While driving my father’s car out to run some errands, I encountered a driver who seemed quite confused about where to go and made many blunders while driving. I caught myself having the urge to assume that the driver was female. So strong was the stereotype of women being poor drivers etched into my brain that as a female myself, even I could not help but also possess a poor opinion of female drivers!

          Stereotypes are built from information that we collect from the society around us, including our parents, friends and most importantly, the mass media. This is a very useful tool for the human brain to categorise information about things that are similar in nature so that it is easier for us to retrieve the information or memory that we previously stored. The human brain is bombarded with many responsibilites and has to handle many functions at one time. In the event that we are required to react quickly to a situation without delay, information retrieval has to happen with haste.

          This explains why many people, myself included, quickly form opinions about individuals from other ‘categories’ created by society and ourselves. The efficiency of our brains in performing categorisation of objects, animals and individuals, become a double edged sword when these categories get associated with negative feelings. Such an association is known as prejudice and they very often evolved into acts of discrimination which deny members of certain categories the right to equal chances in the society.

          A friend once told me about his experience with discrimination while on a tour in Sydney, a state where racism against the Chinese was rumoured to be quite pronounced. His family was commanded to empty their belongings on the floor of a shop as the alarm system sounded when they were leaving. Prior to that was a caucasian who also caused the alarm to go off while leaving but no action was taken against him. The experience finally made him realise the agony of belonging to the discriminated community in the society.

          Having lived in Singapore as the majority race has blinded us to the reality of discrimination. Perhaps discrimination did not seem to be a great issue in our country because as the majority of the population, we Chinese are blind to the discrimination as we are the perpetrators and not the receivers of the treatment. As the majority, our community easily assigns various characteristics to the other communities without questioning reasons for doing so. This leads to unfair association of these communities with characteristics that may not be true of their culture and habits. Worse, such associations may even lead to self-fulfilling prophecies where the said communities accept the associations and begin behaving in the manner that others believed they would.

          It is therefore important to question the impressions that we form about others before coming to conclusions. Making the mistake of stereotyping individuals leading to prejudice or discrimination is unfair to other individuals and deprives both ourselves in getting to know them better as an unique individual and their opportunities in the society.


Peer Pressure and Ostracism

          Peer pressure. The first thing that comes to our minds will be the connection between peer pressure, friends and school. However, peer pressure is in fact, something that is commonly experienced by all individuals, regardless of age.

          In the schoolhouse, we feel the pressure to change certain behaviours and keep certain comments silent in order to “belong”. Those who appeared to be different from the rest or refuse to conform were usually rejected by the rest of the class, or even the school. The same occurs at the workplace, where some individuals were always left out of after work drinks and lunch breaks. Is this our way of selecting the fittest to survive? In the present society, the fittest does not necessarily mean the person who has the biggest muscles, win fights to attract mates or manage to bring back the most food. Humans have evolved such that social skills seem to be of the utmost importance in ensuring survival, whether in the school or working society. We are social creatures and need other people in order to survive.

          Individuals who do not manage to fit in sometimes contemplate suicide, showing the power of ostracism. Ostracism is such an effective punishment that in order to avoid it, many individuals choose to conform to the expectations of the social group that they have chosen to belong to. In order to ensure that we are accepted by other, people try to appear likeable to everyone, including strangers. This is one of the self-presentation goals that appears the most in our cognitive processes. In order to appear likeable, we mould ourselves into the character that will incur positive feelings and relationships. When in the brink of being ostracised, individuals have a higher tendency to show their loyalty to the group by conforming to the actions and attitudes of group members, hoping to avoid exclusion.

          Why the emphasis on getting accepted in the group? Humans are wired to instinctively do anything that they can to survive in this world. As a lone individual, it is very difficult, in fact almost impossible to survive, whether in the prehistorical era or modern one. As a child, we rely and need our parents to take care of us, in order to survive, hence the need to learn how to get along with them. As we grow up and enter the schoolhouse environment, we spend much of our time with our peers. Therefore, our emotional supporting unit shifts to the peers that we have.

          Growing up can be a stressful thing as changes happen both emotionally and physically. Having peers going through the same phase to share these experiences with is an essential support. In order to survive the stress from all these changes, we need to belong among these peers whom we have chosen to ‘hang out’ with. The terrible feeling of becoming an outcast stems from the fear that we might not be able to handle any troubles or setbacks that may come along in life without the help of all these people whom we may rely on, both emotionally and physically.

          However, the good news is that such acts of conformity reduces as individuals grow older. Besides that, not all individuals conform to the majority. There exist individuals who maintained their stand and did not succumb to group pressure. Research have shown that those resilient to peer pressure are individuals with high self-esteem. In addition, they are more motivated to achieve, possess more leadership ability and are less concerned about obtaining other people’s approval as compared to their counterparts who conform. They also tend to be less concientious and authoritarian.

          Have you ever caught yourself witholding certain opinions because you know that they are different from those who belong to your clique? We try our best to fit into the group as it can be difficult to disagree with the majority but it is more important to ensure that we do not conform blindly to the group’s intentions. Peer pressure can be a double-edged sword. If an individual was pressured by the group to work hard and do good, conformity might not be a bad thing. On the other hand, it would be terrible to conform if one was pressed to pick up bad habits. It eventually all boils down to an individual’s ability to differentiate between the right and wrong when it comes to peer pressure.