September 5, 2012

Scientists Set Out To Find How Stereotypes Evolve Over Time

Lee Rannals for — Your Universe Online

Researchers said at the British Science Festival in Aberdeen that stereotypes evolve like languages.

A team at the University of Aberdeen designed an experiment using aliens, which is a similar approach used to study the origins and evolution of language.

The aliens invented by the team had different colors, shapes and sets of personality traits, such as arrogance, pushiness or selfishness.

The researchers then asked a volunteer to learn the characteristics assigned to each of the aliens. The information was refined by the volunteer and then passed down through a communication chain.

It started out as jumbled and complex individual characteristics, and traits ended up encompassed in sets of stereotypes.

Character traits became linked with form and color, such as blue aliens became perceived as arrogant, pushy and untrusting.

Dr. Doug Martin told the BBC that the information becomes simpler, more structured and more learnable over time, making people at the end of the chain far more knowledgeable than those at the start.

"It's essentially what stereotypes are - massively over-simplified but easily learnable associations between social groups and bits of information," Dr. Martin told BBC News.

The attributes associated with each group of aliens became more polarized as each of the stereotypes evolved.

"It's almost as if at the end of a chain you have the good guys and you have the bad guys", he told the British news agency.

Martin said while making a presentation at the Festival of Science in Aberdeen that the creation of stereotypes seems to occur in the same way messages become garbled in the children's game Chinese Whispers.

He said as information is passed from one person to the next, it gets chained as it moves down the chain.

Martin said he believes that understanding the process may suggest ways to modify it and possibly manipulate it for the good of society.

A June 1918 issue of the Ladies' Home Journal said that the accepted rule to choose a color for a newborn was that "pink for boys, and blue for the girls." The magazine claimed that pink was "a more decided and stronger color," whereas blue was "more delicate and dainty, is prettier for the girl." Martin used this as an example of a stereotype that has evolved and changed.

"Now we've established that stereotypes can form and change over time via social transmission we now want to see if we can manipulate these," he said.

"We structure the world in a categorical way - it seems our brains are set up to do that," he told the BBC. "People who want to eliminate stereotypes are missing the point."