COLD COMFORT

The more we crave certainty, the more we prefer stereotypes

People who crave certainty and a sense of order are more critical of people who appear to deviate from stereotypes, a new study suggests (paywall), highlighting a psychological quirk that could have important implications for policy makers.

Psychologists at New York University and the University of Toronto asked people who identified as politically liberal or conservative to look at a series of photos of people and evaluate them positively or negatively.

In neutral conditions, conservatives viewed people who deviated from stereotypes—for example, gay men with masculine features— more negatively than their liberal peers did.

But when researchers asked liberal and conservative respondents alike to think back to a time when they felt stressed or uncertain, the differences disappeared. Both liberal- and conservative-identifying people viewed stereotype-breakers unfavorably.

The researchers hypothesized that it’s the sense of certainty and order that stereotyping brings that appeals to conservatives, rather than an inherent dislike of minority groups themselves. The differences surfaced for both real minority groups and fictional ones.

Noteworthy to policy makers: These patterns persisted when participants were asked to allocate money to the fictional people in the photographs.

Under difficult conditions with a high desire for certainty of outcome—basically, any budget discussion ever had—policy makers may find themselves unconsciously motivated to reward stereotypes and punish those who break them.

“If people are making these decisions under stressful or uncertain situations, they may come to prefer people who adhere to stereotypes,” lead author Chadly Stern tells Quartz. “People who challenge stereotypes could be systematically disadvantaged.”

Read this next: Social psychologists are almost all liberals—and it’s really hurting the field

home our picks popular latest obsessions search