A psychology professor explains how stereotypes come about and how pit bull owners can help change them.
By Dana Litt, Ph.D. (Reprinted from StubbyDog.org)
As a pit bull lover and owner, I am well aware of the many negative stereotypes we face on a daily basis and the potential consequences they have on our lives. Before understanding how to combat these negative stereotypes, it is first important to understand what they are, where they come from and how they become deeply engrained in society.
What are Stereotypes?
A stereotype is a generalized belief about the qualities or characteristics of a particular group. Although stereotypes can be positive or negative, a negative stereotype about a group often leads to prejudice (a negative judgment or unequal treatment towards a member of the stereotyped group). Although there are several theories that attempt to explain how stereotypes are formed, most psychologists will agree that people develop perceptions about how a typical “person” (or in our case, dog) in a marginalized group looks, thinks or behaves. Consequently, they form stereotypes of the group as a whole and apply them widely.
The Pit Bull and Pit Bull Owner Stereotype
Of particular importance to StubbyDog readers are the negative stereotypes associated with both pit bulls themselves, as well as stereotypes about the “type” of person who owns a pit bull. Most of us are sadly familiar with the stereotypes surrounding our dogs – that they are “evil, bloodthirsty beasts” or “unpredictable wild animals,” or “unpredictable and uncontrollable.” In addition, pit bull owners have been the target of negative stereotypes. On Internet message boards, in news articles and in political speeches, pit bull owners are routinely disparaged as nothing more than criminals, drug dealers, trailer trash, thugs, gang members or social deviants. Politicians and community members alike routinely state they don’t want “people like us” in their communities. These stereotypes are pervasive and by making both owners and the dogs seem abnormal, frightening and even dangerous, society easily endorses inhuman policies like breed-discriminatory legislation and other forms of discrimination.
Why do These Stereotypes Persist?In psychology, the confirmation bias is the process by which a person forms a theory and then searches for things that prove their theory while ignoring things that are contradictory. This process allows stereotypes to both form and grow and become even more deeply engrained. With each event that confirms the stereotype, it continues to grow and take hold, while events that refute the stereotype are minimized or rejected.
We can apply the confirmation bias to the stereotypes of pit bulls and pit bull owners. Events which confirm that a pit bull is a killing machine are counted and recalled over and over, while hundreds of thousands of normal, sweet, friendly pit bulls are completely ignored. Events involving a heroic pit bull are difficult to find coverage of and even when they exist in mainstream media, they are usually brief and may not mention the breed specifically, whereas any story shining negative light on pit bulls is front page news. The repeated exposure to such messages only further confirms peoples’ preconceived notions about pit bulls.
However, it’s not just selective interpretation of pit bull related events that leads to stereotyping. Much of the hatred and discrimination toward others stems in part from a lack of familiarity. People who are unfamiliar with pit bull owners are reacting to the stereotype, not reality. Some individuals’ only exposure to pit bull owners has been in a negative sense and for many, has not been a personal experience but rather something they heard or saw on the news. Once these stereotype seeds are planted, most individuals can be very difficult to persuade that what they are familiar with is neither normal nor acceptable among responsible pit bull owners, due in part to the confirmation bias.
How to Fight the Negative Pit Bull Stereotype
Clearly, many commonly held stereotypes have negative consequences in terms of unequal perceptions and unequal treatment of different groups. To address this, some researchers have devoted their work to studying how to change or extinguish people’s stereotypes. Although there are several hypotheses about how this might occur, researchers generally agree that the best known way to change people’s stereotypes is to continually provide new information in different ways that contradict the stereotype. For example, if a person believes that pit bulls are vicious and unstable dogs, the best way to change this belief is to provide many different examples of pit bulls that have proven themselves to be stable, social and friendly family pets. One valuable way of achieving this is to promote favorable interactions with pit bulls. This may provide the person with new information that does not typify the stereotype and may even contradict the stereotype completely.
This process takes a concerted and careful effort on the part of all pit bull owners and supporters. It is imperative that all pit bull owners take active steps to make their dog a breed ambassador. Do everything in your power to be the best dog owner you can possibly be. Because you own a highly stereotyped type of dog, you will have to work harder to overcome that handicap than you would with a more socially acceptable breed of dog. For example, with many breeds, people think that misbehavior is “cute” or tolerable. With pit bulls, the same behavior is considered “vicious” and “deadly.” Fair? Not at all. Reality? Yes. Keep your dog under control at all times, and make sure you have done plenty of socializing and training; seek help from a professional if necessary. If your pit bull goes out in public, he needs to have good manners.
My pit bull Teddy is not only an ambassador (ambassadog?) on walks around the neighborhood, but I’ve routinely utilized him during my teaching to both educate students on the pitfalls of stereotyping as well as to help promote positive interactions with a type of dog they may not know much about other than what they read in the papers. Each semester I devote an entire lecture to stereotyping and discrimination, and a popular class activity is to ask people to think about the typical stereotypes about various people, objects and groups. Naturally, I began including pit bulls and pit bull owners in this activity. After having volunteers list some of the traits they associate with each object in the list, I show a counter-image to challenge their stereotypes. For pit bulls however, I have had a friend walk Teddy into the classroom and do tricks for us. When they find out that he is my dog (a professor owning a pit bull?!), many students have been shocked, but after class is over, quite a few want to come up and meet Teddy and often tell me that this is the first time they’ve ever actually met a pit bull. Teddy has also been an eager participant in my lectures on learning, especially when it involves positive reinforcement in the form of cookies. By integrating Teddy into my teaching, I’ve been able to expose many college students to pit bulls in a positive light that counteracts the negative stereotypes they currently hold (or confirms the positive stereotypes of pit bulls being goofy and sweet for those that are already fans of pit bulls).
Although there is a lot we can do to ensure that our dogs are the best possible ambassadors for the breed, we must remember that we as pit bull owners are also unfairly stereotyped and that in order to counteract this, we must always be an outstanding and responsible dog owner. Learn and follow the laws, make friends with your neighbors, show interest in your local government, go to neighborhood meetings, and speak with maturity and wisdom. I realize this sounds like a tall order, but we owe it to our dogs to make a favorable impression on the people who hold negative stereotypes about the typical pit bull owner. You have to do your part to separate yourself from the stereotypical pit bull owner. Over time, with enough positive interactions with responsible pit bull owners, hopefully people will learn to adjust their original views and realize that pit bull owners come from all walks of life and are no longer a feared group of outsiders, but rather an integral part of the community.
By taking the appropriate steps to present both our dogs and ourselves in the best possible light, I do believe we can make a difference. Remember that every interaction counts and that the best way to fight a stereotype is to harness the sweet nature we all know our dogs have and share it with the world!
About the author: Dana Litt received her Ph.D. in applied social psychology in 2010 and is currently an assistant professor at the University of Washington. Growing up, Dana always had dogs, but it wasn’t until she adopted a little brown and red pit bull puppy named Teddy in 2008 that she found herself getting involved in animal welfare and breed advocacy. Between having a pit bull of her own, volunteering at a local animal shelter and being part of local Seattle pit bull groups, Dana is truly a champion for the breed.
Video from It’s the Pits that demonstrated Dana’s article