Yale’s Psychology Department hosted a Wednesday lecture that came to a controversial conclusion: Stereotypes are, in fact, accurate.
The lecture was led by Alice Eagly, a social psychologist from Northwestern University. The event, titled “How Can Stereotypes Be So Accurate, Yet So Wrong?” addressed the issue by claiming that stereotypes can be correct but also exist for the wrong reasons. According to Eagly, stereotypes’ accuracy is what allows them to shape our society.
“Stereotypes are profoundly predicted,” she said. “They’re not social constructions by any means. They’re observations of what people do.”
Eagly went on to say that the way stereotypes are formed is more complicated than it seems. According to her research, people tend to associate certain roles with the attributes of people who generally fall into those roles. For example, women are overrepresented in communal roles — those involved in nurturing and caring for others — and are therefore seen as more affectionate, gentle and sympathetic.
Because people tend to develop attributes based on the roles they are given, they eventually fit the stereotypical traits associated with those roles. The only way for an individual to change her stereotype is to break out of that role, but this can be difficult after stereotypes for the role have already been established in society.
In a similar vein, Gina Roussos GRD ’19 said that if employers are routinely told that women are less independent, assertive and competent than men, they are less likely to hire women.
This tendency causes trouble when it comes to breaking stereotypes. If people are unable to change their roles in society — an act which often relies on others to ignore those stereotypes — they will be unable to change their stereotypes.
Eagly said group stereotypes are correlated with attributes of their members’ typical occupational roles, even if the individuals themselves do not fall into these roles. For example, a woman who is a CEO may still be seen as having the same communal attributes as the teachers, secretaries and nurses that largely represent her gender or racial demographic.
“The remedy for stereotyping is that you observe the groups engaging in different roles,” Eagly said. “Not just any different roles, but roles that require different attributes.”
Despite her argument that stereotypes are accurate, Eagly said she understands the popular opinion that stereotypes are inaccurate. People often feel stereotypes are wrong, she said, because society changes at a pace much faster than the stereotypes.
Eagly used statistical evidence to back up the ways in which women’s images are changing in society and the ways in which men’s are not. By projecting her data linearly, she was able to predict that by 2050, women will be seen as more agentic, more mathematical and even more physically powerful than men. Today’s stereotypes about women’s communal attributes are frustrating because they are not changing as quickly as women are, she said.
“[Stereotypes] seem inaccurate to us at a gut level because we know that even though they’re representative of what’s happening now, the groups are changing,” April Bailey GRD ’20, who attended the talk, said. “That’s what makes stereotypes abrasive. I hadn’t thought of that before.”
Other attendees pointed out that the attributes assigned to certain roles are often misguided. Yale psychology professor Yarrow Dunham said that although there is a belief that those who work as teachers are more communal than agentic, teachers “have to be pretty agentic to do a good job.” He also mentioned that managers have to be more communal than most assume they are.
Eagly suggested that implementing social policies such as anti-discrimination laws and affirmative action, as well as changing the media’s portrayal of how people fit certain roles, would be effective in mitigating stereotypes. She said requiring companies to hire a certain quota of women or minorities could put those who are normally stuck in communal roles into agentic positions, changing their roles and the stereotypes about their traits.
“We have to get away from the idea that these are deeply embedded, biological attributes,” Eagly said. “We have to give people a more nuanced story.”
The talk was part of the annual Carl Hovland Memorial Lecture Series for distinguished scholars in social psychology, which began in 1964.