Essentialism is the proposition that there is a set of characteristics that any entity of a particular kind must possess. Unlike a common physical characteristic among a defined group, such as animals with four legs or people with short hair, a stereotype is a partial truth, usually a general pattern derived from a small sample of the group, which may or may not hold true for other members of the group.
Walter Lippmann (1889-1974) coined the phrase stereotype to describe unquestioned partial truths. He borrowing the term from the printing trade, in which the word refers to a metal printing plate. The word itself is associated with the early renowned French printer, Fermin Didot (1764–1836). Lippmann, in his 1922 work Public Opinion, asserted that the defense of the status quo depended on critical independent thinking and the dissolution of stereotypes. He was strongly opposed to partial truths, censorship and the suppression of information in the media, which he claimed was often falsely justified by unscrupulous people on grounds of national security.
Stereotypes are not only media induced. A stereotype is generally formed on the basis of a small sample of the group in question, perhaps even a single individual member. A characteristic of this small sample is assumed to apply to a wider group, usually the entire group in question. For example, a person seeing a Dalmatian may conclude that all dogs have a tail, or that all dogs have black and white spots or patches.
The fact that an observation is based on a small sample does not necessarily mean that it is incorrect. Identifying the lifecycle of one particular bird is likely to give an ornithologist a good idea of the lifecycle of every member of that species. However, it is no indication of the lifecycle of every type of bird. Partial truths can be referred to as illusory correlation. They are sometimes more pernicious than propositions that are wholly untrue, because the truthful element may conceal the falsehood.
Political propaganda of the far right and left in Europe in the 20th century used stereotypes to incite racial hatred and maintain a repressive demagogy by identifying academics with liberal thought and doctors with support of the status quo. They also used untruths, such as the claim that disabled persons reproduce more quickly and were likely to "infect" the gene pool. It was most likely this type of partial truth that led to the rise of extremist groups and their ability to stay in power.
Negative stereotypes that influence others are prejudicial. Positive stereotypes can also result in indirect prejudice against people not in the preferred group. Prejudice involves dislike of a group or treating a group less favorably. This is usually a result of negative characteristics associated with the group.
Dislike of a group characteristic, such as the fact that snakes bite, may be justified. Prejudice against a group characteristic, such as dislike of small dogs, may be unkind. As stereotypes are not entirely true, stereotyped prejudices are not only unkind, but also unwarranted. For example, the prejudiced assumption that all lawyers bend the truth would undermine the legal profession and defame honest members of that profession.
Intergroup relations are impeded by prejudice. One approach to combating prejudice, primarily with respect to racial and gender stereotypes, and stereotypes relating to physical disabilities, is to prohibit stereotyping. Another approach has been to create greater awareness of the true characteristics of the target group, in order to prevent unwarranted prejudice. These efforts include multicultural education or workplace awareness programs. Another way to improve intergroup interaction and social cohesion is to evaluate the stereotypes that individuals, groups and societies form, and the degree to which they are accurate.
Some developmental psychologists see stereotypes as part of the linguistic process of category formation. In order to learn how to identify groups and comprehend concepts associated with different groups, the mind makes partially true generalizations, or stereotypes. Over time, these can be revised to reflect reality, the relevant idea having been mastered. In effect, the stereotype is a simplified, albeit partly inaccurate, model of a complex group.
Stereotyping involves labeling members of the target group. The sociological view of labeling is that identity may be influenced by the terms used to describe or classify people. It is also associated with the concept of a self-fulfilling prophecy. Stereotypes can affect the way that stereotyped individuals see themselves and in the end, cause those individuals to conform to the way that others perceive them.