Although stereotypes can cause us to discriminate against particular people or groups without getting to know them first, stereotyping can also sometimes be a necessary skill. It is almost impossible to gather all the information that exists about the objects and people we encounter. Our ability to make decisions is restricted by time, brain capacity, and available information, a phenomenon known as bounded rationality.
Although stereotypes can be dangerous when wrong, they can also be a method through which we efficiently categorize information and free up brain processing power.15 We are exposed to so much data every day that we have to rely on heuristics to navigate our environment.
In his book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, Kahneman, who has done a great deal of research on stereotypes, even suggests that stereotypes can be beneficial. He uses the example of asking you which cab company you would take in a city that has two companies (Green & Blue). If the two had the same number of vehicles but you knew that 85% of cab accidents involved the Green company, you might form a stereotype that Green cab drivers are worse and decide to go with Blue. That stereotyping might help save your life.15
If stereotypes are grounded in reliable evidence, then ignoring them can be likened to ignoring hard facts. Ignoring salient information is suggested to be irrational. It seems as though stereotyping itself is not inherently bad but rather, when taken to extremes, can predict the inferiority of particular social groups, leading to discrimination and disadvantage.
COVID-19 May Worsen Biases
There are few areas of our lives untouched by the COVID-19 pandemic. Unfortunately, the unprecedented times have reinforced and worsened existing stereotypes and biases.
For one, the virus has disproportionately impacted marginalized groups. For one, Black people are dying at three times the rate of white people. The pandemic has also brought to light the fact that only 5% of doctors in the U.S are Black, which has severe consequences for healthcare as data shows that same-race providers have a positive impact on patients’ health outcomes.16
These figures unfortunately reinscribe many existing stereotypes about people of color (POC), namely that they do not follow rules. At the beginning of the pandemic, from March through to May, almost 98% of the people arrested for social distancing violations were POC. It is clear that police unfairly discriminate against POC, both as a result of overt racism and as a result of implicit bias and subconscious stereotypes.17
There has also been a devastating increase in anti-Asian discrimination throughout the pandemic. No thanks to former President Trump’s terming of the virus as the “Chinese Virus,” rhetoric surrounding COVID-19 has perpetuated that Asian people are dirty and carry the virus. This misconception has led to hate speech, violent acts, and racist abuse against Asians.18
As these stereotypes further concretize in the minds of the population during the pandemic, their effects will be felt long after its conclusion. An already existent racial gap in the labor market is likely to increase for POC, as COVID-induced biases affect and influence the hiring process.19 The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed the worst impacts of racist stereotypes.
Stereotypes Can Inform Laws
Law professor Dr. Dale Nance argued in his book The Burdens of Proof that complex decision-making sometimes requires the use of stereotypes.20 Although we tend to attach a negative connotation to stereotyping, Nance argues that there can be value in generalizations, even if they are not universally valid.
For example, age requirements are a useful stereotype that inform our laws and legislation. Most people are likely to accept that a 14-year-old should not be driving a car – but this is based on a stereotype that children of that age are not competent to do so. There is likely a handful of 14-year-olds out there that could safely drive, yet, that isn’t a reason to get rid of the age requirement. Nance argues that in such instances, the cost of a stereotype that may not accurately represent each individual in that category is much smaller than the cost of letting every 14-year-old drive.20
What Nance’s view suggests is that sometimes, when it comes to some stereotypes, we’re better off safe than sorry.