Envying evolution: What can the X-Men teach us about stereotypes?

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!




Harris, L. T., Cikara, M., & Fiske, S. T. (2008). Envy as predicted by the stereotype content model. In R. Smith (Ed.), Envy: Theory and research. New York: Oxford University Press.

Fiske ST, Cuddy AJ, Glick P, & Xu J (2002). A model of (often mixed) stereotype content: competence and warmth respectively follow from perceived status and competition. Journal of personality and social psychology, 82 (6), 878-902 PMID: 12051578

Cuddy, AJC, Fiske, ST, & Glick, P (2007). The BIAS Map: Behaviors from intergroup affect and stereotypes. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 92, 631-648 DOI: 10.1037/0022-3514.92.4.631

Govorun, O, & Payne, BK (2006). Ego depletion and prejudice: Separating automatic and controlled components. Social Cognition (24 ), 111-136 DOI: 10.1521/soco.2006.24.2.111

Sinclair, L., & Kunda, Z. (2000). Motivated stereotyping of women: She’s fine if she praised me but incompetent if she criticized me. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 26, 1329-1342 DOI: 10.1177/0146167200263002

Staub, E. (1989). The roots of evil: The origins of genocide and other group violence. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Fiske, S. T. (1998). Stereotyping, prejudice and discrimination. In D.T. Gilbert, S.T. Fiske, & G. Lindzey (Eds.) The Handbook of Social Psychology (pp. 357-411). Boston: McGraw-Hill.

10 responses to “Envying evolution: What can the X-Men teach us about stereotypes?

  1. If I were a mutant, my power would be to to have nine lives like a kitty. Does anyone in the movie already have that one?

  2. Hi Melanie, this is a great post. Would you grant us permission to cross-post onto our website with full credit to you? ~Pia, Co-Founder/Editor

    • Absolutely! As long as you credit me as the author (and preferably link to my blog as well), I am more than happy to do this. Thank you for your kind words, it’s much appreciated!

  3. Pingback: Things Worth Reading | A Theory of Mind

  4. Terrific article! Loved it!

  5. Pingback: What Can The X-Men Teach Us About All Kinds of Stereotypes? | Adios Barbie

  6. I have a question… What about the mutant group? Groups themselves have divisions. If you perceive yourself as similar (homogeneous) to your group you will share values and ‘act’ like a group member and if you see the group as divided and different well then you will try to be an individual. Same goes for high status versus low status. You identify more strongly with your group if they have a higher status etc. Group dynamics aside, the mutants are clearly separated into two groups and these groups are held together not by identity alone but by a common goal. So the one group would be the x-men (pro humans) and then the ‘bad’ guys (pro mutants). One could argue that pro-humans actually envy humans – they all long to fit in; whilst the pro-mutants are proud of how they look and will fight for their identity.

    Not all mutations are the same – ‘do you just like the pretty mutations?’. Some mutants have overt mutations, whilst some are hidden. So i would argue that the mutants with overt mutations are low warmth and perceived low competence and hence the feeling of disgust BUT the ‘hidden’ mutations are the ones that incite envy. The reason why humans lash out on what they can identify (overt mutations) is different to why they want to control and destroy unidentifiable mutants. Fear and survival play a role as well. But i would argue that from the pro- mutant perspective humans may incite pity and/or disgust and hence the contention. Stereotypes are a two way street and not all ‘groups’ are neat and tidy!

    Let us not forget the apartheid governments obsession with identifying whites – to the point where we had the pencil test. Divide and conquer as they say…

    • That is an excellent point, Tisha. It’s important to remember that all groups (mutant and otherwise) are quite heterogeneous. However, people are more likely to view outgroups as “homogeneous” (a bias that lends itself to comments such as “[insert racial descriptor here] all look alike!”), though they see their own ingroups as being quite varied. For example, where a White/American person may see someone as “Asian” or even be as (seemingly) specific as to say that someone is “Rwandan,” we all know that some of the most devastating intergroup violence in history has occurred between factions within these “groups” (Chinese vs. Japanese people in the Sino-Japanese wars, Hutu vs. Tutsi people in the Rwandan genocide). On the other hand, a Chinese or Rwandan person might view someone as “American,” whereas that American may prefer to call him/herself Texan, Southern, Californian, a Midwesterner, a New Yorker, etc.

      Based on this logic, I would speculate that while the mutants correctly viewed themselves as quite heterogeneous (drawing boundaries based on X-Men vs. Brotherhood of Mutants, or Overt vs. Covert mutations), the humans more likely just viewed the entire group as “mutants,” much the way (as mentioned above) a White person would see “Asian” or “Rwandan” instead of “Chinese/Japanese” or “Hutu/Tutsi.” I would again speculate that the humans lashed out at the overt mutants because they were the ones that were easiest to identify and, in their mind, all mutants were one “homogeneous” group with the same end goal. With this in mind, for example, if a human heard Magneto talking about wanting to destroy humankind, he/she would not assume this remark applies only to the Brotherhood of Mutants and maintain peaceful feelings towards the well-intentioned X-Men; he/she would simply assume that this remark accurately represents the feelings of all mutants. The mutants themselves, however, would likely draw a very clear line between the intentions of the X-Men and the intentions of the Brotherhood. Does this make sense? If not, I can explain further. This might merit another blogpost with some more speculation… 🙂

      On another note, I had never heard of the ‘pencil test’ and your comment prompted me to Google it and learn a little more. Thank you for educating me this morning, though I’m dismayed and saddened by what I found.

  7. Pingback: Envying evolution: What can the X-Men teach us about stereotypes? | Beyond Good and Evil, change behavior for the better | Scoop.it

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