The Trouble With Improving Our Stereotypes

Sam Brinson
6 min readMay 20, 2021


People are quick to make certain judgements. Our minds have evolved to excel at drawing conclusions from minimal data and thinking quickly using heuristics and mental models.

But some judgements are more reliable than others. When it comes to judging people, first impressions are quick, easy, and compelling — but are they accurate?

Alex Todorov found that we can form impressions of people in 1–10th of a second by relying on certain cues that aren’t always reflective of what we think they are. We stereotype people.

“One-tenth of a second of viewing provided ample face information for our participants to make up their minds. The effect of additional time was to simply increase confidence in their judgments.”

Todorov has conducted research that shows that people judged the competence and likability of faces. What the participants didn’t know was that the faces were of political candidates.

The faces judged more competent were also the people voted into office (likability didn’t say very much). What facial features reflect competence? A strong chin and slight confident smile.

Most of us probably think that strong chins and slight smiles are absurd factors to judge ability on. Surely there is more informative data available, why didn’t voters recognise this?

I assume we’re looking for a better answer than to call them lazy. Perhaps another possibility is that first impressions and stereotypes tend to overpower other information, even when we have our thinking caps on.

Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky ran several studies showcasing how our stubborn attachment to impressions and stereotypes tend to overrule or obscure more rational approaches, the effect of which has been dubbed the representativeness heuristic.

Let’s meet some people.


Linda is 31 years old, single, outspoken, very bright, and majored in philosophy. As a student she was deeply concerned with discrimination and social justice, and participated in anti-nuclear demonstrations.



Sam Brinson

An emergent property of billions of chaotically firing neurons. Currently thinking about thinking.