Monday, November 26, 2007

The Power of Suggestion

In my previous posts I've brought attention to Hollywood's perpetuation of colorism along gender lines. If one takes note of representations of men and women in big budget Hollywood movies and major network television shows this trend is quite obvious. I think very few would disagree.

But while it might seem that I am beating a dead horse, I think it is beneficial not only to see what the trends and stereotypes are, but also to see exactly to what extent these stereotypes affects us. There are many people who are aware of the stereotypes, but do not quite understand the extent to which we all are affected by them. This does not apply to one group, but ALL groups of people.

In order to assure that we do not under-estimate the power of stereotypes it might help to look at some sociological studies. The following excerpt is from the book "Sociology - A Down To Earth Approach" written by James M. Henslin:

"You are familiar with the way first impressions "Set the tone" for interaction. When you first meet someone, you cannot help but notice certain highly visible and distinctive features, especially the person's sex, race, age, and physical appearance. Despite your best intentions, your assumptions about these characteristics shape your first impressions. You probably also know that your assumptions affect how you will act toward that person.

Mark Snyder, a psychologist, wondered if stereotypes --our assumptions of what people are like--might be self-fulfilling. That is, since our assumptions shape our actions, could our reactions produce behaviors that match our stereotype? Snyder came up with an ingenious way to test this idea. He gave college men a Polaroid snapshot of a woman (supposedly taken just moments before) and told them that they would be introduced to her after they talked with her on the telephone. Actually, photographs showing either a pretty or homely woman had been prepared before the experiment began. The photo had been chosen at random; it was not of the woman the men would talk to.

The men's stereotypes came into play immediately. As Snyder gave each man the photograph, he asked him what he thought the woman would be like. The men who saw the photograph of the attractive woman said they expected to meet a poised, humorous, outgoing woman. The men who had been given a photo of the unattractive woman described her as awkward, serious, and unsociable. These stereotypes influenced the way the men spoke to the women on the telephone, which, in turn, affected the women's responses. The men who had seen the photograph of a homely woman were cold, reserved, and humorless on the phone, and the women they spoke to became cool, reserved, and humorless. Keep in mind that the women did not know that their looks had been evaluated and that the photographs were not of them. In short, stereotypes tend to produce behaviors that match the stereotype."

That study shows the profound impact that stereotypes have on people, how they see us, how they approach us and how that approach in turn affects our own behavior. While some might choose to downplay the power of stereotypes, those who are negatively affected by them know all too well how damaging they can be.

But the damage done by stereotypes is not just caused by affecting how others see us. They can also affect how we see ourselves as in the following study published in the same book:

"Stereotypes also have an impact on what we accomplish. In one experiment, the welding instructor in a vocational training center was told that five men in his training program had an unusually high aptitude for welding. Although the five had been chosen at random and knew nothing about the experiment, the effects were dramatic. These men were absent less often than other trainees, learned the basics of welding in about half the usual time, and scored ten points higher than the other men on their final welding test. The difference was noted even by the other trainees, who singled these five out as their preferred co-workers. "

It seems if we ourselves believe we are capable at achieving something, we are more likely to achieve it. Negative stereotypes undermine this confidence and can actually hurt our efforts, no matter what they might be.

In addition to the devastating affects that stereotypes can have on us, peer-pressure is another social influence on our lives. Most people tend to think that peer-pressure is merely the problem of young people, but the fact is it affects all of us (or at least most of us).

Most people like to think of themselves as freethinkers, or leaders. But the unfortunate truth is that most people put more weight in the actions and opinions of others than they do themselves. This study (from the same book) illustrates this quite well:

"Imagine that you are taking a course in social psychology with Dr. Solomon Asch and you have agreed to participate in an experiment. As you enter his laboratory, you see seven chairs, five of them already filled by other students. You are given the sixth. Soon the seventh person arrives. Dr. Asch stands at the front of the room next to a covered easel. He explains that he will first show a large card with a vertical line on it, then another card with three vertical lines. Each of you is to tell him which of the three lines matches the line on the first card.

