Stereotypes wear the black hats in social science. Although the term in its modern guise has been around almost as long as social science itself, and thousands of papers have been devoted to elucidating one or another of its many facets, during this entire period almost no one has had anything good to say about stereotypes. Everyone from talk show hosts to pop psychology gurus deride them. Many of us feel we are the victims of stereotypes held by others, and we deplore racists and sexists, who seem to use more than their share of these filthy things. Stereotypes are the common colds of social interaction—ubiquitous, infectious, irritating, and hard to get rid of. And yet that kind of universal judgment always makes me a little nervous. Is there nothing good we might say about stereotypes?
When people tell me that stereotypes are bad and evil things, I sometimes ask them to conduct a thought experiment. "Imagine," I say, "that you could redesign the human mental apparatus so that no one would ever hold a stereotype again. What would that entail? How might one proceed with this redesign project?" This thought experiment forces people to think about what stereotypes really are. After all, we have to know what we are dealing with before we can eliminate it. Let's imagine the following dialogue, in which OP is an Obnoxious Psychologist and RP is a Random Person. We come in toward the beginning of the dialogue, and OP is asking RP what is objectionable about stereotypes.
OP: Perhaps you would like to tell me what you are getting rid of before you do it.
RP: You mean what I think stereotypes are?
OP: That will work for starters.
RP: Well, they're unfair statements we make about individuals because they belong to a particular group.
OP: And what is the basis of these unfair statements?