On Not Judging Books by Their Covers

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Summary:

Well, I certainly didn't figure that my first post for this blog would be triggered by the frenzy this past week over Susan Boyle, the whoda-thunkit singer on the British TV talent show. The judges' tone of voice, words, and facial expressions showed that they knew—they knew—that Susan Boyle was not Someone Who Could Sing. She fit their image of a loser. And they were wrong. They had prejudged her based on their preconceptions, and they were wrong.

Well, I certainly didn't figure that my first post for this blog would be triggered by the frenzy this past week over Susan Boyle , the whoda-thunkit singer on the British TV talent show. The judges' tone of voice, words, and facial expressions showed that they knew—they knew—that Susan Boyle was not Someone Who Could Sing. She fit their image of a loser. And they were wrong. They had prejudged her based on their preconceptions, and they were wrong. Within her first three notes, the world knew different.

What struck me most is what this situation tells us about stereotyping. I suspect that a lot more often than we realize, we judge others based on stereotypes. In my December 2008 Stickyminds column , I pointed out that we seem to be wired to jump to conclusions. Not jumping is very difficult, but I commented that perhaps we can be more conscientious of the fact that we're jumping to conclusions so that we can, at least sometimes, challenge those conclusions. And that certainly applies to stereotyping.

Still, we're human, and having stereotypes about people is natural. The problem occurs when we react to someone based on a negative stereotype, or treat (or mistreat) the person based on that stereotype, or gossip about the person to others in terms of the stereotype. I'm thinking, for example, of the manager who wouldn't select a senior programmer for a project team because the fellow was "too introverted" to be a good team player. And the manager who refused to promote a project manager because "she doesn't have a college degree."

Overt stereotyping of contestants is often the norm in TV talent shows. It's good for ratings, I suppose. But we don't have to be lulled into similar behavior.

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