Studies show that people who believe stereotypes are all…

08 Sep

…are all over the place. Several of them will read this post. One of them wrote it.

Okay, so no study has shown that, per se. But I’m trying (rather lamely) to make a point here. Because if I didn’t write that title myself, I would probably click through it expecting to see a real study that had unearthed real motives that drive all people who believe stereotypes. This tells me that I am one of those people. And my opinion is that we buy into stereotypes because they–like so many other things in our society–are quick, convenient, and comfortable.

Allow me to explain what started me thinking about this.

A while back a particular micro-blogger who I follow and enjoy wrote a post regarding the common knowledge that women talk more than men. We’ve all heard it; women speak some thousands of words per day, and men speak some thousands fewer words per day. The man comes home from work, his word-tank spent already, and the woman still has whole half a tank left to talk about. She wants to process, but he wants to grunt, and thus marital conflict can erupt. Everybody knows this.

Too bad it is totally untrue.

(Read the blog post here. If you choose to follow further links from there to the original study, be forewarned that you will encounter some PG-13 language.)

It was an interesting post. Turns out nobody had actually counted men and women’s spoken words before. When someone finally did, they discovered that there is no significant statistical difference between how much men and women have to say.

The discovery made me rather happy. Readers of this blog may not have picked up on it, but those who know me in person can testify that (under most circumstances) I just don’t talk that much.  If I think I have something to say, I’ll say it. Otherwise, I’m pretty content to just listen. And it’s not a matter of me being an anomaly to the traditional female chatterbox — because, as it turns out, there is no such thing in the first place.

On the other side of things, I have some guy friends who can talk to anybody, anywhere, for any period of time. They’re good at it and they love it, and I love that they’re such adept conversationalists. And they’re not breaking the traditional caveman role, because, again, such a role is entirely imaginary.

Somebody actually went to the effort of recording and counting the words people spoke to figure that out. The stereotypes of men and women’s speech patterns didn’t hold water.

At first, I thought the study was groundbreaking. Then I realized it was also pretty obvious. If we, the human race, would have taken more stock of the individual men and women around us, and not just assumed a caveman/chatterbox dichotomy, we might have figured this out a lot sooner.

I read through the blog’s comments expecting to find pretty much the same sentiment echoed over and over again. But count that as another stereotype that bit the dust that day. To be sure, that was most of what was going around, but I also found comments like this:

Since I am a man I will keep this short. Women talk more than men. 🙂

The smilie face made me hope and assume sarcasm was at work, and for all I know it was. But then I read this, by a different commenter:

This is one of those studies where it just doesn’t pass the reasonableness test. Women talk more, it’s just a fact and everyone knows it.

Now, I don’t particularly care if a random person in cyberspace assumes I am a non-stop yapper because of my gender. But I was astonished to read this and see how deeply stereotypes can become ingrained in us. Despite a real-deal scientific study, and despite the testimony of a couple dozen men and women confirming the findings, this commenter wouldn’t budge on their position.

Let’s leave aside for a moment the complete lack of logic in the argument. What I wanted to know was how this person could come to such a firm conviction, not even an official, measured study could unseat the stereotype. And — taking it personally — where are my blind spots in this area? And why do I fall back on them?

One circumstantial factor, I believe, is our fascination with statistics, followed up with our subsequent misapplication of them.

For instance, there are a lot of things that are statistically true, but absolutely absurd in reality. Consider this statement from The Guardian, released in March of this year: “The average American woman has 2.1 children in her lifetime”. Statistically, that’s true. But no lady in America has .1 of a kid. Some have 2. Some have 3. Some have 13. Some don’t have any. Yet add up all the born babies and divide by all the adult women, and you end up with the tidy average of 2.1. It’s a true statistic, but it has no real bearing on any one woman (or fraction of a child) you’ll meet in the United States.

Another thing with statistics is that something can be generally true of a group of people, without being true of any particular individual within that collective. For instance, statistics say college-educated people have bigger incomes than those who have only completed high school. That’s a generally true statement. Most college graduates do make more money than most high school graduates. But at the same time, it is completely possible to find a college grad flipping burgers for minimum wage, and it is completely possible to find a high school grad successfully making their way in the business world (it’s been done). Skipping college and landing a lucrative career is not statistically likely, but that doesn’t mean a particular individual can’t do it. You can’t look at someone’s degree and assume their income bracket. The stereotype breaks down when it hits real life.

