Stereotypes: What Are They And How Are They Harmful?

Medically reviewed by Karen Foster, LPC
Updated December 6, 2023by BetterHelp Editorial Team

People have a lot to say about stereotypes. Some are adamant that stereotyping is wrong in all situations, while others argue that the stereotype would not exist if it were not true. Many fall somewhere in between these two opposing beliefs. Beyond moral disagreement, stereotypes do affect our society, and they are capable of causing a lot of damage to individuals and groups. Below, we explain a stereotypes definition, how they can be harmful, and how to overcome them.

Stereotype Definition

What is a stereotype? This question comes up often. The Cambridge Dictionary defines the concept as "an idea that is used to describe a particular type of person or thing, or a person or thing thought to represent such an idea". This is the noun version of the word—it can also be used as a verb.

Stereotyping as a verb is taking an idea of something, often a particular characteristic, and applying the concept to everyone in that population. The term used for mental stereotype actually evolved from an old printing term in which solid metal printing plates were used to leave identical characters and images on a printing surface.  Some stereotype synonyms include "typecast", “cliché”, and "pigeonhole" (the first two are also printing terms).

Movies, music, and television use the idea of stereotypes in their content all the time. Many sitcoms feature the blundering father, the ditzy female character, the absentminded professor, or the cultural minority best friend, for example. However, we can find stereotypes just about anywhere in our world today, including high school stereotypes, cultural stereotypes, and racial stereotypes. Some common stereotypes surround gender, race, appearance, age, and disability.

Stereotypes can generally be divided into “positive” and “negative,” though those names can be deceiving.

Positive Stereotypes

Getty/MoMo Productions
Stereotypes Can Contribute To Mental Health Challenges

Positive stereotypes are common, and some aspects of this concept may sound like a compliment on the surface. Take the "positive" stereotype, "All Asians are smart!" At first, it sounds like praise. But when you characterize a whole group of people based on certain perceived traits, you aren’t acknowledging the diversity of individuals, and these type of judgements can be harmful. If you look at this specific example more closely, this “positive” stereotype can do a lot of damage.

Imagine you're a small child of Asian descent. You hear your whole life how "all Asians are smart," but that may not feel like it's true for you. You have a hard time in school. Reading is difficult. Math is impossible. Everyone around you seems to pressure you because you are supposed to be "smart". This difference between your own experience and the perception of others can make you feel like a failure every time you do not bring home that "A" assignment - like you alone missed out on the gene that makes "all Asians smart". 

As you can see, although the stereotype doesn't sound like a bad thing at first, it can put a lot of weight on the people who do not seem to fit into it.

Negative Stereotypes

Negative stereotypes are those we often think of when we hear the word "stereotype". These untrue beliefs are usually used as insults or reasons for prejudice. A common negative stereotype is "All blonde women are dumb." This goes back to the Hollywood image of the helpless female, who is usually cast as a frail, fair-haired woman. The phrase already comes off as rude by nature of the descriptive word "dumb". However, just like the "all Asians are smart" example, the true damage of this stereotype goes a lot deeper.

Imagine you are a fresh-faced 21-year-old woman. You have just graduated top of your class. You are also Caucasian and have very noticeable light blond hair. To begin your way in the professional world, you send out resumes, apply for internships, and network through social media. A prospective employer brings you in for an interview, but when you mention your bachelor's degree in engineering, the staff stifles a chuckle.

From the moment you entered the room, they already made up their mind about you. Sure, your background and experience look good on paper, but they believe that someone who is young, blonde, and attractive cannot possibly have the drive or smarts to make their way to the top. They write you off before you even get the chance to prove yourself.

How Stereotypes Harm Us

Both positive and negative stereotyping can be harmful. Although a stereotype, by definition, describes a group of people, it is the individuals who are negatively affected by these ideas. If you need more reasons why stereotyping is wrong, consider this.

They Divide Us

One of the most damaging effects of stereotyping is the divide it creates among people. By saying all the members of a group are smarter, more talented, or more attractive than another, it directly suggests that anyone who does not fit within that group is less smart, talented, or attractive. This type of attitude can easily fuel jealousy, insecurity, and even depression among those who do not fit into the desirable group. For example, guys that do not fit the alpha male or “masculine” mold for “manhood” may find themselves bullied or isolated simply because they don’t fit a certain stereotype. For those who don’t have a strong sense of identity, this type of behavior can cause mental health issues down the road. 

