Which comes first, stereotypes or social reality?
In a recent paper, MIT Sloan School of Management Prof. Jackson Lu studied a novel form of stereotyping and discrimination in China based on Western astrological signs. He found that “astrological stereotypes” about personalities formed without pre-existing social reality, yet are shaping social reality via discrimination, especially against Virgos.
“Because stereotypes and social reality are mutually reinforcing, it is often difficult to know whether a given stereotype has emerged from pre-existing social reality, or instead has shaped social reality over time to resemble the stereotype. It’s a chicken-or-egg problem that social scientists have struggled to answer,” says Lu.
To help disentangle stereotypes from social reality, Lu and his colleagues conducted the first systematic examination of astrological stereotyping and discrimination in China. Through globalization, these signs were introduced to China and translated from English into Chinese. With the aid of social media, astrological signs have become a mainstream cultural trend in China.
There is also ample anecdotal evidence that people use astrological signs to infer personality traits and to make decisions about dating and employment. Importantly, each astrological sign is associated with certain personalities based on how its name is translated into Chinese.
“For example, the word ‘Virgo’ is literally translated as ‘virgin’ in Chinese, and Virgos are stereotyped as having disagreeable personalities like being fussy, critical, and picky,” he says. “Some Chinese job postings state that Virgo candidates are not wanted, and some Chinese people avoid Virgos on dating apps.”
In one study, the researchers conducted surveys asking Chinese people about their impressions of the astrological signs. Participants clearly ranked Virgos as the worst sign, followed by Scorpio because its Chinese translation is associated with the poisonous scorpion.
Further studies examined two Chinese translations of the word “Virgo.” The researchers leveraged an interesting fact that Virgo can be translated in two ways: “Virgin” is the well-known translation in astrology, whereas “royal chamber lady” is the lesser-known translation in astronomy. Participants viewed a profile of a Virgo individual. The profiles were identical, except that Virgo was either translated as “virgin” or “royal chamber lady.” Participants perceived the “virgin” profile as a more disagreeable person compared to the “royal chamber lady” profile.
“This study shows that translation can play a critical role in creating stereotypes,” says Lu.
The researchers consistently found that hiring managers – at least in China – are less willing to hire Virgos because of their perceived disagreeable personalities.
In another study, the researchers experimented with a popular Chinese dating app, using an identical profile but with different astrological signs: Virgo, Leo, or Libra. The Virgo profile received a lot fewer “likes” than the Leo and Libra profiles, which suggests that people are discriminating against Virgos in dating.
They also conducted a similar experiment in the context of hiring, using the same resume but with different astrological signs. The researchers consistently found that hiring managers – at least in China – are less willing to hire Virgos because of their perceived disagreeable personalities.
As for whether there is any basis for such discrimination based on astrological signs, Lu says their studies found none. “We found no evidence that astrological signs predict personality or job performance.”
Lu notes, “Unlike race or gender, astrological signs are not a protected class, yet they form the basis for widespread discrimination in social contexts like dating and hiring. People need to be aware of this phenomenon.”
He adds, “In the case of astrological stereotypes in China, the chicken-and-egg question has a clear answer. The stereotypes came first because of language translations, and those stereotypes then shaped social reality via discrimination.”
Lu is the lead author of “Disentangling Stereotypes from Social Reality: Astrological Stereotypes and Discrimination in China,” with Xin Lucy Liu of Peking University, Hui Liao of the University of Maryland, and Lei Wang of Peking University. Their paper was published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.