The ABC News magazine program 20/20 just had an interesting piece on the psychology of stereotypes. The main point was that all people have an underlying psychological architecture of stereotypes and that human beings are biologically set up to stereotype. To me, there are several important factors to go with any discussion of stereotypes.

First, how do stereotypes help us? Most of it can be viewed as the ability to quickly categorize people based on certain factors as a way to identify threats, friends, and other people that you can interact with socially.

Furthermore, the mental energy it would take for each person you encounter to be processed from scratch without some of the shortcuts that stereotypes provide us would almost debilitate us and make life extremely difficult to navigate. Unfortunately, these networks can contain negative information associated with certain groups that we apply to individuals in those groups that do not actually possess those characteristics.

Second, understanding the stereotypes you hold of others is key in avoiding them getting in your way and resulting in discrimination, prejudice, and unfair assumptions. For example, if you hold a view that ALL men or ALL women are prone to be unfaithful in relationships, then it is important acknowledge that you hold this belief on some level, reality test it, and avoid it becoming a problem that works unconsciously.

The overall message here is that we all have biases, assumptions, and stereotypes for all sorts of people: Caucasian, male, Midwestern, tall, thin, pretty, uneducated, wealthy, dog owner, athletes, etc.

Acknowledging that these exist, exploring their content, and working through any unfair elements can be a key part to becoming a more competent person socially and psychologically.