Steven Pinker on Stereotypes

From “The Blank Slate”, by Steven Pinker, 2002
Steven Pinker is currently a professor of psychology at Harvard

The idea that stereotypes are inherently irrational owes more to a condescension toward ordinary people than it does to good psychological research.  Many researchers, having shown that stereotypes existed in the minds of their subjects, assumed that the stereotypes had to be irrational, because they were uncomfortable with the possibly that some trait might be statistically true of some group.  They never actually checked.  That began to change in the 1980’s and now a fair amount is known about the accuracy of stereotypes.

With some important exceptions, stereotypes are in fact not inaccurate when assessed against objective benchmarks such as census figures or the reports of the stereotyped people themselves. People who believe that African Americans are more likely to be on welfare than whites, that Jews have higher average income than WASPs, that business students are more conservative than students in the arts, that women are more likely than men to want to lose weight, and that men are more likely than women to swat a fly with their bare hands, are not being irrational or bigoted. Those beliefs are correct. People’s stereotypes are generally consistent with the statistics, and in many cases their bias is to underestimate the real differences between sexes or ethnic groups.  This does not mean that the stereotyped traits are unchangeable, of course, or that people think they are unchangeable, only that people perceive the traits fairly accurately at the time.

and from the preface:

One trend is a stated contempt among many scholars for the concepts of truth, logic, and evidence.  Another is a hypocritical divide between what intellectuals say in public and what they really believe.  A third is the inevitable reaction: a culture of “politically incorrect” shock jocks who revel in anti-intellectualism and bigotry, emboldened by the knowledge that the intellectual establishment has forfeited claims to credibility in the eyes of the public.