could only be discovered by risking failure. What one must do is recognize that the assumptions they have are necessary to organize the infinite potentials within the social world, and recognize that their categories are limited and the world is dynamic. That dynamism needs to be incorporated into our categories, so that they may adapt to the individuals around us. In other words, and in closing, the individual is primary to the category, but the category is necessary for understanding the individual.  


List of terms:

  • Category: A schema, cognitive framework, depicting general, but shared characteristics - formed to be referenced.

  • Concept: A schema of an individual thing. Used to depict a more specific element of a category and its characteristics.

  • Impression: David Hume used the term “Impression” as a means of explaining face-value perceptions - things as we immediately perceive them to be. These are contrasted with “ideas”, or the assumptions we pull from the impressions. In this context I am using Impressions in a similar way, in order to emphasize the unassuming nature of a child’s category construction.

  • Malicious Stereotype: A rigid category, generally associated with the connotation behind “stereotyping”. A deficient labeling used to box in a concept (individual in this case).

  • Functional Category: A category used as a reference for a concept - with a more fluid intent than a Malicious Stereotype. This is used to limit potential and assume possibilities necessary for novel interactions, but flexible enough to assimilate the individual.

Joseph JackowskiComment