Mandarins, taipans and other cliches

PUBLISHED : Friday, 08 August, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 08 August, 2003, 12:00am

Hong Kong Chinese are noisy, dirty, materialistic, sexually repressed and scornful of anybody outside their own group. Western expatriates are gluttonous, aggressive, brash, undisciplined and egotistical. So go the stereotypes.

Why such harsh judgments? For two good reasons, say experts. The first is because of our urge to conserve resources. The second is rooted in defensiveness. Learning about these reasons can help us understand why stereotypes exist. Being aware of the underlying mechanisms at play can help defuse some of the harm stereotypes can do.

One standard social psychological theory states that we are simply unwilling to devote the energy required to think beyond cliches, however simplistic, because this is not in the interests of our instinctive survival strategy. The principle is known as 'the cognitive miser'. In matters of thinking power, it seems, we are all scrupulously parsimonious. As cognitive misers, we swallow a stereotype whole because it provides economy of expression. A stereotype is a sort of cognitive shorthand which conveys superficial and un-nuanced meaning - the sort of black-and-white concepts that require the minimum of conscious thought, which is a precious resource better invested nearer home. The troubling side-effect of this parsimony, however, is that stereotypes 'frame' and limit any subsequent thinking. They normalise - even legitimise - economy of understanding.

When a stereotype is communicated between one person and another, the very effort involved tends to reinforce the slanted, simplistic ideas it contains (explicit or implicit). Stereotypes are even self-reinforcing. This can be observed in everyday life in the subtle ways in which people tend to talk down to members of other racial groups. In some cases, this is so pervasive that we no longer register the contempt we subtly inflict on others. People habitually on the receiving end of indirect racial slurs are deadened by the accumulative effect.

Prejudice through stereotype is sometimes even perpetuated by the 'victim', not just the 'beneficiary'. This, again, is rooted in our tendency to cognitive parsimony. We allot thinking energy where it is of best use. In the face of a losing battle, we give up. So for some, it is simply too demanding to perpetually resist an existing and well-supported attitude, even if it is personally disempowering.

A related phenomenon is what is known as a 'false consciousness'. This is when a person's group allegiance seems at odds with their social role or identity. A working-class member of the British Conservative party is one example. Another is a Hong Kong Chinese who develops a consciousness that is 'more Canadian than the Canadians' following a long stay in that country. This is called a false consciousness because the individual is adopting a psychological perspective in relation to which he or she is a natural outsider. Because the individual has chosen or yielded to a 'foreign' allegiance, he or she has to try harder - hence a characteristic diligence in adhering to group norms.

A second reason stereotypes persist is as a form of ego defence. We all have the desire to identify with a particular group. We want to 'belong'. Surviving in numbers is at the root of our social nature. But a group is an exclusive entity. To exist, it needs to include certain people and exclude others. When we identify with a group, our ego becomes wrapped up in it and we become defensive if we think our group is threatened by another. The group is defined in relation to others, to whom we attribute negative characteristics such as selfishness, dirtiness or whatever. This definition implies our own superiority, increases solidarity and thus defends the viability of the group and of its individual members.

According to these perspectives, then, humans have a built-in predisposition to be prejudiced against others. Stereotypes are not aberrations. They are understandable psychological adaptations.

So how can the destructive effects of racial stereotypes be counterbalanced?

Unfortunately there is no easy answer, as one would expect with a phenomenon that has very solid psychological foundations. One strategy is to be open to complexity. However, this entails the very level of effort that stereotypes exist, in part, to conserve. In other words, to overcome racial stereotyping, people have to go against their instinct not to invest their thinking power away from their main centre of interest, and to some extent they have to go out on a limb by letting down their ego defence.

However, even slight internal changes, based on an understanding of our own tendencies, can make a huge difference. Occasionally reflecting on our own stereotypical reactions and how they are not so very different from those evident in the people around us can foster a 'sympathetic regard' - which, in turn, can generate surprisingly fruitful goodwill.

In the multicultural concrete jungle, it sometimes pays to know and choose to go against your instinct - or in this case, two of them.

Jean Nicol is a Hong Kong-based psychologist and writer