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Stereotype accuracy is one of the largest and most replicable effects in all of social psychology. It took social psychology nearly a century to recognize that not only had it been declaring stereotypes to be inaccurate on the basis of little data, but once the data started to come in, to accept that this data often (though not always) demonstrated moderate to high stereotype accuracy. This resistance to the data has constituted a significant impediment to understanding the existence, causes, and consequences of both stereotype accuracy and inaccuracy.
Sixty years of empirical research has told us much about stereotypes. Stereotypes can arise from, and sustain, intergroup hostility. They are sometimes linked to prejudices based on race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, nationality, and just about any other social category. They can serve to maintain and justify hegemonic and exploitative hierarchies of power and status. They can corrupt interpersonal relations, warp public policy, and can play a role in the worst social abuses, such as mass murder and genocide. For all these reasons, social scientists—and especially social psychologists—have understandably approached stereotypes as a kind of social toxin.
Perhaps equally understandable, but scientifically untenable, is the corresponding belief that because stereotypes contribute to these many malignant outcomes, that they must also be—in the main—inaccurate. The tacit equation is, if stereotypes are associated with social wrongs, they must be factually wrong. However, the accuracy of stereotypes is an empirical question, not an ideological one. And for those of us who care deeply about stereotypes, prejudice, and social harmony, getting to the truth of these collective cognitions should guide inquiry about them.
There has, however, been recent research on gender stereotype (in)accuracy. One study found results for consensual gender stereotype discrepancies consistent with those reported above (Halpern, Straight, & Stephenson, 2011). Indeed, the title of the article is “Beliefs about Cognitive Gender Differences: Accurate for Direction, Underestimated for Size.” Cognitive gender differences referred to academic and intellectual accomplishments of males and females (both children and adults). Using our standards for judgments of males, consensual stereotypes were accurate four times, with three near misses, and three inaccurate stereotypes. Consensual stereotype discrepancies for judgments of females were accurate twice, with four near misses, and four inaccurate stereotypes. Consensual stereotypes about gender differences were accurate five times, with one near miss, and four inaccurate stereotypes. Inaccuracies consistently underestimated real gender differences. Halpern et al. (2011) did not report results for personal stereotype accuracy (either discrepancies or correlations), and consensual stereotype accuracy correlations could not be computed from the data they did report.
Another recent study was strikingly titled “Gender Stereotypes of Personality:
Universal and Accurate?” (Löckenhoff et al., 2014). In this study, over 3,000 participants in 26 countries indicated their perceptions of males and females on the Big Five personality traits. In a pattern that was generally consistent across countries, women were stereotyped as higher than men on agreeableness, conscientiousness, openness to experience, and neuroticism, and as lower than men on extraversion.
These were then compared to self-reports on the Big Five in the same countries and to observer reports of sex differences based on prior research. For all five personality traits, consensual stereotype discrepancies were accurate, regardless of whether self-reports or observer reports were used as criteria. There was no tendency to exaggerate differences.
Löckenhoff et al. (2014, Table 2) also examined the accuracy of consensual gender stereotype correlations, separately for beliefs about young, adult, or old males and females. In general, these stereotypes met our standards for being considered accurate, ranging from .36 to .70, with a median of .47. The criterion samples were large, but not representative, so this study suffers from the mismatch limitation.
2. Swim: Perceived Versus Meta-Analytic Effect Sizes: An Assessment of the
Accuracy of Gender Stereotypes
The accuracy of people’s stereotypes about gender differences was assessed in 2 studies by comparing perceptions of sizes of gender differences with meta-analytic findings. In Study 1, perceptions of variability among men and women and perceptions of mean differences were incorporated into measures of perceived effect sizes. In Study 2, Ss made direct judgments about the size of gender differences. Contrary to previous assertions about people’s gender stereotypes, these studies‘ findings indicate that people do not uniformly overestimate gender differences. The results show that Ss are more likely to be accurate or to underestimate gender differences than overestimate them, and perceptions of the size of gender differences are correlated with meta-analytic effect sizes. Furthermore, degree of accuracy is influenced by biases favoring women, in-group favoritism, and the method used to measure perceptions.
