May 12, 2017

Are positive stereotypes taken as compliments?

We generally think of stereotypes as generalizing negative judgments about a category of people. In a stereotype the behavior of individuals is attributed to the group to which they (appear to) belong. Also, supposed negative characteristics of groups may be projected on individuals which belong to the group. It is not surprising that many people view stereotypes as undesirable. There are some quite dangerous sides to it. They can create tensions between groups and even undermine the integrity of society. Moreover they deny the unique character of individuals. But what about positive stereotypes, in other words, positive generalizations about social groups? Will these be viewed positively because they are really just complimentary?

Positive stereotypes depersonalize too

It may sound surprising but a growing number of studies show that positive stereotypes are usually not viewed as compliments. Instead, they are often interpreted as a sign that the person holding them also has negative judgments about the group (Kilianski & Rudman, 1998; Garcia et al., 2006; Czopp, 2008). One explanation why positive stereotypes can come across as negative is that they depersonalize individuals ("I view you as a member of that group, not as an individual").

Positive stereotypes are often viewed as concealed negative stereotypes

An additional reason which is demonstrated in research by Siy & Cherian (2017) is that members of the positively stereotyped group often assume that the stereotyper also believes negative stereotypes about their group. How could this work? Take the example of a man saying, "It is important to have women in our team because they are much more empathetic!" You might think that this man does not hold negative but only positive prejudices about women. But the studies mentioned above suggest that women will usually not like such statements and even will often presume that the positive stereotype is really a concealed negative stereotype. For example, they might think the man actually means: "Women are irrational!" Suppose someone says: "Dark-skinned people are so athletic!" A dark-skinned people listening to this might wonder whether the person actually means: "Dark-skinned people are less intelligent."

Research by Siy & Cherian (2017)

Siy & Cherian did five studies to test this hypothesis. In study 1 women who heard a man proclaim positive stereotypes about women believe more frequently that the man had negative stereotypes than women who did not hear these positive stereotypes. Study 2 to 4 found similar results in Asian-American participants. In study 5, positive stereotypes (being good at math) were either linked to the racial identity (Asian) of the participants or to their gender (man). Taken together, these studies confirmed that positive stereotypes are often perceived negatively.


Are you angry about negative stereotypes about certain groups (dark-skinned people, Jews, Muslims, Mexicans, women, gays, etc.) and do you want to offer some counterweight? Do not assume to quickly that proclaiming positive stereotypes is good way to do this. It is not unlikely that your, probably well-intended- remarks, are perceived to be just as depersonalizing as negative stereotypes and furthermore may well be seen as concealed negative stereotypes. A better idea is probably  to try to see people as individuals and to resist our tendency to categorize people.

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