The Problem with Concepts, Part I

The problem with stereotypes and clichés has to do with the problem of building and using concepts.  Concepts are people's beliefs about the features that make up a category of things (like, "cheese"), where those features come from ("cheese has calcium because it is made from milk), how frequently a given feature is present across category members ("calcuim is a feature of all cheese" whereas "having holes" is not), and the way to use those features to interact with category members ("bleu cheese makes a good sauce").  People have to have concepts or they would be in the process of relearning how to do the same things all of the time.  Once we have learned the concept of “cups” we know where these things are stored, how to handle them, and what kinds of liquids go into them.  The concept of cup is very useful.   When we want to serve coffee, we do not have to ask around to figure out what to put it in.  Same thing with billions of other concepts, from the concept of “hair brush” to “salad” and “rototiller.”  We know what a lot of things are, we know names for them, and how to use them.  So life seems pretty fluid, where it would not otherwise.

Some people like to argue that stereotypes are just generalizations (concepts) about people, and that we also could not function without generalizations about people.  Of course that is true to some extent.  Luckily, we know which woman is our mother (she is a concept too), and we know the difference between the flight attendant and the pilot, the organist and the priest, the cop and the fire fighter.  We know where we’ll see these types of people, when we might interact with them, how to contact them, and what function they serve in society.  That is all pretty fine.

But is having these concepts in this way the same thing as saying that all Americans are naïve, all Germans are rigid, all French people are arrogant, and all Italians are emotional?  I think not.  I mean, if it really stopped there, then we would just say very blandly, “oh, we need to be on time because we are going to the Germans’ house,” or “let’s talk really loudly at the Americans’ dinner because that is what they do in America.”  This is not what people do when they use stereotypes and rely on clichés.  They do much more than that.  And they fail to do much more as well.

Let’s start with what they do beyond the basic use of a concept.  First, they go way beyond the description of the characteristic.  When people use a stereotype, such as Germans are rigid, they are telling a very full story about that characteristic (all about that in The Problem of Concepts, Part II).  They are saying what “rigid” is and how you get that way.  They are articulating how being rigid is linked to everything else in life in Germany.  But most of all, they are judging the behaviors they use to diagnose rigidity both generally, and in terms of themselves. Doing the behaviors that they call rigid are associated with all sorts of other bad behaviors and motivations, they are not themselves that way, and in the end it really means that Germans are inferior.  Even things that sound like behavioral descriptions “Americans are loud,” are not behavioral descriptions at all: They are stories about why being loud is bad and linked to many other inferior traits. 

What people are not doing is being empirical in any sense of the word.  As flawed as they are, scientists try to find general rules.  They try to conduct studies that could disconfirm their hypothesis as well as confirm it.  People do not naturally do this in any aspect of life, and certainly not in international relations.  By the very biased deployment of selective attention, people can maintain the view that Americans are loud (and why), or that the French are arrogant (and why). This is easy in part because they simply do not see or count the disconfirming examples.  I have an African-American friend here in France who told me that French people whisper to him that it is too bad that America ever aired the Cosby Show [this was before Cosby was convinced of sexual assault] because the show failed to represent the real (terrible) race relations in the US, and the history of oppression and discrimination.  What worried my friend is that he (I think rightly) realized that the people who slammed the Cosby Show didn’t actually know that there are upper-middle class African-Americans.  While my friend wasn’t upper-middle class, his own (African-American) wife sure was, and so did many African-Americans I grew up with.  So totally dismissing the Cosby family is a little worrisome too because it counts as a failure to incorporate information that is necessary to have to fully informed concept.

People also fail to learn the interpretation of behavior that informs a cliche from the perspective of the actual culture in which the behavior occurs.  They understand what they see in terms of their own culture and then judge that understanding in terms of their culture too. This biased judgment varies from person to person and even country to country. The first time I traveled to Germany (my first time in Europe, when I attended a summer course in Frankfurt sponsored by the DAAD) I did not ask myself “why do Germans do things differently than Americans.”  I mean, why wouldn’t they do things differently?  Why would Germans do things the American way, or the Portuguese do things the Russian way?  In that case, they would just trade in their culture for another and in most cases, for historical, environmental, and religious reasons, they have their own way for a reason.  Often a good in the sense of adaptive reason.

We know that we can get to the same desired outcome (and everyone does not have the same desired outcome!) by taking many different routes.  If people do not approach a culture by assuming that it is different from their own, and for a valid reason, then they are very sure to be upset by the differences (which causes huge negative affect, according to psychological research), and that negative affect will be sure to motivate a damning judgment.

Posted by Paula Niedenthal at 2:45 AM JUN 6, 2011