Saturday, July 13, 2013

Stereotypes save time, but . . .

Two similar experiences today got me thinking, and of course that often leads to a blog post.  The experiences were about stereotypes.  The scientific version of stereotypes is that the brain is wired to consolidate how we store memories to save time and storage space.  We save something like a statistical average of similar experiences.  Anything that is true of many members of a group becomes our mental model of the whole group.  Unless a particular individual is important to us, we forget most of the details about them and just use the average – the stereotype.  It makes sense adaptively when you think about survival over the past millennia of evolution.  But today, it leads to jumping to unconscious assumptions about groups (like race, occupation, or height) that may not fit many individual members of that group.

The first experience was listening to this TED talk this morning.  In it, a doctor describes two very different reactions he had to two patients in the ER.  The first was a cancer patient who was dying.  He felt overwhelmed with compassion.  The cancer was not her fault and it was terrible that life had dealt her this unfair early death.  He went out of his way to make her as comfortable as possible.  The second patient was an obese woman with Type II diabetes and for whom he had to amputate a foot.  He felt contempt for this patient.  If she had just cared a little more, exercised a little more, ate a little less, she could have avoided this fate.  Then, a few years later, he came to understand that we have more control over our susceptibility to cancer than we thought, and we actually have a lot less control over many kinds of obesity.  In tears, he described how much he wishes he could go back in time and apologize to the diabetic patient, not because he gave her insufficient medical care, but because he failed as a human.  His stereotypes about cancer and obesity led him to jump to conclusions that were not correct.

The second experience was standing in line at the supermarket.  In front of me was an obese woman who was purchasing 100 cans of cat food, four large bags of chips, and a gallon of ice cream.  I couldn’t help but notice how quickly my brain jumped to the stereotype of the “cat lady” even though I knew nothing about her.  I could image her living in a dark apartment with a dozen cats, no human friends, and the neighborhood kids ringing her doorbell and running.  As a Human Factors geek, my thoughts were about the speed and ease with which my brain jumped to the stereotype rather than any kind of contempt like the doctor had.  But still, very similar.

So where does this leave me on a cool (for July) Saturday afternoon when I have much better things to do than sit in front of my computer (I bet that activated a stereotype in your head !!!)?  I think this is a case for metacognition to the rescue.  Metacognition is the ability to monitor your own thinking with the intention to improve your situation awareness, decision making, and problem solving.  If we can recognize when a stereotype is leading us to a conclusion that may not be appropriate for this situation, perhaps we can take a step back and look for real evidence.  But only if we know it is happening, which means we need to accept the fact that

a) we have stereotypes
b) our stereotypes are often wrong (too positive for in-groups, negative for out-groups)
c) it is worth the time to get it right in whatever situation we are in
d) we can practice the metacognitive skills needed to recognize this when it is happening.