Rethinking stereotypes: Social perceivers as lay adaptationists
Department of Psychological Science, UC Irvine
Individuals have evolved to adaptively allocate energy across different life tasks, such as mating effort, parenting effort, and building embodied capital. From various theoretical perspectives (e.g., parental investment theory, life history theory), an individual’s biological sex, current life stage, and ecological conditions interact to influence how energy is allocated across different tasks. I propose that social perceivers are in fact “lay adaptationists,” generating predictions about the behavior of others based on another’s sex, age, and home ecology. This idea has several implications for thinking about the origin and content of social stereotypes: first, perceivers hold ecology stereotypes—beliefs about individuals living in more harsh and unpredictable environments as having faster life history strategies. Ecology stereotypes are held by perceivers across societies and demographic groups, and also underpin certain race stereotypes. Second, perceivers hold stereotypes of how men and women at different ages are oriented towards mating and parenting goals. Such goal stereotypes may in turn underpin certain gender stereotypes. Finally, stereotypes exist not just as beliefs about a group’s general traits, but as beliefs about how a group is likely to behave towards specific others. I introduce this idea of “directed” stereotypes and present relevant evidence. Broadly, the lay adaptationist perspective provides novel insights to thinking about the nature of social stereotypes and highlights the strategic nature of our stereotypes.