Some topics are off-limits, whether the conversation happens in your living room, on the street, or in the research lab. If they’re not exactly off-limits, they are at least uncomfortable, causing us to shift in our seats and want to change the subject.
One such topic is stereotypes — specifically, the question of whether they are accurate. Perhaps you hold a stereotype about a certain group and feel kind of bad about that, and try to watch yourself and not rely on the stereotype when you meet someone from the group, because you believe it is “bad” to believe in and rely on stereotypes. At a minimum, it’s politically (if not morally) incorrect. If so, this book will probably make you uncomfortable.
Lee Jussim is professor and chair of psychology at Rutgers University. He is not shy about looking hard at data or asking the uncomfortable question, and is willing to say as clearly as possible what the data actually tell us, rather than what we may prefer they say. Throughout his long career, he has studied and written about various aspects of social perception, including stereotyping, self-fulfilling prophecies, and person perception. However, the questions he raises and the issues he examines in this fascinating book go beyond those issues to include questions about the way the field approaches the subject, undertakes programs of research, examines data, and presents findings.
This thick book is organized into six sections. Their titles hint not only at the content but at the author’s unique, personal voice.
The first section introduces the book and its basic ideas, and presents the early research that established this area of study.
Part Two, “The Awesome Power of Expectations to Create Reality and Distort Perceptions,” comprises two chapters focusing on the power of self-fulfilling prophecies and expectancies.
Part Three, “The Less Than Awesome Power of Expectations to Create Reality and Distort Perceptions,” comprises four chapters. This seeming imbalance between it and Part Two is important: Jussim finds a lot to quibble with in the basic party line that says we human beings are sloppy, biased, inaccurate perceivers.
Part Four covers the thorny issue of accuracy, and Part Five goes on a quest for the self-fulfilling prophecy.
Part Six covers stereotypes. Jussim had originally planned to write one chapter on the topic but ended up with a five-chapter section on this long-studied subject. In the final section, he includes material that didn’t fit elsewhere and draws some conclusions about biases in perception.
It becomes clear very quickly — on page 5 of the Introduction — that Jussim will be taking a contrarian position to much of the established view of these topics. After presenting a comparison of people as either low wattage (i.e., not that bright, fundamentally lazy, leading them to reach irrational and invalid conclusions) or high wattage (i.e., engaged in the world, energetic, motivated to reach valid conclusions about the world), Jussim notes that the prevailing view from the field of psychology is the low wattage perspective. He then writes:
In over 25 years of performing original research and reviewing the evidence on relations between social beliefs and social reality, I have reached the conclusion that psychological and social science data—not the claims or the conclusions, but the data itself—inexorably lead to the conclusion that the glass is 90% full. People are not perfect, but they are pretty damn good. And a large part of my inspiration for writing this book has been to expose some of the extraordinary divergences between the conclusions and emphases of so many social scientists (the low wattage conclusions) and the actual data (which, as far as I can tell, typically paints a picture of people as pretty high wattage).
With such a weighty focus on stereotype, it is good to know what Jussim means by the word. As he says on page 302, his favorite definition is quite simple: “a stereotype is a set of beliefs about the personal attributes of a social group.” This is, he says, a neutral definition because it makes no claim about whether stereotypes are accurate and rational; are widely shared; are consciously held; are rigid; exaggerate group differences; assume group differences are biological; cause or reflect prejudice; or cause biases and self-fulfilling prophecies. A stereotype may at times be any of these things, but it need not necessarily be any of these things in an assumptive way. The word has, over the years, taken on substantial weight and nasty baggage to become a kind of pejorative, a political (and personal) hot button, but he argues that the business of scientific inquiry is to test hypotheses, not to begin with a bias and then seek evidence of it.
This is a dense book, presenting decades of social science data and conclusions and an occasional table for good academic measure. It’s a serious book, a serious argument by a serious scholar, and anyone with an interest in the topic (especially those who study or teach the issues raised in the book) should have a copy on a nearby bookshelf. It is also written in a great voice — a somewhat cranky, fist-raised voice trying to make the reader sees what the author sees, because it’s important.
My 17-year-old daughter read it over her winter break—for fun—and we had hours of dinner table conversation about the issues. Jussim notes in his dedication that his son and friends are not at all averse to talking about these topics (even if the rest of us become politically correct-squeamish), and my daughter held the same position. Like Jussim’s son, her multicultural friends don’t shy away from talking about the differences they see and readily acknowledge. You may argue with the claims in this book, but you must take them seriously.
Social Perception and Social Reality: Why Accuracy Dominates Bias and Self-Fulfilling Prophecy
By Lee Jussim
Oxford University Press, USA: April 6, 2012
Hardcover, 486 pages