In conversation, we might define a particular group by the characteristics that the majority of that group holds even if a minority in that group doesn’t possess those characteristics.

Some possible examples:

  • Human being eats meats (even though ~3-5% of human are total vegetarians)
  • Russians like vodka (many don’t drink there)
  • Asians are brown (though there are many who are white) (Ignore the figures or classification it’s just for explaining purpose)

The point is, why are we programmed to make generalizations this way, i.e., disregard the small or even significant but minority of a group while taking it as a whole, this is understood by common sense, but, I was wondering is there a scientific basis for this, perhaps some kind of theory presented by someone or a research that established this rule?

  • $\begingroup$ this is a good question, but i think you need to narrow down your interests a bit. you seem to be asking "why do people stereotype?" there is a huge literature on stereotyping that addresses this question. perhaps try to do some research and narrow down your question. $\endgroup$
    – Jeff
    Nov 21 '12 at 22:01

I think the exceptions are implied. If someone says, "All Russians like vodka" then we understand that there are no exceptions to the rule. People get frustrated when you're overly specific about the percent of Russians who like vodka. Instead it's safer to just say Russians like vodka. And bears.

Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion talks about why we operate based on generalizations. We would freeze if we analysed all the details of every situation before we act, so we make generalizations.

Thinking, Fast and Slow is an excellent book talking about the latest research in human biases from one of the foremost experts in the field.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Exactly. It's much more plausible to assume that the exceptions are a given, than that people really think that all Russians must like vodka. $\endgroup$
    – Ana
    Nov 21 '12 at 14:30
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ good point. you're assuming ∀ instead of ∃, but the reality is ambiguous $\endgroup$
    – Jeff
    Nov 22 '12 at 16:37
  • $\begingroup$ Jeff, speak English. $\endgroup$ Nov 23 '12 at 6:04
  • $\begingroup$ In predicate logic, ∀ is the universal quantifier. It means "all". ∃ is the existential quantifier. It means "There exists (at least one)" or "Some". $\endgroup$
    – Jeff
    Nov 23 '12 at 6:14

As @Jeff mentions you are essentially asking why people stereotype. Steretyping is a huge topic particularly in social psychology. The wikipedia article on stereotypes provides a basic introduction to the functions of stereotypes where it talks about cognitive and social functions. It seems like most of the examples you provide are referring more to the cognitive functions (e.g., simplifying thinking and decision making).

An article by Macrae et al (1994) typifies this perspective. You might want to have a read of the article. Here is an extract from the opening paragraphs that talks about stereotypes as tools for minimising the use of cognitive resources.

Social psychologists have frequently characterized stereotypes as energy-saving devices that serve the important cognitive function of simplifying information processing and response generation (e.g., Allport, 1954; Andersen, Klatzky, & Murray, 1990; Bodenhausen & Lichtenstein, 1987; Brewer, 1988; Fiske & Neuberg, 1990; Tajfel, 1969). Building on this tradition, Gilbert and Hixon (1991) aptly characterized stereotypes as "tools that jump out" of a metaphorical cognitive toolbox "when there is a job to be done" (p. 510). Anyone who has ever succumbed to the temptation to evaluate others in terms of their social group membership would doubtlessly recognize the power of this contention. Individuation, in its many guises, is a rather time consuming and effortful affair (Brewer, 1988; Fiske & Neuberg, 1990; Fiske & Pavelchak, 1986). Stereotyping, in contrast, relies only on the execution of some rather rudimentary skills: most notably, the ability to assign people to meaningful social categories (see Hamilton, 1979; Hamilton & Sherman, in press; Hamilton, Sherman, & Ruvolo, 1990; Hamilton & Trolier, 1986). Once achieved, this categorization provides perceivers with a veritable wealth of stereotypic information.

The metaphorical view of humans as cognitive misers has attained a zenith of popularity among contemporary social cognition researchers (see Fiske & Taylor, 1991; Higgins & Bargh, 1987; Sherman, Judd, & Park, 1989), but the notion of stereotypes as simplifying mental devices has its origins in much earlier times. Lippman (1922), for example, argued that reality is too complex for any person to represent accurately. Stereotypes, accordingly, serve to simplify perception, judgment, and action. As energy-saving devices, they spare perceivers the ordeal of responding to an almost incomprehensibly complex social world. Seventy years later, these sentiments are characteristic features of cognitive writings on the topic. As Fiske and Neuberg (1990, p. 14) remarked, "we are exposed to so much information that we must in some manner simplify our social environment. . . for reasons of cognitive economy, we categorize others as members of particular groups—groups about which we often have a great deal of generalized, or stereotypic, knowledge.

I also think Tyler and Ana make good points about what is meant by statements such as "Russians like vodka". One interpretation is that the exceptions are implied. Another is that when we say "Russians" or any other group we are referring to the group as an entity. Thus, to say that a group has a certain property is to speak about the tendency of the individuals in the group rather than each individual.


  • Macrae, C. N., Milne, A. B., & Bodenhausen, G. V. (1994). Stereotypes as energy-saving devices: A peek inside the cognitive toolbox. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 66(1), 37. PDF

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