The Stereotypes Tucked Away in Our Unconscious

This article explores how stereotypes ingrained in our minds through influences from our environment soon find themselves tucked away in our unconscious, and most of the time, we don’t even realize it. However, a process called de-automatization can save our generation from the societal threat of stereotypes.

Reading Time: 4 minutes

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By Emma Donnelly

As members of Generation Z, teenagers like to think that they are accepting of all people regardless of race, sexual identity, or culture. However, there’s a strong theory that many discriminatory stereotypes are embedded in their minds.

First, why does society stereotype in the first place? Stereotyping is an instinctive tool of the human mind from thousands of years ago; it’s powerful enough that stereotypes formed centuries ago are still active in today’s minds. Humans have always had a strong tendency to live in groups, which is called the in-group/out-group dynamic. In order to feel satisfied with the group they’re part of, they have to denigrate those who aren’t in their group—the “out-group.” Another reason humans tend to stereotype so easily is to simplify their world. Rather than overwhelming the mind and analyzing every person one meets, stereotyping reaches into one’s unconscious to make quick analyses of people, thus reducing the amount of processing our minds need to do.

So how does bias come into play? Essentially, connections that are constantly made in the conscious mind slowly make their way into the unconscious. Our environment and culture greatly influence which stereotypes make their way into our unconscious. Our conscious minds like to accept certain values—the “correct” values—as our own, but our minds learn to take in the subtext of culture long before they learn how to make their own opinions. The subtext of culture can be gleaned from the mass media, peer pressure, and the unjust balance of power in the real world. Stereotypes develop from even the smallest interactions with representatives of a social group and grow through a process called automatic processing. Each time the mind reaches into the unconscious for stereotypes in order to react to and process the world around it more quickly, those stereotypes become further ingrained. Though Generation Z is adamant about equality, its members possess stereotypes in their unconscious that are vestiges of a long-gone environment rife with discrimination.

The human mind's vulnerability attracts numerous stereotypes that can only be uncovered in the unconscious mind. A study was conducted in which people were to respond to a subject with a characteristically “white” or “black” name who appeared with a positive or negative word. People, including some African Americans, tended to respond quicker when positive words were paired with white names, and negative words were paired with black names. Previous stereotypes about black and white people were used by their minds to react faster to the simulation. Another example is a study in which people were asked to choose names from a list that they believed to be famous. In an overwhelming two-to-one ratio, people believed that men were more likely to be famous. They were acting on an unconscious stereotype that men are more significant and influential than women. No woman would ever choose a man to be more likely to be famous because they genuinely believe men are superior, and likewise, no African American would purposefully associate negative words with their own race, demonstrating that these stereotypes come from the unconscious.

Shockingly, Stuyvesant students’ minds are likely more biased than any other. Studies have shown that smarter people who are quick to pick up patterns are in fact more likely to stereotype. In a study conducted at NYU, researchers showed 271 participants pictures of red, yellow, and blue cartoon aliens randomly paired with either a nice or mean behavior. In two of the groups, 80 percent of the blue aliens were paired with a mean behavior, and 80 percent of the yellow aliens were paired with a nice behavior. Then, the participants had to choose which alien from a group of aliens committed a given behavior. After this, the participants took a pattern-based exam. Generally, participants who were quick to detect patterns were more likely to make stereotypes, matching blue aliens with mean behaviors and nice behaviors with yellow aliens. Though smart people are more likely to be less prejudiced in their conscious mind, this shows how the ability to pick up patterns easily can lead to a more biased unconscious.

Though stereotypes are entrenched in the mind from centuries of discrimination, researchers may have found a viable way to rid the mind of this bias. Using the technique of de-automatization, humans can unravel the process done to ingrain a stereotype by actively fighting their unconscious when they behave in a manner reflecting a stereotype. The slight pause in processing a stereotype gives their mind time to think in an unbiased and clear light. De-automatization can be practiced to train your mind to prevent automatic stereotyping. However, successful de-automatization results have only been recorded in controlled environments. To extrapolate those same results out to the real world would not be realistic. It’s much harder to maintain a commitment to de-automatization in the real world due to constant exposure to mass media and other factors.

A determining factor in creating a progressive society is eliminating the discrimination that has been building up from the beginning of humanity in the form of stereotypes. Many humans aren’t even aware that these stereotypes have been entrenched in their minds. It’s scary to think about the extent to which we aren’t actually in control of our thoughts. Without being able to control biased thought processes, it’s hard to create a truly progressive society. It’s frustrating to think that the unjust discrimination portrayed in forms of media and peer pressure can find a way into the unconscious no matter how hard the conscious fights it. The scary truth is that every human plays a role in the problem of creating and enforcing stereotypes that limit the growth of society. Nonetheless, it’s not impossible to eradicate the stereotypes history has created, and as long as humans are committed to fighting stereotypes, society is well on its way to creating a more progressive world.