I had the honour of attending a university graduation ceremony recently. It was a grand affair, full of pomp and tradition. But I have to admit it was little boring. Each one of almost 300 graduates was invited to go up on stage to receive their degree and to shake hands with the Chancellor and other senior members of the teaching staff. Yet, I was only interested in seeing one degree awarded. To pass the time, I decided to play a game of First-Class-Honours Bingo.
Before their names were called, graduates moved to the front of the cavernous hall and climbed a short flight of stairs to the stage. Once the respective department head read out the name, the graduate crossed the stage to be formally congratulated. However, if the student had attained the highest degree category, an elevated voice preceded the name with “…and with first class honours…” My game involved trying to identify those who qualified for the highest accolade just from their appearance alone. I awarded myself one point for a correct identification and subtracted one for each false-positive. My final score was -6.
I know that common stereotypes – be they gender, ethnicity, religion, age, etc – have a powerful impact on how we perceive others, and on how we behave towards them. For instance, they even influence our decision to trust others. I played the game partly to reveal just how misleading they can be. Still my score was mildly embarrassing. When I think about how many conclusions people reach about others based on looks alone, the prevalence of hopelessly erroneous stereotypes is frightening.