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The fabric of India is a colourful patchwork of multiple languages, religions, cuisines and customs. When different cultures and communities co-mingle, as we do on almost a daily basis in many parts of the country, it helps people to broaden their range of vision to include alternative perspectives. However, as we know from first-hand experience, difference also creates divisions, both real and imagined. An unfortunate rub-off when boundaries become rigid is the perpetuation of stereotypes around a particular group of people. In our hierarchical culture, it is imperative for us to understand how stereotypes can alter the mindset and behaviour of people, and what we can do to mitigate their baneful effects.

The term “stereotype", as it is understood today, was coined by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Walter Lippmann. He defines the term in his 1922 book, Public Opinion, as “the pictures in our heads" that we have of a specific group of people. He adds that while this picture may not necessarily be complete, “our habits, our tastes, our capacities, our comforts and our hopes have adjusted themselves" to it. Statements like “Boys are good at math," “Tamilians are hard-working", are explicit admissions of cultural and social stereotypes. While a stereotype may hold true for a group as a whole, it can distort our perception of an individual, who may or may not fit the stereotype.

When we stereotype another person, we normally think that it is a conscious process. However, even if we vehemently dispute a stereotype, that boys are better at math than girls, for instance, it does not necessarily mean that we are influenced by it. One of the more startling findings in social psychology is that we are all prone to jumping to conclusions based on stereotypes even if we may explicitly state and believe that a particular stereotype does not hold true.

Studies also suggest that we are more prone to stereotypical thinking when we are tired or preoccupied. In their book Social Psychology And Human Nature, Roy F. Baumeister and Brad J. Bushman argue that stereotypes are “mental shortcuts" and we are more likely to use them when we are fatigued. In an ingenious study, published in the journal Psychological Science in 1990, Galen V. Bodenhausen of Michigan State University in the US sorted people into two groups. The larks were the early risers who were most alert and sharp at the beginning of the day, while the owls functioned best after dusk. Both groups were tested at different times of the day. Interestingly, the larks were more prone to stereotypical thinking in the evening, while the owls tended to succumb to such biases in the morning.

The term “stereotype threat" was coined by psychologists Claude Steele and Joshua Aronson. In a seminal paper, published in the Journal Of Personality And Social Psychology in 1995, they observed that when African-American students were told that a particular task was a measure of intellectual ability, they performed relatively worse than whites. But when they were led to believe that the same task was not necessarily indicative of academic potential, their performance was on a par with white students. The authors argued that the performance of a group can drop when members believe that their performance may further reinforce the negative stereotype that people hold about the group. Anxiety that they might confirm the negative perception of their group causes them to perform poorly.

A study by World Bank researchers Karla Hoff and Priyanka Pandey, published in the Journal Of Development Economics in 2014, brings the pernicious effects of stereotypes closer home. Boys from backward castes in India were as good as their peers from upper castes at puzzle-solving activities when caste was not mentioned. However, when the boys’ caste was made salient before the puzzle-solving activity, the performance of the backward castes plummeted by as much as 25%.

The good news is that the negative consequences arising from stereotype threats can be countered by fairly benign interventions. In one study, published in the Journal Of Experimental Social Psychology in 2002, Aronson and his colleagues found that when African-American students were encouraged to view intelligence as a fluid and changeable capacity as opposed to something fixed at birth, they not only obtained better grades but were also reported to enjoy academics more. Similarly, in another landmark study, published in the Science journal in 2006 by Geoffrey Cohen of University of Colorado and colleagues, students from a minority background were asked to write a short paragraph about a value that was significant to them while those in the control group were asked to write about a value least important to them. Interestingly, those in the first group improved their academic performance relative to the control group. The authors attribute the positive outcome to the fact that the students in the former group reaffirmed their self-worth and hence were able to alleviate the stress that minority students typically contend with.

Realizing that stereotypical biases can operate at subliminal levels can make us more mindful of treating individuals from other groups with respect. We should be especially careful of hasty judgements when we are fatigued or preoccupied. Further, knowing that self-affirmations can thwart the harmful effects of stereotypes, we can promote such thinking in ourselves and others. As more and more people in a group break a negative stereotype, it gradually loses its hold on the cultural imagination.

Aruna Sankaranarayanan is the founder and director of Prayatna, a centre for children with learning difficulties.

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