Ultimately, though, I believe the main reason we continue clinging to stereotypes is because it’s comfortable. It’s low-risk. It allows us to think we are gathering information about other people, without having to stop insulating and isolating ourselves (AKA, “seeking [our] own desires”, Prov 18:1). Who needs to risk real contact and conversation–and thus potential pain and rejection–when we can know all about someone just by observing their gender / race / age / handicap / weight / height / attractiveness / income / tone of voice / hairstyle / gait / clothing brand / etc.? Why muddle around with personal questions and real time investments when we can form a perfectly “good” opinion on our own? Why bother that much with the Body of Christ, so long as we have their Myers-Briggs readouts? (Yes, stereotypes fail even regarding personality profiles.)

We, as the human race, stereotype each other all the time. In the West, our Greek heritage has a tendency to steer us towards the desire to file things away in neat little boxes. When we understand something, we master it, we no longer have to contend with it in our mind or heart, and we feel more at ease. Being able to look at another human being and say, “Oh, I understand you, because you fit XYZ” can be terrifically comfortable. But in reality, it’s partitioning each other off in neat little boxes, assuming much, actually knowing little, and feeling barely at all.

As Christians, we have a higher calling. We’re not supposed to see each other through the lens of stereotypes. We are called and invited to see each other as the Lord sees. This takes supernatural enabling, because it is altogether human to look at the outward aspects. It is the Lord who sees to someone’s heart, the core of who they actually are (1Sam 16:7).

For instance, I, like anyone else, fit a profile that carries with it a number of given stereotypes. The outward specs say: white + female + twenty-something + churchgoing + unmarried + nearsighted + pretty smart + homeschooled + soft-spoken + INFJ personality. I fit that description. A person could draw some conclusions about me based on what you read there. They would probably be right about some things. They would probably be wrong about others. But for many intents and purposes, that would be all that most people need to know about me to decide what they think of me.

However, the Lord doesn’t see me through that lens. He of course knows that all those things are true about me. He’s the one who built me in the first place. Yet that alone doesn’t shape His opinion of me. He doesn’t see me as 0.000983% of a particular demographic. He doesn’t see me in contrast to the “average woman”. He sees me to the most minute quirks of my personality. He already understands and delights in the parts of me that don’t gel with statistical profiling. He sees my real heart response to trials and victories. He sees how other people affect me emotionally. He sees my battle for righteousness. He sees my inward hopes and dreams. He sees old wounds and sinful tendencies. He knows every strength. He knows every weakness. He knows my past, and He knows my destiny. He knows what enthralls my heart and He knows what kills it. And all of His dealings with me are in love, taking into account all of that and more. And His relationship with you is the same — uniquely knowing you, uniquely understanding you, uniquely knowing how to lead you well.

Our God does not deal in stereotypes. And we should strive to emulate Him in that way.

Now obviously, the whole finitude thing prevents us from knowing someone as thoroughly as God does. But what we can do is actually interact with them, all the while asking God what He thinks of them, and backing off from forumulating our own (semi-)educated guess. We can echo Psalm 139, for ourselves and for those around us, and declare, “…fearfully and wonderfully made; marvelous are Your works…” (Psalm 139:14). We will end up knowing them better. We will end up appreciating who they actually are. We will certainly end up liking them better. Most importantly, we will actually be able to love them.

Real love is hindered if we are constantly grappling with our preconceived image of the person. We can only serve and pour ourselves out for someone who is real in our own eyes. We can’t show Christ-like love to a statistic. But when we see as He sees, we will begin to want to love as He loves. And the more we love like He loves, the more we will see as He sees. It’s a very good cycle to get into. And it’s a cycle I want to getting into ASAP.


Posted by on September 8, 2009 in Heart Stuff, My Two Cents


Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

2 responses to “Studies show that people who believe stereotypes are all…

  1. Deborah

    December 30, 2009 at 10:03 pm

    Amanda, clever opening. As the child of a biostatistical researcher, I tend to look hard at studies, if possible, to see how thorough they were and how many controls they had or if there are other studies that appear legit supporting the same idea. Most of the studies that are regularly spouted in the news today would never pass muster with my dad or his more respected colleagues. The news seems to mostly be looking for things to whet our curiosity, and there are always tons of sloppy researchers ready to supply. It’s just something to be aware of.

