Stereotypes as Hypotheses
Most of the research and analyses I have presented thus far concern features associated with groups. That is natural; after all, whatever else they may be, stereotypes are features associated with groups. However, in our everyday lives we are arguably less prone to evaluate groups than individuals. Moreover, we reserve our strongest moral hoots and howls when we think a stereotype has been unfairly applied to a particular person. Thus it is important to focus on some of the ways stereotypes affect our perceptions of individuals.
One of the most striking facts about stereotypes is that they are rarely applied universally. Let's stick with a simple generalization, one that is not likely to arouse any passions or defensiveness. Suppose you believe (as I do) that red apples taste good. Put somewhat more formally, you have a generalization (or stereotype) that red apples taste good. Now let's put you to the test. How far are you prepared to take this generalization? Will you assert that all red apples taste good? Surely not, unless your experiences have been better than mine. What, then, do you mean by a statement that red apples taste good? That 70% taste good? That more than half do? Probably something like this, but, after all, who cares? No one has to suffer from your mistakes about apples but you, and if you make a bad decision based on your generalization, it is a matter between you and your grocer.
Of course, we are all imprecise in this and other ways, and we get away with it because it usually does not make much difference. To the extent that I care about what you think about red apples, I will understand that when you say red apples taste good you are not recommending every one, and I will tolerate the occasional mistake produced by your advice. However, things get somewhat trickier when we deal with stereotypes about people, where such tolerance is not as tolerated.