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Stereotypes form via 'Chinese whispers'

By Kathryn Lougheed

Scientists are all nerdy men with crazy hair and bad dress sense, right?

Stereotypes such as this may form unintentionally as information is passed from person to person - as in the game Chinese whispers, said Dr Doug Martin from the University of Aberdeen yesterday. Some non-stereotypical scientists have shown that information within a group tends to be simplified over time, making it easier to learn and more structured. Could this research explain why stereotypes arise and maybe teach us how we can change the harmful ones?
Dr Martin was explaining his research at the British Science Festival.
Martin and colleagues asked volunteers to memorise simple pictures of 'aliens' with randomly generated personality traits. Subsequent volunteers performed the same task but with the help of learning material based on the information remembered by the previous volunteers.
Over time, the subjects unwittingly simplified and structured this information, and certain traits became strongly associated with different aliens. For example, all blue aliens were linked to being adaptable and adventurous while triangular aliens were perceived as flirty. The scientists also saw some polarisation in the results - similar personality traits became linked, leading to the aliens being loosely grouped as 'good guys' or 'bad guys'. This research could be expanded on to teach us about how we perceive others, and ourselves, based on stereotypes.
It is impossible to escape from stereotypes, said Martin. Step inside any toy shop or kids' clothing store, and the girls' section will be an explosion of 'girly colours' thanks to the common stereotype of girls liking pink and boys liking blue.
However, less than one hundred years ago the pink and blue gender stereotype was completely reversed, with pink being seen as a strong and manly colour.
Even if you try your best to ignore them, stereotypes influence our lives more than we realise. They can help us make sense of unfamiliar situations such as meeting someone new, where we quickly form a mental impression of the person based on limited information.
So not only can stereotypes appear out of nowhere, but they can change. Says Martin: “If we can understand how stereotypes form and evolve then we can begin to predict how they might change in the future and possibly even manipulate this for the benefit of society.”

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