Stereotypes and Cognitive Shortcuts

Aug 31, 2017

When I was a kid I was overweight. The kindest term people tended to use was chubby, but back in the day that was as kind as they got. For a time, my nickname was Haystacks, after a TV wrestler who was buried in a piano crate. My mother was altogether embarrassed by my size and started to weigh my dinner portions on a plastic scale. She searched my pockets for loose change before I left the house because a neighbor kid told her I sometimes bought candy after scchool. She ran her fingers around the waistband of my pants to make sure they were not getting tight and to this day I opt to drip, rather than tumble dry, having more than once been the innocent victim of shrinkage. When we went shopping for new clothes she clicked her tongue in disgust when the clothing salesman led us past the regular sizes to the elephant tent of the children’s wear department: the table marked Huskies. I was weighed four times a week, always showing far above the Metropolitan Life Average Weight for Children (of India? I wondered) and driven bi-monthly to a diet doctor who prescribed amphetamines. Every morning I choked down a huge diet pill that I later found out was sold on the black market to overnight truck drivers. My hands shook. My stomach was an express elevator. I was a chronic insomniac at ten years old.

Having endured fair amount of torment about my body size, I was taken aback by a comment I received from a listener after last week’s show. The listener accused me of fat shaming and took issue with a term I used in describing how a person might take steps to avoid late-in-life health issues, specifically Alzheimer’s. The term I used was ‘fat-ass’ and in context it read, “So if you’re not a fat-ass, chain smoking, couch potato, you have a shot at dodging the dementia bullet.”

I don’t get a lot of whole lot of negative feedback on my loopy opinions of living in our crazy world but this listener ripped me a new one and he was absolutely right. More to the point, he reminded me about the power of language, how hurtful it can be, and how easy it is to internalize ideas and attitudes that we may not even consciously have. But conscious or not I said it in an effort to clever and I have to wonder, how often do we all reach for stereotypes in order to make people laugh, or bond with people, or score an easy rhetorical point.

No doubt it’s getting easier to stereotype people given the present cultural climate that associates freedom of speech pure meanness. No doubt it’s also easier to rattle off a stereotype to express how we feel about someone rather than do the mental work of finding words that express our opinions accurately.

Stereotypes are after all cognitive shortcuts. They allow our brains to make snap judgment based on characteristics such as gender, race, age, body type, sexual preference…where a person lives, how they vote, their clothing, their education, how they wear their hair. We all stereotype people and we’ve been victims of stereotypes. Human brains are actually hard-wired to make snap decisions. The problems come when we start to apply those stereotypes to people we really know nothing about. That’s called “bias,” which is basically a belief that a stereotype is true.

So I had to wonder, if I made stereotypical judgments such as that plus size people are lazy couch potatoes, even having been a plus size person, even knowing that body type is a result of many factors, what other attitudes did I have that I didn’t even know about and I found this website called Project Implicit that enables you to take an online test to examine your thoughts and feelings that exist either outside of conscious awareness or outside of conscious control. And inlcudes all kinds of people, Arab people, Muslim people, Asian people, gay people, straight people, black people, white people, people with various skin tones, able-bodied people, disabled people, old people, young people, you name it.

It doesn’t try to tell you what to do about those feelings, but its pretty revealing to know that you have them. It helps us to be mindful of what we think and what we say, to speak out against jokes and slurs, just as that listener spoke out to me.

Because language is powerful. Language hurts in spite of how popular it is today to say that Americans are thin-skinned . Almost every religion: both bibles and the Koran and Buddhist precepts admonish us not only from physically harming people, stealing, and lying but causing harm with our speech.

In fact the worst thing you can do is remain silent. Silence is not polite. Silence sends a message that you are in agreement.

I’m Ira Wood…and that’s my opinion.