Psychologist Yueh-Ting Lee received an electronic mail message several years ago that included some barbed observations about the quality of life in several countries. "Heaven is a place with an American house, Chinese food, British police, a German car, and French art," Lee's correspondent wrote.
"Hell is a place with a Japanese house, Chinese police, British food, German art, and a French car."
While these national stereotypes fall short of absolute truths, asserts Lee of Westfield (Mass.) State College, they are accurate enough to give the aphorism its humorous punch. Houses in the United States indeed boast more space, on average, than Japanese dwellings. A Chinese inn probably holds greater culinary potential than a British pub.
In this respect, stereotypes, rather than representing unjustified prejudices, typically function as thought-efficient starting points for understanding other cultures and social groups, as well as the individuals who belong to them, Lee holds.
"Stereotypes are probabilistic beliefs we use to categorize people, objects, and events," Lee proposes. "We have to have stereotypes to deal with so much information in a world with which we are often uncertain and unfamiliar."
Many psychologists find this opinion about as welcome as a cut in their research grants. They view stereotyping as a breeding ground for errant generalizations about others that easily congeal into racism, sexism, and other forms of bigotry.
In the squalid realm of stereotypes, mental acumen goes begging, while misjudgment reigns, maintains Charles Stangor of the University of Maryland at College Park. People employ stereotypes mainly to simplify how they think about others and to enhance their views of themselves and the groups to which they belong, Stangor holds. In the hands of politically powerful folks, stereotypes abet efforts to stigmatize and exploit selected groups, he adds.
Stangor's argument fails to give stereotypes their due as often helpful, if not absolutely precise, probes of the social world, Lee responds. He contends that a growing body of research suggests that in many real-life situations, stereotypes accurately capture cultural or group differences. Much of this evidence appears in Stereotype Accuracy: Toward Appreciating Group Differences (1995, American Psychological Association, Washington, D.C.), a book edited by Lee and two other psychologists, Lee J. Jussim of Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J., and Clark McCauley of Bryn Mawr (Pa.) College.
For more than 60 years, scientists have treated stereotypes as by definition erroneous, illogical, and inflexible. This view harks back to journalist Walter Lippman's 1922 book Public Opinion, in which he argued that stereotypes of social groups invariably prove incomplete and biased.
In the 1950s, psychologist Gordon W. Allport characterized stereotypes as invalid beliefs about all members of a group. Allport treated the opinion "all Germans are efficient" as a stereotype, but not "Germans, on average, are more efficient than most people in other countries." Debate arose at that time over whether some stereotypes encase a "kernel of truth."
Lippman's fear that stereotypes wreak social havoc gained particular favor after 1970, as psychologists flocked to expose errors and biases in social judgments.
Over the past decade, however, psychologists have shown more interest in delineating the extent to which decision making proves accurate in specific contexts (SN: 10/29/94, p. 280).
Lee's approach to stereotypes falls squarely within the focus on accuracy of judgment. His interest in how people comprehend ethnic and cultural differences intensified after he emigrated from China to the United States in 1986 to attend graduate school. At that point, he began to suspect that a keener scientific understanding of stereotypes might have valuable applications. For instance, …