Modern humans lived a hard and brutal life 300,000 years ago, despite having the same brains as we do. In order to survive they needed to know what was what – they used ‘stereotypes’ to put things in groups. If they saw a tiger in the woods, they wouldn’t stop to ask if he’s hungry. Not all tigers are planning to eat you, but stereotypes are what helped us survive. Not all men are violent. However if you’re a woman walking alone late at night you’d probably cross the street to avoid one. Especially if he’s wearing a black hoodie... though maybe not if it’s a white tuxedo. We have no evidence this man is dangerous – 0.00006% of men are serial killers – and psychopaths aren’t defined by their fashion choices.
Economists might call this behavior irrational, but only if they ignore the concept of Ergodicity – even an infinitetessimally small risk of ruin, can make a bet not worth taking. A system is Ergodic if the expected value over time of an activity performed by a group, is the same as for an individual taking the same action. For example rolling dice is ergodic, Russian Roulette is not. If you had six guns, and each can hold six bullets, but only one of the 36 chambers holds a bullet, would you take a gun to your temple and pull the trigger for $1 million? Your chance of death is relatively low (2.8%) and potential for becoming a millionaire is high (97.2%). There’s a huge difference between playing as a group (1 in 36 dies) and playing on your own (you die).
If the man you crossed the street to avoid was of a different ethnicity to you, you might worry “Am I being racist?”, and definitionally you are! Judging someone by their appearance instead of the content of their character is something we do thousands of times a day: we couldn’t function without it. It’s not possible to take the time to learn if everyone you meet is good natured. Even close friends we’ve known for years can exhibit surprising behavior from time to time. So our brain uses shortcuts based on visual and behavioral cues to assess threats. In prehistoric times being suspicious of members of other tribes helped keep us alive, but now this concept of ‘otherness’ has gone from helpful to harmful. When old biases become outdated, it’s our responsibility to retrain our brain on more accurate labels.
Marketers use generalizations all the time – when you define your customer persona as “stay at home mothers” or “male office workers” you’re literally communicating to your creative team what stereotypes to use. Some of these categories are more or less helpful than others. For example the arbitrary distinction between generations – “Gen Z” and “Millennials” – is about as useful as the Signs of the Zodiac. However the big 5 personality traits – extraversion (also often spelled extroversion), agreeableness, openness, conscientiousness, and neuroticism – do seem to be stable predictors of behavior. When we place people in categories we must be careful to focus on meaningful differences instead of harmful prejudices, but it’s also in our best interest – if your audience doesn’t live up to the (false) stereotypes you employ, your campaign won’t perform.
Effortless thinking: Why stereotyping is an evolutionary trap
Evaluating the Big Five as an Organizing Framework for Commonly Used Psychological Trait Scales
Generations and Generational Differences: Debunking Myths in Organizational Science and Practice and Paving New Paths Forward
I don’t like labels
Implicit stereotypes and the predictive brain: cognition and culture in “biased” person perception
Into the Kill Zone Quotes
Nothing New Under The Sun…
One personality test to rule them all…
Research States That Prejudice Comes From a Basic Human Need and Way of Thinking
Stereotypes: a way of survival, a part of being human
this is a useful debunking of the myths of generation labels
We Need To Talk About Ergodicity
What Are the Big 5 Personality Traits?