by Isabella Ferrara and Giovanni Savini Nicci
We all know what stereotypes are, but how do they actually affect our everyday life? When we see somebody for the first time we tend to put them in a specific category, based on how they look, what they wear and how they act; this many times leads us to a rigid and wrong vision of a person.
This is particularly evident in social networks: on Instagram, Facebook or Twitter stereotypes are par for the course.
It’s crazy to what extent the idea of a person that we form through watching their profile on a social network affects the way we behave in real life. To prove this, we carried out a survey: we posted a questionnaire on the Facebook page of our school and in less than two days we had 65 answers.
From the result of the first answer we can notice that most teenagers spend a lot of time every day on social networks, so they surely influence our opinion.
Showing this image to some friends during lunch break, they all thought that the man in this picture was a famous bodybuilder or a wrestler. When we told them, they were shocked to know that he is a homeless man who lives on the streets of Paris. It seems that the teenagers who answered the survey had the same impression: only 17% of them thought that he was homeless.
This highlights one of the most common stereotypes that we often see. He is fit, we think, so he can’t possibly be a homeless man. The homeless are dirty, unkempt, certainly not well trained or in good shape. This stereotype is terribly wrong. Working sometimes for a charity association in Rome which brings dinner to people who live on the streets, one of our team had the possibility to meet and talk to many of them. Many homeless people live on the streets due to a combination of unfortunate events which caused them to lose their home. They rarely do it out of choice, as many people think, and the most revealing thing is that they all have extraordinary stories to tell.
Another example of the influence of social networks in our life can be found in the answers to the last two questions of the survey.
In the first case only 48% of the interviewees were willing to start a conversation with the other person while in the second case, simply by changing the likes, 89% of the people interviewed chose to talk and offer a drink to the girl/boy they met at school.
We regret to say that sadly we fit into this group of social media addicted teenagers: answering the questionnaire we chose no for the first answer and yes for the second. But the results of this survey, especially the last answers, made us think about how Instagram and Facebook influence the way we act with other people. In the same situation if there weren’t social networks we probably would have started a conversation with someone we know in any case.
But why do we stereotype people so often?
A recent psychology study by the Yale University teacher Mahzarin Banaji showed that we even do it unconsciously. We simplify our mental process by automatically associating certain pieces of information to other information.
Stereotypes may emerge from a dynamic called in-group/out-group studied by the psychologist John Bargh: we need to feel that we are part of a group so we ignore the fact that everyone is unique and different and we associate people to a more general category, with characteristics that often are not the same for everybody. We want to feel good about the group we belong to and the easiest way to do this is to denigrate other groups.
These kinds of unconscious thoughts are influenced by the environment and the society we live in. Teenagers are more likely to stereotype people because of the influences of social media: when we scroll through Instagram we don’t spend more than four or five seconds on a single image. We don’t think about what’s behind a certain photo on Facebook and we do exactly the same with people in real life, just because we are used to it.
Stereotypes are so rooted in our culture and society that they became automatic, especially in teenagers. Even if we have certain beliefs, sometimes we tend to conform to society. Suppose you’re at a party, someone tells a mean joke about someone and you laugh. Then you realise that you shouldn’t have laughed at the joke and you feel guilty.
So how do we get rid of these unconscious stereotypes? One way, for example, could be simply to think before speaking, or posting. This way we can avoid saying things that we will regret later or that could hurt somebody’s feelings.
Another good method to avoid making unnecessary stereotypes may be to not make assumptions. If we don’t separate true information from information generated by feelings or opinions we could create an opinion that isn’t based on reality.
No one fits into a strict category: we are all different and each of us has our own preferences. Reducing someone to a stereotype makes us ignore many qualities that a person could have, so before we rush to judge we should seek to get to know them better.
Esther Perel, the renowned therapist and thought leader, tells us that the quality of life ultimately depends on the quality of your relationships. Not on your achievements, not on how smart you are, not on how rich you are, but on the quality of your relationships, which are basically a reflection of your sense of decency, your ability to think of others, your generosity. Ultimately, at the end of your life, it will be about how you treated the people around you and how you made them feel.
We believe that we need to be aware of and nurture our ability to relate with others in a sincere and heartfelt way, and this should also be reflected when we go online, despite the tendency to fall into traps of judging too hastily, responding too quickly or generally wanting to agree or even to provoke in order to get a reaction. It’s not easy, but if we don’t start somewhere we negate the very thing that renders us unique as a species.