What Are Common Stereotypes? (And Why They’re Harmful)

Medically reviewed by Paige Henry, LMSW, J.D.
Updated May 29, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

The existence of common stereotypes has permeated culture and may affect the way some individuals interact with each other on a day-to-day basis. Understanding the implications, sources and types of stereotyping can lead to a more tolerant and informed society, the result of which may possibly warrant ongoing discussion for the greater good of underrepresented groups. In this article, we will explore the psychology behind stereotyping, the effects that common stereotypes may have on mental health, and the importance of putting an end to making broad generalizations about certain groups and individuals.

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Is stereotyping affecting your life?

What are stereotypes?

Stereotypes are generally defined as oversimplified ideas and assumptions surrounding certain groups of people. By stereotyping someone, we may assume that a person has a certain range of characteristics based on our belief in the characteristics of the group we associate them with. For example, many people associate dark make-up and clothing with the “goth” or “alternative” lifestyle and fashion trend. 

To understand where stereotypes come from, it is helpful to have some background on the theory of classical conditioning. 

What is classical conditioning in the context of stereotyping?

Generally, all humans are exposed to forms of classical conditioning throughout the course of their lives. What classical conditioning consists of is the pairing of an automatic response to a specific stimulus. 

This is a type of learning that might occur on a subconscious level. To understand classical conditioning, it may be helpful to identify examples of your own conditioning. For example, if you always order a certain dish at your favorite restaurant, passing by it may trigger a craving for that particular dish. 

Classical conditioning is thought by many to relate to stereotyping by way of generalization. Generalization can occur when you generalize stimuli with responses, which can be somewhat synonymous with stereotyping.

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How are stereotypes harmful? 

The use of stereotypes can be a method we might use to attempt to simplify our social worlds. Unfortunately, this can lead to social categorization, which can be a component of prejudice-aligned attitudes. The development of prejudice can lead to a limiting “us vs. them” mentality, potentially contributing to strife on a societal and interpersonal level. Many consider the most harmful stereotypes to be categorizations that are centered around generalizations of people based on race, religion, gender, age, weight or sexual orientation. 

Stereotypes and generalizations can influence the way we act with certain individuals based on preconceived notions. Behavior that is influenced by stereotyping can range anywhere from fairly neutral to incredibly problematic.

While stereotypes, in some cases, can seem somewhat harmless and may be leveraged for laughs in popular media, generalizations like these can either stem from or lead to much more dangerous generalizations that can have lasting ramifications on a societal subgroup. 

It is not uncommon for instances of stereotyping that may seem “minor” to cause harm in major ways. For example, someone may experience poorer service at a restaurant based on a misinformed stereotype that the people of their subgroup are “bad” tippers. Interactions like this are typically referred to as “microaggressions”. 

Current research suggests that experiencing repeated exposure to microaggressions can lead to a cascade of stress-related physical and psychological issues. While this can have detrimental effects, we do want to note that therapy can be a useful resource to leverage, possibly offering those affected a listening ear and helpful behavioral suggestions to defend themselves and others.  

When stereotyping leads to the unfair or prejudicial treatment of people and groups based on characteristics such as race, gender, age, or sexual orientation, it can fall under the category of discrimination. 

According to the American Psychological Association, discrimination is formally classified as a public health issue

It is possible for discrimination to occur in a number of major ways, which is why awareness and transparency are important to most in our society. While there are laws in place in the United States that aim to defend people from discrimination in critical matters, such as housing and employment, discrimination may occur in other contexts.

If you or someone you know is currently surviving discrimination, you may consider reaching out to a licensed therapist. They can be a resource to all involved and may be able to offer supportive strategies to lessen the impacts of discrimination.  

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Is stereotyping affecting your life?

The importance of putting an end to common stereotypes

Stereotyping and discrimination do more than offend. Discrimination can cause harm on an institutional level. 

Institutional discrimination can lead to numerous issues availing basic survival needs, such as employment, healthcare, and housing for entire groups. 

While many studies published within the last decade have mainly focused on gender or race-based discrimination, recent studies surrounding weight discrimination bring up similar institutional considerations, particularly in the areas of availability of quality healthcare. Ending stereotyping can begin simply, such as exercises and awareness to encourage the development of empathy for others. It can often be important to educate ourselves about other people, cultures, and walks of life. Additionally, it can be helpful to take a self-assessment of your own beliefs and evaluate how stereotypes may have affected your life and interactions with people. 

Benefits of online therapy for those experiencing discrimination

Experiencing discrimination or microaggressions based on generalizations and stereotypes has been clinically suggested to have negative effects on mental health. While it is often helpful to seek support from your community, it can also be helpful to speak with a mental health professional. 

For many, online therapy can offer a more affordable alternative to traditional in-person therapeutic methods. 

Is online therapy effective? 

Per a study published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research Mental Health, online therapy is suggested to be highly effective in reducing symptoms of certain mental illnesses, including those associated with depression and anxiety disorders. Additionally, online therapy is also suggested to be equally as effective as in-person therapy in the resolution of these conditions.

Takeaway

While the consequences of discrimination can be harmful, it can be resolved with ongoing education and awareness. Working actively to facilitate conversation can be a helpful step toward putting an end to discrimination as a whole. Online therapy can be a useful tool for those who have experienced discrimination or microaggression. BetterHelp can connect you with a therapist in your area of need. 
Does it seem like stereotypes hold you back?
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