Do stereotypes actually influence our identities?

Image credit: Jennifer Wu

Upon reflection, it seems a little fishy that most American high school movies depict the same few stereotypical characters: the cheerleaders, jocks, nerds, goths, et cetera et cetera. We see it in Mean Girls, The Breakfast Club, High Schol Musical – the same tropes manifested in different plots. It is even stranger that to some extent, despite regular deviations, we see that these social groups exist in reality, albeit in a (thankfully) less Hollywood-esque version of it. Given how easily we appear to to fit into such distinct categories, the question arises: how much do stereotypes shape our identity? In other words, do we naturally fit into stereotypes, or mould ourselves to fit into them?

The human brain is wired for pattern recognition: that’s why we stereotype other people. It aids in forming templates of social categories and it helps us understand the world. There exists a confirmation bias towards stereotype-consistent information: we are more inclined to believe it over what is stereotype-inconsistent because it is easier. Just as stereotyping can be used to understand other people, it can also be directed at ourselves. Once we have been stereotyped and recognised as such, we tend to emphasise the similarities we share with the group, and exaggerate di erences with others. It comes down to having a group identity. When we find it difficult to understand ourselves, having something to call our identity to can be a great source of comfort. Perhaps this partly explains why stereotypes are particularly prominent when we’re teenagers, and less certain of who we are, a factor heightened by the compact environments of schools.

Here in Cambridge, stereotypes abound. We seem to be particularly keen on forming categories everywhere we can; Trinity is for mathmos, King’s is for the argumentative, and the identites of all Girtonians are apparently united in how far away they are.

There are also subject stereotypes, and more broadly, a divide between the arts and sciences - the former have a penchant for culottes, the latter for parkas. In my experience, it is a minority of people for whom these stereotypes are true. We do not adopt them because they are true to experience, or to serve a cognitive purpose – they exist purely for Tab-article-writing and meme-making.

Perhaps they exist partly because of the university’s reputation; for prospective students, college stereotypes remain a novelty, as shown on the Student Room.

Stereotypes undoubtably shape at least a part of our identity, whether they are of our culture, class background, taste in music, or more. The extent to which they do is also dependent on the people around us, how much they themselves attend to stereotypes, and our own choices about how much we want to partake in it – Cambridge is a prominent example of this. 

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