• People ascribe a stereotype to everybody in the subject group. "All Germans are efficient." "All English people have bad teeth." In fact, these researchers were not able to locate anybody who believes that a stereotype is true of all members of the stereotyped group. Stereotypes are probabilistic tools, and even the most dull-witted human beings seem to know this. People who believe that Mexicans are lazy or that the French don't wash, understand perfectly well that there are lots of industrious Mexicans and fragrant Frenchmen.
• Stereotypes exaggerate group characteristics. No, they don't. Much more often, the opposite is true. For example, the racial stereotypes that white Americans hold of black Americans are generally accurate; and where they are inaccurate, they always under-estimate a negative characteristic. The percentage of black American families headed by a female, for example, was 21 at the time of one survey (1978): the whites whose stereotypes were being investigated offered estimates of from 8 to 12 per cent. It is not true that stereotypes generally exaggerate group differences. As in this example, they are much more likely to downplay them.
• Stereotypes blind us to individual characteristics. Nope. It is not the case that when we pass from a situation where we have nothing to go on but a stereotype (cab driver being hailed by young black male) to one where a person's individuality comes into play (interviewing a black job applicant), our stereotypes blind us to "individuating traits." On the contrary, researchers have found that the individuating traits are seized on for attention, and stereotypes discarded, with rather more enthusiasm than the accuracy of stereotypes would justify. Teachers' judgments about their students, for example, rest almost entirely on student differences in performance, hardly at all on race, class or gender stereotypes. This is as one would wish, but not as one would expect if the denigrators of stereotyping were to be believed.
• The real function of stereotypes is to bolster our own self-esteem. Wrong again. This is not a factor in most stereotyping. The scientific evidence is that the primary function of stereotypes is what researchers very prettily call "the reality function." That is, stereotypes are useful tools for dealing with the world. Confronted with a snake or a faun, our immediate behavior is determined by generalized beliefs — stereotypes — about snakes and fauns. Stereotypes are, in fact, merely one aspect of the mind's ability to make generalizations, without which science and mathematics, not to mention much of everyday life, would be impossible. Researcher Clark R. McCauley:
Standing next to the bus driver, we are more likely to ask about traffic patterns than about the latest foreign film. On the highway, we try to squeeze into the exit lane in front of the man driving a 10-year-old station wagon rather than trying to pull in on the man driving a new Corvette. Looking for the school janitor, we are more likely to approach a young man in overalls than a young woman in overalls. This kind of discrimination on the basis of group differences can go wrong, but most of us probably feel that we are doing ourselves and others a favor when we respond to whatever cues and regularities our social environment affords us.