Topic 1 What is a stereotype: meaning, function & features

Etymology: the word “stereotype” comes from two Greek terms: stereos- (rigid) and typos- (impression).

Stereotype = rigid and generalised belief concerning a particular group or class of people

The use of stereotypes is a major way in which we simplify our social world; since they reduce the amount of processing (i.e. thinking) we have to do when we meet a new person.

Stereotypes, in fact, are formed for a very specific reason: to help human beings to orient themselves in a world full of complexity and nuances. If each of us were forced to analyse, from time to time, every single element that our senses perceive, daily life would become a very tiring, if not impossible task. This is why, among our cognitive processes, simplification and, therefore, the use of stereotypes occupies a prominent place.

Other resources:

Video: What is STEREOTYPE?

We can find countless examples of stereotypes in everyday life: they can concern religions, ethnic groups, sexuality, politics, nationality, etc.

The common element, in all these cases, is the focus on the similarities between the members of a certain group, rather than the differences that distinguish them.

What is born from the aim of helping us to have quick reactions and answers, however, often can assume the characteristics of preconceptions, which are not based on personal experience and are difficult to change.

Accepting clichés, unverified knowledge, pre-packaged judgments: an economy of the mind which becomes avarice of the heart
B.M. Mazzara, Stereotipi e pregiudizi, Il Mulino, 1997.

Stereotypes applied to people in real life

Have you ever looked for the word «migrants» in Google?

Searching on for images related to the word “migrants” will give you images like this: crowded, and, in most cases, speaking of desperation, poverty, etc.

The real data instead of the stereotypes: comparing the overcrowded imagery with the actual numbers of foreign-born people resident in the EU.

As we said before, we share them with our membership group. In reality, the group does not just share them with us, it sends them to us, it circulates them: the stereotypes are transmitted by the family, the cultural and social environment by many means.

They are abundantly found in common language, e.g. in jokes and also in the information we receive from the mass media.

Stereotypes are expectations that can influence our behaviour. If I believe that a person, on the basis of his provenance, is untrustworthy, I will be more suspicious, more inclined to control.

As a matter of fact, the stereotype becomes the basis on which to build prejudices, discrimination, sexism, racism and other forms of discrimination.

Source: Image by Clker-Free-Vector-Images from Pixabay

It consists of extending certain characteristics indiscriminately to all members of a group:

  • It’s a matter of simplistic generalisations that ignore the many differences and the individual characteristics.

Stereotypes are mental schemes that allow us to:

– Interpret in general terms the behaviour of a group

– Evaluate the individuals belonging to that group

– Predict their behaviour based on shared expectations

-Considered as approximate generalisations, they can constitute valid cognitive strategies

The contexts in which we interact are complex, so it’s necessary to simplify in order to better understand what we perceive and take action. Categorising and stereotyping can produce simplification and allowing us to interpret more efficiently the situations that we are in. Last, stereotype can help us orient our behaviour more effectively


The danger of a single story” – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie