I had a girlfriend who wasn’t in my life that long because, among other things, I think she sucked up too much of her Florida upbringing. She used to spill the occasional unpleasant racial comment, then, realizing she was caught, defend herself with this: “You know how stereotypes get to be stereotypes? They’re true!”
It would be so great if I could say, “And that girlfriend’s name was… Harriet Miers!” Alas, it wasn’t her. Still, my old stereotyping flame came to mind last week when two scientific studies shed new light on, well, you tell me.
A research fellow at the National Institutes of Health asked nearly four thousand people in nearly 50 nations to rate themselves, acquaintances, and a “typical” member of their culture on 30 character traits. These included things like neurotic traits, openness, and conscientiousness. The study found that, more often than not, respondents described themselves as pleasant enough people, but then attributed negative characteristics to the “typical” person in their culture.
For example, people in Switzerland described themselves and their friends as open to new ideas, but insisted that the typical Swiss person is closed-minded… although they agreed that everybody likes chocolate and expensive watches. Czech citizens gave themselves high ratings for being friendly, but said Czech culture was often antagonistic and disagreeable. Researchers said that the respondents seemed to be accepting images of their culture taken from stereotype, except for themselves.
Then another study revealed that a shark wearing a satellite tag swam 12,000 miles from South Africa to Australia—and back—confounding previous notions that shark populations never mingled.
In the first study, it appears we like to think we know those around us but we reach for convenient stereotypes instead of trusting our own insights and observations. And in the other study a stereotype, if you will, of animal behavior turns out to be completely wrong.
These findings come at a time when we’re being confronted with challenges to stereotypes of our own behavior from all sides. Senator John McCain spent the better part of last week trying to make the point that if the United States behaves as badly or worse than our enemies, specifically in terms of the treatment of combat prisoners, then there’s a chance we’re not really the United States. Not the one we like to think we are. It’s a message we’ve heard before, but it lands with a louder thud coming from former POW John McCain rather than, say, Michael Moore.
McCain’s comments constitute a challenging ‘behavior study,’ if you will, focused on what America is and what it wants, right now and in the future. Other recent events have produced stereotype-challenging results. Katrina peeled off the camouflage hiding two very different Americas. The invasion of Iraq fails to find traction in any moral justification, and reveals our leaders behaving in strange ‘new’ ways as half the nation protests. The President announces a program of returning to the moon, repeating previous American greatness, and the notion is met with a roaring yawn.
Scientists speculate that the sharks making transoceanic swims might be using “celestial cues” for navigation. Meanwhile, we seem to be utilizing some combination of what we used to be and the resilient belief that we can be the best in the future. We might be giving ourselves a break as individuals, but reaching for stereotypes in our perception of our country. Perhaps we need more studies of our actual behaviors.
This Week’s “Know Your News” Quiz
1) The Governor outlawed performance-enhancing
(a) supplements in high school athletics.
(b) make-up on politicians.
(c) brains in politicians.
2) Good Guys electronics stores are
(a) full of shiny doodads.
(c) re-opening as “Bad Dude” stores.
3) Makers of violent video games will
(a) fight a ban on sales to kids.
(b) sleep soundly every night.
(c) go back to dealing drugs.
1) (a) “Better late than never…”
2) (b) “Better now than later…”3) (a) “Better guns than sex, right?”