Birdy Words, Political Hype, and How to Create a Stereotype
By Heath Shive
In the early 1970s, psychologist Eleanor Rosch started a revolution in cognitive science.
Rosch asked her subjects the following questions:
1) A robin is a bird. True or false?
2) A chicken is a bird. True or false?
3) An ostrich is a bird. True or false?
The answer to all questions is the same. But what Rosch really measured was how quickly they responded. People responded almost immediately to question 1, but took a little longer to answer question 2, and longer still to answer question 3.
So why was it easier to classify a robin as a “bird” than a chicken?
When the subjects thought “bird,” a robin fit the definition in their head much more readily than a chicken. Rosch concluded from this and other studies that we tend to think in terms of prototypes – or the most idealized example in a category.
The Prototype Theory
When confronted with a category, your most idealized example will be the first and fastest image to your mind. It is harder for us to accept the variations from that ideal!
A Republican President might see a tax cut as idealistically good - despite the explosive national deficit following the tax cuts. Tax cuts aren’t automatically good. There are variations from that ideal.
A Democratic President might see a Medicare expansion as idealistically good – despite the fact that around 9% of payments are “improper” (i.e., going to the wrong people, for the wrong procedure, or for outright fraud). Medicare isn’t automatically good. There are variations from the ideal that need reform.
A stereotype is just a prototype with a negative social effect.
If you have a very negative experience with a person, then that memorable experience could form a stereotype. Instead of seeing individuals (the variations in a group), you generalize the whole group based on the stereotype. This would explain racism, sexism, misogyny, misandry, crusade, jihad, and xenophobia.
Have you ever heard a woman say “Men!” with disgust? Have you ever heard a man say “Women!” with disdain? They apply their bad experience to a whole gender!
What do you think of when I say “immigrant,” “welfare mom,” or “redneck”?
This is how propaganda works. The propaganda machine only needs to keep emphasizing a specific image of an “enemy.” Eventually that image is the dominant image in your head (the prototype) and you will hate accordingly.
Wisdom is not a byproduct of age. Old fools start as young fools.
Wisdom is a product of mental discipline. We gain wisdom when we expand our imagination, recognize our assumptions and limited thinking, when we recognize the assumptions in other people, when we patiently research a topic for evidence, and even when we introspectively challenge our own ideals.
Prototypes profoundly narrow our perception of the world. That does not mean we are stupid! It means we must reach for our full potential!
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Hello! My name is Heath Shive, content manager at ScholarFox. I'll be the author of most of the blog posts. I'm a former geologist and currently a freelance writer. The world is complex and seemingly crazy. Good! Because when you love to learn, you'll never be bored.