Löckenhoff: Gender Stereotypes of Personality: Universal and Accurate?
Numerous studies have documented subtle but consistent sex differences in self-reports and observer-ratings of five-factor personality traits, and such effects were found to show well-defined developmental trajectories and remarkable similarity across nations. In contrast, very little is known about perceived gender differences in five-factor traits in spite of their potential implications for gender biases at the interpersonal and societal level. In particular, it is not clear how perceived gender differences in five-factor personality vary across age groups and national contexts and to what extent they accurately reflect assessed sex differences in personality. To address these questions, we analyzed responses from 3,323 individuals across 26 nations (mean age = 22.3 years, 31% male) who were asked to rate the five-factor personality traits of typical men or women in three age groups (adolescent, adult, and older adult) in their respective nations. Raters perceived women as slightly higher in openness, agreeableness, and conscientiousness as well as some aspects of extraversion and neuroticism. Perceived gender differences were fairly consistent across nations and target age groups and mapped closely onto assessed sex differences in self- and observer-rated personality. Associations between the average size of perceived gender differences and national variations in sociodemographic characteristics, value systems, or gender equality did not reach statistical significance. Findings contribute to our understanding of the underlying mechanisms of gender stereotypes of personality and suggest that perceptions of actual sex differences may play a more important role than culturally based gender roles and socialization processes.
Sphancer, Stereotype Accuracy: A Displeasing Truth
First, stereotypes are not bugs in our cultural software but features of our biological hardware. This is because the ability to stereotype is often essential for efficient decision-making, which facilitates survival. As Yale psychologist Paul Bloom has noted, “You don’t ask a toddler for directions, you don’t ask a very old person to help you move a sofa, and that’s because you stereotype.”
Our evolutionary ancestors were often called to act fast, on partial information from a small sample, in novel or risky situations. Under those conditions, the ability to form a better-than-chance prediction is an advantage. Our brain constructs general categories from which it derives predictions about category-relevant specific, and novel, situations. That trick has served us well enough to be selected into our brain’s basic repertoire. Wherever humans live, so do stereotypes. The impulse to stereotype is not a cultural innovation, like couture, but a species-wide adaptation, like color vision. Everyone does it. The powerful use stereotypes to enshrine and perpetuate their power, and the powerless use stereotypes just as much when seeking to defend or rebel against the powerful.
Per Paul Bloom:
“Our ability to stereotype people is not some sort of arbitrary quirk of the mind, but rather it’s a specific instance of a more general process, which is that we have experience with things and people in the world that fall into categories and we could use our experience to make generalizations of novel instances of these categories. So everyone here has a lot of experience with chairs and apples and dogs and based on this, you could see these unfamiliar examples and you could guess—you could sit on the chair, you could eat the apple, the dog will bark.”
Second, contrary to popular sentiment, stereotypes are usually accurate. (Not always, to be sure. And some false stereotypes are purposefully promoted in order to cause harm. But this fact should further compel us to study stereotype accuracy well so that we can distinguish truth from lies in this area).
That stereotypes are often accurate should not be surprising to the open and critically minded reader. From an evolutionary perspective, stereotypes had to confer a predictive advantage to be elected into the repertoire, which means that they had to possess a considerable degree of accuracy—not merely a „kernel of truth.“
The notion of stereotype accuracy is also consistent with the powerful information-processing paradigm in cognitive science, in which stereotypes are conceptualized as „schemas,“ the organized networks of concepts we use to represent external reality. Schemas are only useful if they are by and large (albeit imperfectly) accurate. Your „party“ schema may not include all the elements that exist in all parties, but it must include many of the elements that exist in many parties to be of any use to you as you enter a room and decide whether a party is going on and, if so, how you should behave.
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