What is your image of a typical person from Ireland? Greece? Italy? the UK? These are all stereotypes. Creating stereotypes is part of the way that the brain operates. Our memory is not like NETFLIX , it cannot recall the full length movie we watched last night. It does not have the capacity to store everything real time. It abstracts and generalises. It converts events into more general scripts and groups of people into stereotypes. When it needs a memory it reconstructs it from more general pieces.
The Stereotype Content Model (S.C.M.)
According to this model we stereotype all groups based on the answers to two evolutionary important questions:
“Do these others wish to help me or harm me?
“Do these others have the capability to help me or harm me?”
We needed to have the answer to both questions when faced with a group of outsiders wishing to join “our group”. According to this model we classify ALL groups along these two dimensions : Warmth and Competence.
Plotted as a chart there is an obvious diagonal: High Competence/High Warmth and Low/Low. The groups falling at these extremes are predictable. “The Middle Class”, “Whites”, ”Students”, “Christians” and “Women” in the top right. The Low/low group are : “the poor”, “welfare recipients”, and the “the homeless”.
More interesting are the off-diagonal groups. High on Competence but lower on warmth are the “Professionals”, “Asians”, “Jews”, and “Men”. In the high warmth but low competence group sit “the retarded”; “the disabled” and "the aged". Student respondents around the world placed these different groups in the same quadrants. These included participants from countries that were individualistic and collective. The Asian countries did not view "the old" in a different way. Ageism, and the other stereotypes are pan-cultural.
From Stereotype to Discrimination.
The SCM theory goes on to suggest stereotypes invoke emotions (prejudice) and behaviours (discrimination). Sexism, Racism, Ageism, Nationalism are all the result of negative stereotypes. The theory suggests that a group perceived as both warm and competent will evoke ADMIRATION. By comparison being low on warmth and competence can induce CONTEMPT. Low perceived warmth but high perceived competence can cause ENVY of that group. Finally our ageing group who are low on competence but high on warmth might evoke PITY.
For older people that PITY is a mixed blessing. They may be helped across the road by strangers. Conversely if they forget something it will be put down to incompetence. For a younger person that same memory loss will be attributed to lack of attention or effort. PITY can create a self- fulfilling prophecy. A professional pitying an older person sends a message of helplessness. Some older people can internalize that helplessness. It creates a sense of inferiority.
Students from around the EU rated nationalities on the same dimensions. The cluster of nationalities seen as less competent but warmer included many from the Mediterranean (plus the Irish). The Germans and the British scored higher on competence but were down rated on warmth. Only France did well on both dimensions.
The “Just World” Model
To an extraordinary degree we assume that groups with high social status deserve it. The “rich” deserve to be rich. It is because of their intelligence, competence, capability and skill. “The poor” are poor because of a lack of intelligence and competence. It is all totally illogical. This is however the “just world” assumption. It allows us to reconcile the gross inequalities in our worlds. It legitimizes the status quo. It justifies the unfair social structure.
We therefore infer the stereotypes that we use from the social status of any particular group. If a group is off the competence/warmth diagonal they violate this “just world” model. Groups that have high competence but low warmth do not "fit”. They do not have the required warmth to be so successful. They are seen as suspicious or devious. They work too hard. They are too ambitious.
The same happens to individuals. Those who do not conform to the stereotype are denigrated. For many years a competent and successful female was viewed with suspicion. She could therefore not have the “warmth” usually associated with women. Instead she was stereotyped as “hard” and “scheming”. Older people who display competence are viewed as less warm and less friendly.
The place of women within the stereotype model has changed. The SCM model suggests alternative ways for this to happen. This can be tackled at both the individual and the group level. If we can change the stereotype then the discrimination will stop.
For a stereotype to useful we need to be able to apply a general stereotype to an individual. But what happens if that individual sends a different signal? A recent study suggested that it might mitigate the effect. Researchers set up a general scenario of hotel “checking-in”. In the scenario there was a minor problem with the process but it was quickly resolved. They varied the photograph of the receptionist: old/young and male/female. As predicted, the older figures created a general stereotype of incompetence. Satisfaction with the identical experience was rated down compared to a young receptionist. They then manipulated the scenario. In one case the older receptionist said:
“I like working here because I meet interesting people every day and make new friends” (warmth).
In the other case they said:
“ I like working here because I like thinking on my feet and solving problems” (Competence).
The competence message worked. It improved the respondents’ satisfaction with the encounter above the base case. The text had moved the stereotype.
At the societal level changes in social standing can influence the stereotype. If we can find socially beneficial roles for the wisdom of older people (Newsletter #088 “A Wise Society”), their status will change. Older people must be “employed” in roles where they can display competence. This will move the negative stereotype. We need age diverse working groups. These will allow older people to demonstrate individual and group competence.