Of Perceptions and Stereotypes
Of all the many lines that we draw to separate us from another, none perhaps is as abiding as labeling, or the stereotyping of individuals based on physical attributes such as the color of their skin of their religious preferences. On an unconscious level, such biases do play a role in our daily actuations and behavior, whether we acknowledge it or not. These biases impute certain types of stereotypes that affect how we treat and react to people.
The problem is that while modern society now acknowledges equal rights among various people of different racial orientations. People on an unconscious level still react differently to people that they think is not similar to them. Ordinarily, such differences or preferences/biases over another are not apparent on the ordinary activities that individuals pursue on a day to day basis. However, on split-second situations where people are acting on a more instinctive level, such subtle biases become more evident. This paper seeks to understand how we judge people in a variety of ways, how such judgments came to be and how these social judgments affect the people who are the subject of such judgments. In this experiment, it will focus on how implicit information can create both negative and positive effects on their view about an individual framed within a popular movie in the 1980’s.
Off Center Behavior
The sociology of deviance refers to the concept of deviant behavior or actions that tend to defy existing social norms or actions that are against generally accepted patterns of behavior. (Kendall 2006) Sociologists believe that deviance is a relative concept because what a certain society believes to be acceptable may be perceived differently by another society. As such, deviance may largely be a function of the society that defines what is within the limits of acceptable and what is considered deviant.
Among the most popular theories about deviant behavior is the one forwarded by Howard Becket. The Labeling Theory was first discussed in 1963 and maintains that deviance is actually a product of society’s tendency to label or pigeonhole certain people. This labeling casts or stereotypes people within certain roles, and is called deviant if they fail to act within their label. People act in a manner that is expected of them and in a sense, what we expect from people become self-fulfilling prophecies. Society imposes its own perception on a person’s character, and in a sense, the individual is shaped by society to fit that mold. As far as deviance is concerned, Kendall says that people who are labeled as deviants act according to the stereotypes of that label. (Kendall 2006) The people who arbitrarily decide on what is deviant and conventional are the very same people who will label a behavior as unacceptable or not. Labels exist in so many levels and in all aspects of our lives. The varied roles that we essay in society are actually our own ways of fitting the mold or staying true to our labels. The tragedy of labeling is that it almost always has a negative connotation. This cruel name-calling creates a tension within the individual, whether to pursue and define their own individual character or repress themselves in order to avoid the nasty labels.
The Breakfast Club
Among the best examples of the label theory at work can be seen in the movie The Breakfast Club. The Breakfast Club was released in 1985 and was written and directed by John Hughes. The movie is widely held by experts as a classic in the teen film genre and has been influential in youth films that came on its heels. The story revolves around five teenagers, each representative of the different classes or groups in high school. Each student is thus symbolic of a certain social perception and carries with them the labels and stereotypes that each one has about the other.
These five people were forced to come together when all of them were placed in detention one Saturday. While at first there was some hostility, they each came out of the detention room with better understanding and respect for one another. At first, each character acted according to their label, and they treated the other person according to the stereotypes that they have for one another. The beauty was treated in disdain by the brain, who believed the beauty to be shallow and vain. Conversely, the beauty treated the brain with some amount of condescension because she thought the brain had no sense of fashion and self-respect. The jock harassed the nerd, believing that brawns were always better than brains. They all were afraid of the criminal and stayed away from him, believing that he is nothing more than a troublemaker who will harm them. The basket case treats everyone with scorn, in her usual self-defensive stance. However, while on the surface they were all acting hostile towards one another, they were actually just acting out in fear that the other person might not like and accept them. In a sense, every character’s behavior towards one another was just a reflection of how their labels tell them to behave. The labeled characters become trapped in the negative expectations and stereotype that the label carries. How they are perceived becomes how they perceive themselves, and it then becomes a tragically self-fulfilling prophecy.
As time went by however, they grew tired of harassing and insulting one another and began opening up to each other. As they reveal their innermost secrets and thoughts, all of the five characters realize that they all share the same fears and hopes, and that most of their differences were only a result of the labels and stereotypes that they have for each other. The one labeled beauty is stereotyped as shallow and stupid, the jock is seen strong but dumb, the nerd is perceived as haughty and boring, the troublemaker is believed to be depraved and cruel, the basket case is avoided because she is stereotyped as weird. Indeed, all of them have labels for each other, and each of them acts according to the stereotypes that the label carries. Towards the end of their detention, all of the characters were saddened by the fact that the friendships formed inside the room would soon vanish as they step out of detention and resume their normal lives and go back to their own respective groups or cliques.