They Create Fear

Sometimes, stereotypes can create real, tangible threats to those whom they affect. Here’s one example.

After the September 11th terrorist attacks on the United States in 2001, Muslims living in the country experienced an increase in hate crimes and discrimination. Because the terrorists held extremist beliefs, it did not take long for people to develop a fear of Muslims or anyone from the Middle East.

Stereotypes like "all Muslims are terrorists", and "Muslims want to kill Americans" made waves across the country. Although the Muslim-American community condemned the acts of terrorism and proudly exclaimed their religion was one of love, the stereotype had already taken root, with many people referring to innocent people as “evil” or “terrorists”. 

It wasn't too long before natural-born citizens of the United States who just happened to be Muslim were also called terrorists. Innocent, hard-working, and loving people all over the country were feared, despite doing nothing wrong. Some were needlessly threatened, verbally attacked, and physically assaulted.

They Limit Opportunity

When one group is given special privileges or has opportunities taken away just because a certain belief spreads about them, it limits their social, educational, and career opportunities. For example, if members of a certain race are thought of as "lazy" or "uneducated," a potential employer is more likely to pass over someone's resume just by looking at their name, completely ignoring the qualifications they can bring to the role.

More specifically, in 2015, the Huffington Post released an article exposing a sad truth. Children who had "black sounding” names were more frequently labeled as "troublemakers" by teachers. They were already seen through a negative filter before they could prove themselves academically or behaviorally.

They Ignore Real Problems


Some would like us to believe that specific groups of people, or in some cases, certain cultures or races, are more violent than others. While these individuals rarely come right out and state this, their bias is seen through stereotypes in media.

The problem with this type of bias in the media is that it ignores real problems both within the racial, cultural, or social group the person is speaking about, and outside of it. While race, culture, and other groupings can play a role in problems in our society, boiling the entire problem down to one factor fails to illuminate the many other solutions we can take advantage of.

They Give Us Excuses

Finally, stereotypes not only change what other people think of us, but they can also change what we think of ourselves. If you constantly hear people making judgements that because of your age, race, gender, or social status, you must be something you are not, it can create emotional conflict.

Stereotypes are often based on assumptions we cannot change easily, or cannot change at all. Thus, we can be negatively affected by the stereotype we are given. Someone might not try out for a team or sport they love because they do not feel they "look the part". Someone else may not push themselves because they're convinced they aren't born with what it takes for success. Because of the thoughts and words of others, many people go through life without ever realizing their true potential.

Therapy Can Help Cope With Stereotyping

If you have experienced stereotyping, it is important to acknowledge that it can tend to affect you emotionally. If situations arise in your life in which stereotyping is causing you recurring anxiety or depression, speaking with a mental health professional can be beneficial. If you have been a victim of gender stereotyping and you want to know how to overcome gender stereotypes, talking to a mental health expert can go a long way.

Of course, one consequence of stereotyping is that it tends to isolate us. The same is true for common mental health conditions like depression and anxiety, for example. If you’re feeling the heavy burden of societal expectations based on stereotyping but can’t bring yourself to make an in-person appointment, there are other options. 

Through online counseling platforms like BetterHelp, therapy is both affordable and convenient. You can meet with a therapist on your own schedule from the comfort of your own home, meaning that you do not have to worry about feeling that you are being judged.

What’s more, psychologists recognize that the flexibility and accessibility that online therapy offers make it an important contribution to public health. Current research has shown that internet-based psychological treatments like cognitive behavioral therapy are effective in alleviating symptoms of anxiety and depression.

Getty/Vadym Pastukh
Stereotypes Can Contribute To Mental Health Challenges


The world has over 7 billion people alive today. No two are the same. By being mindful of what stereotypes are and why they are harmful, you can do your part to acknowledge the value of every person. Speak to a licensed counselor at BetterHelp. Our trained mental health professionals can help you see who you are beyond what others think of you. Or, if you struggle with stereotyping others, we can give you tips to look beyond what you see on the surface.

Does it seem like stereotypes hold you back?

The information on this page is not intended to be a substitution for diagnosis, treatment, or informed professional advice. You should not take any action or avoid taking any action without consulting with a qualified mental health professional. For more information, please read our terms of use.
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