The driving force behind all forms of stereotyping is the theory of out-group homogeneity, which goes as follows: people within a certain group see fellow insiders as a highly diverse group of individuals; but people from outside that group see them as all fairly similar. That is, they think of they “out-group” (a group they don’t belong to) as “homogeneous.” This is, of course, not always the case. But it is common enough that cross-cultural psychologists have identified out-group homogeneity as one of the near-universal human traits.
Even though we may educate ourselves about the diversities internal to some groups, there will always be out-groups that we fail to understand, and in most cases we will stereotype those groups due to the human tendency toward out-group homogeneity.
POSITIVE AND NEGATIVE STEREOTYPING
The theory of out-group homogeneity makes clear that not all stereotypes are negative. For an idea to be a stereotype, it simply has to be a single, monolithic, homogeneous view about a group that is actually internally diverse. The famous example is the commonplace stereotype that Asian Americans are good at math. Clearly, it is no insult to say that someone has a talent for mathematics – but this stereotype is harmful precisely because it lumps an enormously diverse group into a single category. Chinese Americans have a culture very different from that of Korean or Thai Americans, and of course individual Chinese, Korean, or Thai Americans are all very different from one another. Thus, it is wrong to stereotype them as a homogeneous group, even if the contents of that stereotype are apparently positive.
The Theory of Out-Group Homogeneity
It is easy to see this theory, and the subtle stereotypes it reveals, in action for yourself. Simply come up with a group whose members include some of your friends, but not all. Speak to a friend from inside the group, asking what members of that group are like, and how they think the group is perceived or stereotyped by outsiders. Then ask an outsider what they think of people within the group. You will find, in nearly all cases, that insiders talk about how diverse and variegated the group is, while outsiders have a fairly monolithic view of group members. Especially surprising is the extent to which the expected stereotypes fail to match the actual stereotypes that outsiders hold.
What Causes Human Beings to Hold Stereotypes?
One of the interesting questions faced by scholars who work on the phenomenon of stereotyping is: What causes human beings to hold stereotypes? In other words, what are the underlying psychological dispositions that make out-group homogeneity such a widespread socio-cognitive error? The answer is unclear, and many psychologists and sociologists are actively working on this problem even now. But the best bet at present is that stereotyping and out-group homogeneity result from a human propensity to seek salient differentiations.
Salient differentiations make perfect sense not only for stereotyping other cultures but also for more mundane tasks such as picking out a brand of bread. When we hold to loaves together, we need our brains to pay attention to the most important factors that make one loaf different from another. If we focused on the fact that the loaves have different placement of sesame seeds, for example, we would not be able to make a good choice.
We need brains that can notice the most important information, while disregarding the inessential. The value of this cognitive ability in a variety of settings is perfectly obvious. But when we process information about human beings and cultural groups, our propensity for salient differentiation leads us to feel that we “know” more about them than we actually do. We take small pieces of information (stereotypes) and apply them to the entire group. Thus, stereotypes and out-group homogeneity are born.