Been thinking about issues like stereotyping recently, in all sorts of contexts. One was a thread on a bike forum about which kinds of cars were most dangerous to riders – the Toyota Camry scored pretty high, but almost every other category of vehicle was also named at some point. But people seemed to be missing the glaringly obvious common factor: all the most dangerous cars were being controlled by humans! Humans are the problem!
The same is true for almost anything, from war-mongering to child abuse on the one hand to genius and saintliness on the other. The bottom line, for me, is that pretty much any human characteristic can be placed on the famous bell-shaped curve:
As you can see, the majority of people fit into the middle category, less than one standard deviation away from the mean. For IQ, for example, the mean is 100 and one standard deviation is 15, so almost 70% of people have IQs somewhere between 85 and 115. The next band out is two standard deviations, and shows that over 95% of all people have IQs between 70 and 130. And so on.
What I’m claiming is that it’s not just IQ, it’s everything. It includes good and evil – most people are in the middle, and only a few are extremely evil or extremely good.
My key point here, though, is that this is true across various people groups too1. So each race will have its very bright and very stupid, its very good and its very evil, its thoughtful and careful drivers and its dangerous and careless ones. The same is true of every other group of people, including religions – there, too, there will be a spread from very good to very evil. This approach answers a conundrum I’ve discussed here before, about why stats on divorce, child abuse and a whole range of other measures are no different for religious believers than for the population as a whole.
So here’s how stereotyping works: as humans we will tend to find patterns, whether they are there or not. And this pattern-recognition activity is made easier if there is some visible characteristic to pin it to. So, for example, if I have decided Toyota Camrys are dangerous, or been told so, and someone in a Toyota Camry does something dangerous, I’ll consider that to be supporting evidence for the stereotype. If someone in any other kind of car does it, I’ll just consider it to be the fault of the driver. More insidiously, if I see an Asian driver do something dangerous, I’ll identify dangerous driving as a characteristic of Asian drivers, whereas if I see a ‘white’ (for want of a better term) driver do something dangerous I’ll just assume it’s that individual. Stereotyping tends to happen to the groups of which we’re *not* members – if a member of our own group does something we don’t like, we ascribe it to the individual.
If we can recognise that in every group there is a wide range of individuals, and if we can ascribe the bad (and good) behaviour to the individuals rather than the group, we’ll have taken one huge step away from racism and prejudice and sectarian fighting and toward recognising our common humanity with everyone else on the planet.
- Unless a group is specifically selected for a particular characteristic already, of course. There’s probably not a bell-shaped curve for intelligence among Nobel Prise winners, for example – or at least not one with the mean in the same place as for the rest of the population.