Stereotypes and correlations

Earlier on this blog, I’ve argued in favour of stereotypes. “In the absence of further information, stereotypes give you a strong Bayesian prior”, I had written (I’m paraphrasing myself here). I had gone on to say (paraphrasing myself yet again), “however, it is important that you treat this as a weak prior and update them as and when you get new information. So in the presence of additional information, you need to let go of the stereotypes”.

A lot of stereotyping is due to spurious correlations, often formed due to small number of training samples. My mother, for example, strongly believed that if you drink alcohol, you must be a bad person. Sometime, she had explained to me why she thought so – there were a few of her friends whose fathers or husbands drank alcohol, and they had had to endure domestic abuse.

That is only one extreme correlation stereotype. We keep making these stereotypes based on correlation all the time. I’m not saying that the correlation is not positive – sometimes it can be extremely positive. Just that it may not have full explainability.

For example, certain ways on dressing have come to be associated with certain attitudes (black tshirts and heavy metal, for example). So when we see someone exhibiting one side of this correlation, our minds are naturally drawn to associating them with the other side of the correlation as well (so you see someone in a black heavy metal band t-shirt, and immediately assume that they must be interested in heavy metal – to take a trivial example).

And then when their further behaviour belies the correlation that you had instinctively made, your mind gets messed up.

There was this guy in my batch at IIT Madras, who used to wear a naama (vertical religious mark on forehead commonly worn by Iyengars) on his forehead a lot of the time. Unlike most other undergrads, he also preferred to wear dhotis. So you would see him in his dhoti and naama and assume he was a religious conservative. And then you would see his hand, which would usually be held up showing a prominent middle finger, and all your mental correlations would go for a toss.

Another such example that I’ve spoken about on this blog before is that of the “puritan topper” – having seen a few topper types who otherwise led austere lives, I had assumed that kind of behaviour was correlated with being a topper (in some ways I can now argue that this blog is getting a bit meta).

I find myself doing this all the time. I observe someone’s accent and make assumptions on their abilities or the lack of it. I see someone’s dressing sense and build a whole story in my head on that single data point. I see the way someone is walking, and that supposedly tells me about their state of mind that day.

The good thing I’ve done is to internalise my last year’s blogpost – while all these single data point correlations are fine as a prior (in the absence of other information), the moment I get more information I immediately update them, and the initial stereotypes go out of the window.

The other thing I’m thinking of is – sometimes some of these random spurious correlations are so ingrained in our heads that we let them influence us. We take a certain job and decide that it is associated with a certain way of dressing and also start dressing the same way (thus playing up the stereotypes). We know the sort of clothes most people wear to a certain kind of restaurant, and also dress that way – again playing up the stereotypes.

Without realising it, maybe because of mimetic desire or a desire to fit in, we end up furthering random correlations and stereotypes. So maybe it is time to make a conscious effort to start breaking these stereotypes? But no – you won’t see me wear a suit to work any time soon.

I’ll end with another school anecdote. For whatever reason, many of the topper types in my 11th standard class would wear the school uniform sweater to school every single day, irrespective of how hot or cold it was. And then one fine (and not cold) day, yet another guy showed up in the uniform sweater. “How come you’re wearing this sweater”, I asked. He replied, “Oh, I just wanted to look more intellectual!”