The Consequences: When Negative Outweighs Positive

Stereotypes are not always negative. For example, one might say: "all Japanese are polite." Even if this contains a grain of truth, the statement is false because it is a simplistic though inoffensive generalization. There also exist “positive” preconceptions, for instance: "he looks generous." This could be a premature judgment that will be contradicted by the facts.

Unfortunately, the most common stereotypes and prejudices in relations between individuals or groups are of the negative variety (mainly ethnic and social prejudice, or prejudice targeting sexual orientation).

Even in the absence of any sort of competition, the tendency to use stereotypes goes hand-in-hand with a tendency to overestimate one’s own group and put other groups down ("we’re better than them!"). Generally, in establishing the dominant group as superior, stereotypes tend to ensure that a certain social status quo is maintained.

The more negative prejudices and opinions that people have about a certain social or ethnic group, the bigger distance they will try to maintain between themselves and the undesired group, to the point of discriminating against it. In general, prejudice and stereotypes are de-humanizing to the people they target, turning them into "Others," into people who are “different” and who “should adapt to our values."

Intercultural prejudice and stereotypes quickly become set ideas that are applied to all members of the rejected group. For example, someone will say the Scots are misers; Jews are stingy, the English are phlegmatic; Poles drink too much, Aboriginals are alcoholics, the French are chauvinists and Blacks are lazy – all of which are well-known, widespread stereotypes that serve as the basis for idiomatic expressions ("drunk as a Pole") or that are used to make insinuations about people (remarks about homosexuals).

Prejudice and stereotypes based on ethnic or national origins undermine a person’s feeling of belonging to mainstream society, and contribute to the development of "ethnic identities" that foster communitarianism. Thus, persons of Asian, African or Arab origin born or in Quebec or who have been living in Quebec for a long time, are still regarded by some people as outsiders with values presumed to be different from those of native Quebecers. Sometimes international news items feed prejudicial thinking about certain groups, for example, Islamophobia and anti-Semitism.

Even more disturbing, it has been demonstrated that stereotypes can influence the behaviour of the stereotyped groups, for instance, groups that are given bad reputations. Studies have shown that children from stigmatized groups tend to act according to the “bad reputation” they have been assigned, or to question their intelligence in response to the image society has forced upon them: "Since that’s how you expect me to be, that’s how I'll be!"

These negative stereotypes are so strong - especially when backed by the media - they become self-fulfilling prophecies. This is the case with delinquency among young blacks in North America, the exclusion of Arab youths in the French suburbs, the Gypsies in Europe, and so on.