Destined to Stereotype? How the Mind's Gift for Grouping Gets Us Into Trouble

Mar 12, 2014 | Updated May 12, 2014

With each encounter in our lives, we categorize. It's a survival skill that allows our brains to make sense of an endless flow of data. Without it, we would have to puzzle out the meaning of each person and object individually rather than, say, assigning that speeding car to the "reckless driver" category and getting out of its way.

But this ability, and the ease and unconsciousness with which we do it, can lead us to distorted perceptions, sometimes with results harmful to others and ourselves. For example, research has shown that items or people placed in a group are perceived as more alike than they really are -- and as more different from other groups than they really are. The fine details are overlooked in favor of the easier-to-process generality. It's a recipe for stereotypes. "When we categorize, we polarize," notes author and theoretical physicist Leonard Mlodinow in his book Subliminal.

This may be especially problematic for those struggling with addictions and mental health problems, who may need help but are reluctant to place themselves in the category of "addicted" or "mentally ill" because of often negative social perceptions (their own included) about what this means. They may also fear being seen as an issue rather than an individual.

A recent U.K. study of more than 90,000 participants in the U.S. and Europe noted that stigma is a key factor preventing people from seeking the help they need. "The profound reluctance to be 'a mental health patient' means people will put off seeing a doctor for months, years, or even at all, which in turn delays their recovery," said study senior author Graham Thornicroft, a professor at King's College London.

While we can't turn off our brain's natural tendency to lump people and things together, we can understand and help influence the meaning we assign to those categories and to push ourselves to think beyond the stereotype. But it takes effort.

The first step is in understanding how -- and how easily -- our mind creates and maintains categories.

The Sorting Brain
Researchers believe the brain's prefrontal cortex holds the neurons that respond to categories. When we observe a person or an object, we latch on to a few overt details and then use that information to assign that person or thing to a place in our mental library of categories. For example, we see a man in a uniform throw a ball and we assign him to the category of "athlete." If we don't have the time or opportunity to interact more, this generality is all we will know. And how we feel about athletes -- arrived at through our own experiences and connections with the world, some conscious, some not -- will shape our perception of him.

For example, if we love the excitement and physicality of sports, we may assign "good" values to athletes. But for someone who has seen organized sports monopolize family time and take school funding away from other electives, "athlete" may have another value altogether.

This categorization process seems effortless to us, but it is actually a highly sophisticated skill. To put it in perspective, any child can recognize that an apple and a banana are both fruit, but scientists have only recently been able to create a computer vision system that can successfully distinguish cats from dogs.

What would we be like without the ability to do this mental shorthand? In the 1980s, scientists studied a stroke victim who seemed cognitively fine except for one thing: He could no longer categorize. If shown a picture of two different trains, for example, he could not recognize the connection between them. Daily tasks, even something as simple as setting the table, were beyond him.

Categorization is what allows us to group individual letters into sentences, to recognize the person with the menu as a waiter, to understand that the items in the pantry are food. In short, categorization helps us understand our world.

Uncovering Our Bias
Being able to categorize keeps us speeding along mentally, but it also means we run the risk of making our assessments based on categories rather than on the objects themselves.

When people are the ones being categorized, the effect can be profound. We may think we judge people as individuals and without bias, but if we don't have the time, opportunity or inclination to get to know them well, we turn to their social category for our understanding of them, sometimes without even knowing it. It can lead to unwarranted assumptions, both negative and positive.

In 1998, a group of three researchers created the Implicit Association Test (IAT), which has become a standard tool in social psychology for gauging the degree of stereotyping behind categories. In one test, for example, participants are shown men's and women's names along with science and arts terms, and told to pick "hello" when shown an art term or a woman's name, and "goodbye" when shown a man's name or a science term. Most find that easy enough. But when grouping is switched and participants are asked to choose "hello" when a woman's name or a science term appears, and "goodbye" when an art term or a man's name appears, they find it more difficult. Why? A bias toward connecting men with science and women with the arts is revealed, often to the surprise of the person being tested. Ask yourself: When you think of a physicist and a piano teacher, what sex do you assign them?

The IAT researchers later created a non-profit called Project Implicit, which provides a platform for the investigation of thoughts and feelings that exist outside of conscious awareness or conscious control. Among the research is the examination of implicit associations regarding mental health, including self-esteem, anxiety, alcohol use, eating disorders, depression and more. Visitors to the Project Implicit site can even gauge their own hidden biases through online tests, choosing from topics such as, "Do you implicitly favor medication or talk therapy?" "Do you implicitly feel eating high-fat food is shameful?" and "Do you implicitly think people with mental illnesses are dangerous?"

Unconscious bias is being recognized more and more as scientists come to discover how large a role unconscious thinking plays in our lives. As author Mlodinow notes in Subliminal, we read consciousness into all of our actions, but the reality is that many processes of perception, memory, attention, learning and judgment are in parts of the brain that are off limits to the conscious mind.

The good news is that simply learning about a previously hidden bias can help us overcome it. In one Project Implicit study, a group of researchers used brief versions of an Implicit Assessment Test to uncover negative feelings the participants had about people with mental illnesses. Some participants received personalized feedback about their test results; others did not. In all cases, simply allowing the participants to experience that there was a difference between what they knew they should feel and what they did feel toward people with mental illness was enough to reduce stigma-relevant attitudes. And the effect was greatest for those who started out with the strongest bias.

Eliminating the Negative
Trying not to categorize in the first place may seem like a good goal, but it's not a solution. Our brains simply can't help themselves; they must categorize or grind to a halt. But we can recognize that we have the power to understand a person beyond a category and to influence what those categories mean.

But perhaps the strongest weapon at our disposal in the quest to reduce biased thinking is simply knowing someone within a category. That knowledge can easily dispel any stereotype and any negative feeling. It's why the category of "addict," for example, can take on an entirely new meaning when someone we love has been assigned to it.

David Sack, M.D., is board certified in psychiatry, addiction psychiatry and addiction medicine. He is CEO of Elements Behavioral Health, a network of mental health and addiction treatment centers that includes a recovery ranch in Tennessee, Promises Treatment Centers, and The Recovery Place.