    THAT SAID, the general gist of this one–which I have not bothered to look at–IS confirmed by vast studies along the same lines:

    As I’ve already shared with you, I am intrigued by and value our complementarity as men and women. Yet science shows us that, however real our differences are,

    “The way all women differ from all men is less predictive, provocative, and universal than we might think…. In statistical terms, 85 percent of the area overlaps. …The difference is actually so slight, that knowing a person’s gender has little to no predictive power in nearly 80 percent of psychological matters. And indeed, areas of difference, such as self-esteem (men, unsurprisingly, tend to have higher self-esteem than women), may be due to family culture, environment, or personality, not to an essential difference in our souls. Books written by clinical (not research) psychologists often make too much of smaller studies or personal stories that indicate some gender differences.” (p 72-3 Ruby Slippers: How the Soul of a Woman Brings Her Home by Jonalyn Grace Fincher)

    Picture two bell curves sitting on a line with almost their entire area overlapping. The large scale, collaborative study Fincher cites is one which actually looked at areas where we typically assume the genders most differ—“things like verbal skills, visual-spatial ability, mathematical ability, and aggression.” Of course, boys and girls may develop on different time lines in different areas, they may occasionally produce a different manifestation of strength in the same area (e.g., types of aggression might differ btwn genders), and there may be regional tendencies that are more distinct than the bell curves, but this is where development lands them across cultures. Perhaps we are naturally geared to recognize the exaggerations and to build our ideas from them as part of making sense of our way in the world as gendered people. It feels safe and comfortable (if you fit it or even if you do not if you are eager to fit something which gives you your place) to have two different pictures to aim for. These ideas include how we try to mold one another into these exaggerations. How many of us have not heard an elder member of our families scold a boy for crying, telling him boys don’t do that, that boys must leave the infantile world of emotions behind (but girls can keep the same)? We are trained so much to be different and to conform to these roles that I’m rather amazed we show up as so similar in the cross-section of cultures.

    Sometimes people are out of their intended balance because of childhood wounds. For instance, an abused girl might determine to be “really tough” and unemotional or, conversely, to be “just the weak little thing” she now perceives herself as. While sometimes healing of issues in our lives is necessary to release the balance God intended for a particular individual (and I’ve had to go through this), we need to be careful not to assume a woman has not grown into her femininity or a man his masculinity just because the “family resemblances” of their respective genders are not their greatest personal strengths. (Family resemblances is a term Fincher uses to describe attributes that will not be present in all but to which a group–e.g., women–may be prone or which a group may value.) For instance, Oholiab and Bezalel were the chief artisans of the temple (cultivation). Gideon valued vulnerability, interdependence, and cultivation by nature. John the Beloved was tender and perhaps prone to sensitive awareness and interdependent knowing. Metaphorically, the curly redhead with blue eyes born into a family with Mediterranean features is no less family (and in my mish-mosh family such surprises happen). And the boy at school who strongly resembles that family does not, thereby, become a blood brother. Rather, he fully belongs to his own family (here, “masculine”).

    I’ve had to deal with layers of this in so many areas. Even as a very multi-cultural kid (that is, one who used to live in an immigrant community), I was grieved as an adult to realize how some racial attitudes had steadily seeped into me. As a Yankee now living in the redneck south, I am constantly challenged and reminded of what a challenge I am to others even if I try to blend in. I feel like I’m often having to re-sort in this area. I’m also having to refuse to let the pain of how people belonging to groups that are easy to stereotype have betrayed, scorned, or hurt me to color my next interaction w/ others from the same group. I never thought this could be much of a battle for me. But God has a way of putting us in situations hot enough to show us our weakness and our desire to run away.

    Hope you’re having a blast at One Thing. I watched this afternoon after not managing to get the webcast to work the first two nights.

    Good thoughts,

  2. Deborah

    December 30, 2009 at 10:07 pm

    Oh, I cut and pasted part of that. As to make better sense, cultivation, interdependent knowing and some other words I threw out there were female “family resemblances” that Fincher was looking at and which I was using as a springboard in my own writing…. It would take too much space to explain here.


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