This weekend marked the opening of X-Men: First Class, prequel to (and assumed reboot of) the wildly successful X-Men movie franchise.
For those who are unfamiliar with the X-Men series, the stories revolve around groups of ‘mutants,’ super-powered beings who supposedly represent the next stage in human evolution and whose powers run the gamut from telepathy to cellular regeneration. Apart from stunning visual effects and fun action sequences, one of the most compelling aspects of the X-Men movies is how easy it is to understand and relate to the prejudice faced by the X-Men and other mutants at the hands of the frightened, non-mutated humans. In fact, there’s quite a lot that the X-Men movies can help us understand about the nature of stereotypes, how we form them, and what makes us activate them in our everyday lives.
How Do We Form Stereotypes?
What makes us form a stereotype? And why are some stereotypes different from others?
According to the Stereotype Content Model, we form stereotypes of social groups based on where our perceptions fall on two dimensions – warmth and competence.
We perceive groups to be high on warmth when we see them as likable, friendly, and/or unthreatening; if others are perceived as competitors, we knock that social group down on the ‘warmth’ dimension.
We perceive groups to be high on competence when we see them as ambitious, successful, and/or high status. If groups are low on the social status ladder, we view them as incompetent.
The idea behind this model is that we experience different emotions in response to each group’s perceived level of warmth and competence. Here is what the model might look like with the typical emotional responses filled in:
We usually consider our ingroups (or cultural majorities, like Whites and Christians in America) to have high levels of both warmth and competence; as a result, this combination elicits feelings of pride and admiration, along with a tendency to actively or passively help members of this group (by directly helping them or merely by wanting to associate with them). On the other side of the spectrum, groups like drug addicts or the homeless are often perceived as being low on both warmth and competence. This produces feelings like disgust and anger; people’s typical behavior in response to these emotions involves wanting to harm these group members via neglect or direct attack. High levels of warmth combined with low levels of competence is characteristic for groups like the elderly and disabled; when we encounter groups that we deem likable yet incompetent, our stereotypes are based on pity, and this elicits a mixed behavioral response: while people will sometimes try and actively help them, they are often passively harmed through neglect.
But where do our X-Men lie? With their superpowers, they are quite competent; in fact, the very basis of the humans’ fear revolves around the mutants’ potential for utter control and destruction. Yet their extreme ‘otherness’ (in both pheno- and genotype) and perceived competition for resources places them squarely on the ‘low warmth’ side. High competence/low warmth people seem to encapsulate the worst parts of all worlds – they have the high status of the “admired” group without the likability, and they have the cold, exploitative nature of the “disgusting” group without the incompetence to prevent them from succeeding.1 Groups like the X-Men mutants are perceived as over-privileged outsiders, and this elicits a distinct emotional response: Envy.
If the ultimate goal of total mutant eradication running through the X-Men series evoked an unsettling mental parallel to the Holocaust, there’s a good reason why – and it’s not just the fact that sometimes-villain Magneto is a Holocaust survivor. Envy is the most dangerous emotional base for stereotypes; it fuses begrudging respect with intense dislike, which is a volatile, complex mix of emotions that can lead to passive admiration under nonthreatening social situations and violent attacks as soon as your surroundings become slightly unstable. In fact, envied groups are the most frequent targets of genocide and mass murder. People don’t necessarily want to eradicate the groups that they pity, or even the groups that make them angry – they want to eradicate the groups that make them jealous.
When Do We Activate Stereotypes?
To a certain extent, people automatically (and spontaneously) classify other people into groups based on stereotypes all the time – but it’s not as if we all walk around using stereotypes as our only basis of judgment and decision-making. Typically, we have the presence of mind (and cognitive control) to know that even if we are aware of certain stereotypes, we should not go around applying them without exception to everyone that we meet. However, there are several conditions that make it more likely that we will rely on stereotypes.
1. You’re Tired. When people’s cognitive capacities have been drained – because they’ve been thinking a lot, putting a lot of effort into other tasks, or are simply tired – they are more likely to rely on stereotypes. If you’ve been sitting in a boring committee hearing for hours debating the relative merits and flaws of the Mutant Registration Act and straining your attention until you’re cognitively drained, you’re more likely to rely on stereotypes when forming a decision about your vote.
2. Your Self-Esteem Just Took A Hit. When your self-esteem has been threatened by a certain social group, you are more motivated to apply stereotypes to this group in an effort to compensate. So, imagine you’re in a museum and you see a group of young students. In this group of students, there’s a boy tossing around a lighter and a cute girl named Rogue. If you are rebuffed both when you ask for a light and when you attempt to hit on the girl, the ego-blow has probably knocked your self-esteem down a few pegs. If you then realize that you were just rejected by a group of mutants, you are even more likely to apply stereotypes when you begin fighting them, maybe hurling epithets like “Freak!” in their direction along with your punches.
3. You’re Competing For Resources. When you perceive that there is a limited pool of resources and you’re competing for them against another group, you are more likely to stereotype the other group as competitive and (as a result) less warm, leading to the types of emotions (like disgust, anger, or envy) that would invoke violent reactions. So, if Senator Kelly pushes the Mutant Registration Act by painting a picture of an “us vs. them” world where mutants are competing with humans for resources, jobs, mates, and overall survival, the constituents are more likely to adopt negative stereotypes of the mutants and carry out the violent, harmful behavioral responses that arise from envy.
So What Can We Learn From The X-Men?
X-Men can teach us three things about the way that we form and apply stereotypes in our everyday lives.
1. Be wary of how you view social groups that you might consider competition. The two “low warmth” social groups (regardless of competence) are the most likely to provoke harmful behavioral responses, but stereotyping a group as “low warmth/high competence” can lead to particularly dangerous outcomes, especially when the sociopolitical climate is unstable. If you are faced with X-Men, try not to be jealous of their awesome powers – it will only lead to trouble.
2. Try not to be tired, threatened, or low on self-esteem when a situation arises where you have the opportunity to rely on stereotypes to form judgments or make important decisions. If a mutant tires you out, steals your job, or insults your haircut, it will be especially hard to avoid judging him/her using group-based stereotypes.
3. Stereotypes are not an accurate way to judge every single member of a social category – they are group-based social categorizations based on societal perceptions, not necessarily based on reality. The perception of “mutants” as a low-warmth group, for example, does not mean it is accurate to extend this judgment to an individual mutant like Nightcrawler, who is very friendly and quite harmless (when not being controlled by William Stryker).
But even so, you probably shouldn’t make Wolverine angry.
1 I want to be very clear that I am not trying to imply that any of these perceptions of exploitativeness, coldness, incompetence, etc. are accurate for the indicated social groups that I’ve provided as commonly used examples. I am merely explaining an existing model of stereotype formation (which represents cultural biases and group-based generalizations, not to be confused with any one person’s individual opinion, including my own opinions and, I’m assuming, the opinions of the model’s authors). This is not a model of individual attitude formation, nor should it be interpreted as in any way indicative of any single person’s attitudes towards elderly people, disabled people, homeless people, drug addicts, or mutants.
2 There have been several wonderful blog posts recently on the science of X-Men and the X-Men movies. For two of my favorite recent examples, please see Erika Salomon’s post at A Theory of Mind on evolution as it is portrayed in both X-Men and Planet of the Apes (Mutants, Apes, and Evolution – Oh My!) and John Rennie’s post at Scientific American on what the X-Men movies don’t quite get right about how evolution really works (The Evolutionary Errors of X-Men). If you have also written a blog post about X-Men, please link to it in the comments!
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