However, the film makes a statement that labels, sticky and enduring as they are, can be overcome and that people can break free from the label that society has imposed upon them. In the film, the five characters have been able to forge genuine friendships in the short span of time that they have been together. The beauty and the criminal both reached out for each other, ignored their social roles and kissed. The jock and the basket case also became a couple, and the movie ended with each of them leaving a token of one’s class to be left to the other. The jock gives the basket case a patch from his varsity jacket; the beauty gives the criminal her earrings. This symbolic act of giving tokens is representative of the character’s surrendering their identities and stereotypes and just being themselves in the presence of the one who will accept them for who they are.
In the end it might be said that The Breakfast Club is a microcosm of our society at large, where roles and labels determine how we behave and how we treat one another. But when we make the effort to look beyond labels and see the person inside, we will realize that the differences we believe to exist are mere walls we put up for ourselves, fearing that we will not be accepted for who we are. The Breakfast Club is a testament that people can overcome and go beyond labels if they are willing to look at and accept the person within, regardless of how society perceives them to be.
The mechanics of successful social relations remain pretty much a hit or miss endeavor. Psychologists themselves remain mystified by how and why people seem to generate more specific bias reactions and some do not. One of the many functions of psychology is smoothening the process of getting what individuals need and want by narrowing their choices through the use of semiotics or words and images that appeal to a person’s psyche. Media’s successful use of celebrities to influence the public’s buying choices is a reflection of how impressionable our society is and how images and perceptions are a vital consideration in people’s social interactions. (Ewen, 1976, p. 47)
In the movie The Breakfast Club, there are several dynamics at play which created the various stereotypes and labels that were explored in the film. One example would be called the peripheral route to persuasion which takes place when people are largely influenced by outward cues, most often how the person looks. (Weiten, 2008, p. 264) In the film, the cheerleader and the jock were clearly very attractive. Some people become bitter at those who are good looking and dismiss them as stupid or shallow. On the other hand, some people are drawn to looks purely for its attractiveness. Such stereotyping or the automatic relating of one attribute to another may be explained by what psychologists call illusory correlation, or the belief or perception that relationships exist when there is none at all. Illusory correlation is shaped or influenced by culture, upbringing, as well as values and memory. Among the most notable researchers in this area is Anne Treisman. She is a renowned expert in how memory affects visual perception and object recognition. Treisman was the proponent of Theory of Feature Integration. This theory posits that the perception of an object in association to the stimuli entails two processes. The first is the physiological “seeing” of the object through the retina, and the second is the association of the “seen” to the individual’s schema or memory. Thus the perception takes place at two levels, the eyes where the image is processed, and the brain where the image is related to experience and memory. (Treisman & Paterson, 1984) Related to this is the representativeness heuristic or the tendency to group people into clusters of groups. (Baumeister & Bushman, 2007, p. 161) Loners are presupposed to be nerds and geeks because they tend to be shy and awkward. Such perceptions and tendencies can be corrected with proper insight and reflection into how we judge people. It can also be changed with self-disclosure or when the opportunity comes to reveal deeper aspects of ourselves to another. (Myers 2006) This chance for the characters in The Breakfast Club when they were all sent to detention. This gave the characters the opportunity to socialize and interact with people from other social groups, something which they would not likely do under normal circumstances. When the characters got to know each other, all the stereotypes disappeared, to be replaced by a genuine respect and appreciation for one another.
Baumeister, R. & Bushman, B. (2007). Social Psychology and Human Nature. Cengage Learning.
Ewen, S. (1976). Captains of Consciousness: Advertising and the Social Roots of the Consumer Culture. NY: McGraw-Hill.
Kendall, D. (2006). Sociology in Our Times: The Essentials. Thomson Wadsworth.
Myers (2006). Social Psychology 8E. McGraw-Hill Education.
Treisman, A. & Paterson, R (1984). Emergent features, attention and object perception. Canada, University of British Columbia.
Weiten, W. (2008). Psychology: Themes and Variations. Cengage Learning.