Pink is for boys . . . how stereotypes evolve


WE ALL know the stereotypes: librarians are boring, scientists are nerds and blondes have more fun. While we don’t know who said these things first, researchers are now getting a handle on how such generalisations form.

“We are interested in social cognition, the way the brain processes information about people,” said Dr Doug Martin during a presentation at the Festival of Science in Aberdeen. He is head of the Person Perception Lab at the University of Aberdeen and has conducted trials that could explain how we all come to believe that Scots are stingy and accountants are boring.

Stereotypes help us make sense of the world around us, and while too often they reflect unsubstantiated prejudiced views, they seem to be a universal constant with all of us able to immediately recognise the “type” being portrayed.

Early results from his and other studies have led to a theory that stereotypes emerge over time as information is passed between people. If true, this means the formation of stereotypes is “inevitable” but also an unintended consequence of human interaction. It also means that they slowly but constantly evolve over time.

There is no better example of this than a reference to the most appropriate colour to choose for your newborn baby, as recommended by the June 1918 issue of the Ladies’ Home Journal. At that time, the accepted rule was “pink for boys, and blue for the girls”, the magazine cooed, because pink was “a more decided and stronger colour”, while blue “which is more delicate and dainty, is prettier for the girl”. Just as well infants don’t know their colours given the subsequent reversal of the stereotype.

The creation of stereotypes seems to occur in the same way messages become garbled in the children’s game Chinese Whispers. Information passed from one person to the next unintentionally gets changed as it moves along in a form of “cumulative cultural transmission”, Dr Martin said.

He tested this by devising a collection of “aliens” and randomly gave them various attributes such as adventurous, vulgar, aggressive and so on. Subjects were told they should memorise the traits and affix them to the correct alien.

The first subject had the daunting task of trying to memorise these, and then that person’s results were given to the next subject and those results to the next and on down the line.

Almost immediately the answers given began to morph into an accepted stereotypical view of what the various aliens were really like. The process consistently changed the information in the same way, making it more structured, simpler to remember and, as a result, more learnable, he said.

While this gives us insights into how societal “norms” form, Dr Martin believes understanding the process may suggest ways to modify it and possibly manipulate it for the good of society.