Dr. Asch then uncovers the first card with the single line and the comparison card with the three lines. The correct answer is easy, for two of the lines are obviously wrong, and one exactly right. Each person, in order, states his or her answer aloud. You all answer correctly. The second trial is just as easy, and you begin to wonder why you are there.

Then on the third trial something unexpected happens. Just as before, it is easy to tell which lines match. The first student, however, gives a wrong answer. The second gives the same incorrect answer. So do the third and fourth. By now you are wondering what is wrong. How will the person next to you answer? You can hardly believe it when he, too, gives the same wrong answer. Then it is your turn, and you give what you know is the right answer. The seventh person also gives the same wrong answer.

On the next trial, the same thing happens. You know the choice of the other six is wrong. They are giving what to you are obviously wrong answers. You don't know what to think. Why aren't they seeing things the same way you are? Sometimes they do, but in twelve trials they don't. Something is seriously wrong, and you are no longer sure what to do.

When the eighteenth card is finished, you heave a sigh of relief. The experiment is finally over, and you are ready to bolt for the door. Dr. Asch walks over to you with a big smile on his face, and thanks you for participating in the experiment. He explains that you were the only real subject in the experiment. 'The other six ere stooges. I paid them to give those answers,' he says."

So what were the results of the study? Only 25% of the subjects remained uninfluenced by the others and stated the correct answer each time! Yes, approximately 75% of the population can be expected to follow what others say and do even when our own senses tell us otherwise!

The good news is that we each have the power to buck the trends and negate the stereotypes. Unfortunately, approximately 75% of the people who get this message will have a difficult time making use of it or be completely unable to do so due to an inability to exercise personal observation over external social influences. This obviously creates a problem for those of us who can and do negate stereotypes as it marginalizes if not completely negates our efforts.

So the problem then becomes how to get through to the other 75%. Since these people are seemingly so prone to social programming, the obvious answer is to re-program them by changing the stereotypes in the media that they are so susceptible to.

In the case of the negative stereotypes of black women, this problem can be divided into two separate approaches. One is for black women to become more open to "beauty" careers such as modeling, cheerleading, beauty pageant contestants and leading actresses. The other approach is to attack the very REAL discrimination that black women face in ALL of these areas.

The first approach is self-explanatory. The second approach can be handled in different ways. I've heard suggestions that black women should pursue careers in directing or producing. I've heard other suggestions that black women should create their own alternate media outlets so they can have complete control over how they are portrayed. I think both of these ideas are good ones. The second idea though has the problem of not reaching many people and in effect "preaching to the choir".

There is another approach to this that might even be more effective. The approach I'm referring to is spreading awareness of the discrimination that black women face in these career fields throughout the black community and ultimately having a formal organization put pressure on existing media corporations. This tactic has been proven to work in the past.

The good news is that organizations already exist for this purpose. The NAACP is one example. The important thing is to make sure that this issue is widely discussed throughout the black community and better yet, made public through some high profile black women such as Tyra Banks or Oprah Winfrey. Once a certain level of awareness of the issue is achieved, then it could be taken to the NAACP (or some other organization) and proposed that black women are a part of the black community and have consistently supported it in the past, and now is the time for the NAACP to support black WOMEN and attack the discrimination that black women face.

One of two things can happen. One is that the NAACP will agree to help black women. This would obviously be a HUGE victory for black women as the NAACP has an excellent track record in this area.

The other possibility is that the NAACP can deny the assistance. This of course would be a huge PUBLIC slap in the face to black women. While on the surface, this might seem to be a bad thing, this slap in the face might be the very slap that is needed to wake black women up and realize who has their best interests in mind.

As you can see, it is a win-win situation for black women. If the discrimination that black women face in the above mentioned careers becomes publicly discussed and brought to the NAACP, the future for black women will be changed for the better regardless of what the NAACP decides to do.