Tuesday, 3 January 2017

Responding to Stereotyping

In this post Kathy Puddifoot (pictured above), Research Fellow at the University of Birmingham, summarises her paper on "Responding to Stereotyping", which is forthcoming in a special issue of Philosophical Explorations on false but useful beliefs. The special issue is guest edited by Lisa Bortolotti and Ema Sullivan-Bissett and is inspired by project PERFECT's interests in belief.

Women occupy only thirteen percent of jobs in scientific fields in the United Kingdom. Suppose that as a result of being exposed to accurate depictions of this situation, say, in the news media, you form a stereotype associating science with men. This association influences your automatic responses to individuals. For example, if you hear about a great feat of engineering you automatically assume that the person who achieved it is a man. Is it a good thing that your judgements are automatically influenced by this scientist stereotype?

A natural thought is that if you want to be egalitarian, doing the ethical thing, then you should not engage in stereotyping. You should assume, for example, that any achievement in engineering is equally likely to be achieved by a man or a woman. In contrast, if your aim is to make correct judgements, it is not a bad thing to be influenced by the stereotype because it reflects reality. My paper challenges this thought.

I show that stereotyping leads to errors in judgement regardless of whether the stereotype that is applied reflects reality because the application of the stereotype can lead to the distorted perception of an individual. For instance, the abovementioned scientist stereotype can lead ambiguous behaviours displayed by female scientists, such as errors in speech made when explaining complex scientific ideas, to be viewed as evidence of lack scientific expertise.

I show that one can be more likely to achieve one’s epistemic goals, making correct judgements about individuals, as well as being egalitarian, if one responds in ways that fail to reflect certain social realities, thereby avoiding errors associated with stereotyping. This means that the best thing to do in order to make a correct judgement is more often than might be expected the egalitarian thing: avoiding stereotyping.

I argue that cognitions that fail to reflect social realities, such as the underrepresentation of women in the sciences, can be epistemically innocent. Although they bring epistemic costs, increasing the chance of errors in judgement in some specific circumstances, they also bring significant epistemic benefits, reducing the chance of errors in judgement in many responses to individuals.

My argument provides a response to a defence of stereotyping. A person might defend an act of stereotyping on the basis that by stereotyping they are merely tracking the truth (e.g. “Well more scientists are men, so my judgements are most likely to track reality if I associate science with men”). Sometimes it will be possible to respond by showing that the stereotype does not reflect reality (e.g. “Actually, scientists are just as likely to be women as men nowadays”), but where a response like this is not available my argument supplies an alternative response: i.e. even if the stereotype reflects reality it does not follow that judgements formed as a result of applying the stereotype will reflect reality. On the contrary, people are often more likely to make accurate judgements if they avoid stereotyping even where the stereotype reflects an aspect of social reality.


  1. This post would benefit by linking a paper or some more in-depth explanation. It is fairly obvious that even accurate stereotypes are still notably imperfect heuristic devices, hence will lead to fewer errors in judgement in some cases and more in others. The question is the balance. It is hard to judge that without seeing the relevant argument in more depth.

    1. Watch this space! The paper will soon appear open-access in a special issue of Philosophical Explorations on false but useful beliefs. We will add the link when it becomes available.

  2. I have a belief based on stereotypes that philosophers' utterences are well-thought and usually reliable. However as a philosopher you utter the sentence that 'you should not rely on stereotypes even if they are true'. Do we have a liar like paradox here?


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