One word can protect someone from the damages caused by a stereotype.
This word is also linked to whether someone will form a fixed or growth mindset.
And this same word can also loosen the grip of appeal that a hate group can create for people who are lost and lack a sense of belonging.
That word is “individuate”. Or as Stanford’s neurological sciences professor Robert Sapolsky writes as a suggestion for more compassion and less us versus them mentality:
“Focus on the larger, shared goals. Practice perspective-taking. Individuate, individuate, individuate.”
‘Stereotype threat‘ is a phenomena that happens when someone is unconsciously primed or triggered to identify with a group that has a negative stereotype of performing poorly in that area or skill.
Studies have shown that when a person is prompted to think about things that make them unique and highly individuated, they are able to protect themselves from the negative affects of stereotype threat.
The origin of stereotyping comes from early childhood, where we absorb a lot of ‘generic’ language.
For example, over 40% of the words we hear before the age of six are generic category-type statements, that start with generalized groupings like “boys are ___,”, or “kids don’t __”, etc. This is helpful for our young brains to navigate the world more easily, but the issue is that if we don’t also get exposed to highly diverse data, and personalized encounters from many different types of people, this generalizing leads to what is called ‘essentialist’ thinking: that groups of people are homogeneous and invariant.
What’s wrong with essentialist or nongeneric language? Well, the problem is that essentialist thinking does two damaging things to human social psyche:
First, it increases people’ acceptance of injustice.
Research has shown that when people are primed with essentialist statements, like ‘scientists prove the genetic underpinnings of intelligence’, they are less likely to protest inequality. Because in that paradigm, ‘nothing can be done for ‘those people’.
Secondly, generic statements lead to the belief that certain traits or skills are innate, or ‘fixed’.
The original wording from Carol Dweck’s research (the research that led her to coin ‘growth versus fixed’) was the word ‘entity (innate, inherent, fixed) and ‘incremental’ (growth mindset). In her research on young children, they were able to prime the children into concluding that something was inherent or innate by using generic language: ‘dolphins have fat under their belly’, ‘boys are good at this game’.
When they personalized, or individuated the statement: ‘that dolphin has fat under her belly’, ‘that boy is good at this game’, the children then concluded that it was something the individual did, rather than something genetic or innate, that led to the trait, ability or skill.
This is the essence of the growth mindset – the belief that skills and abilities are about things we do incrementally that build our brain.
And in case we’re wondering what neuroscience has to say about whether individuating makes sense or not, here’s a quote from Nobel laureate Gerald Edelman:
“like the fingerprint or the iris, no two people will have precisely
the same synaptic structures in any comparable area of brain tissue.”
(meaning, no two brains will ever be exactly the same)
In this episode, you’ll learn more about the significance of individuation and how to practice it, the negative effects of essentialist thinking, and how these tie into the social engagement system.
– Concept of individuation and how it leads us to become more compassionate.
– Difference between essentialist thinking and individuation.
– Growth vs fixed mindset.
– Negative effects of overgeneralized statements and essentialist thinking.
– Powerful effects of individuated thinking.
– Stereotype threats.
– The importance of getting people to think about the unique traits and preferences in themselves and others.
– Common components among people drawn to hate groups.
– Why value and purpose is important.
– Individuation and storytelling in marketing.