Scots are dour kilt-wearing folk – that is if we are to believe the stereotypes.
And scientists at Aberdeen University have been trying to work out how certain information becomes associated with social groups in the first place.
Their research has suggested that cultural stereotypes are the unintended result of sharing social information – and explains why some have no basis in reality.
Dr Doug Martin, who leads the university’s person perception laboratory, said some stereotypes are based on truth, while other have no obvious origin.
“The cultural stereotype of Scottish people, for example, includes attributes that are over-represented among Scots, such as wearing kilts and having red hair, but also attributes that seemingly have no basis, such as being miserly or dour,” he said.
“Where a genuine relationship exists between social categories and attributes, people are very good at detecting this, remembering it and then passing this information on.
“However, where there is no existing relationship between social categories and attributes, we see this association emerging spontaneously over time as the social information evolves.”
Researchers investigated how these facts evolve when they are repeatedly passed from person to person – and discovered that it becomes easier for people to remember.
They did this by asking them to remember information about made-up alien characters, and then pass this information on to others.
The exercise began with a muddled association of the aliens and their characters, which became simpler and more structured as they repeated it.
Dr Martin said: “As it passes down a chain of individuals, social information that is initially random complex and very difficult to remember, becomes a simple system of category stereotypes that can be learned easily.
“If we are right, cultural stereotypes are the inevitable and unintentional consequence of human interaction and as a result are slowly but constantly evolving.”
Scientists hope to be able to promote a positive influence on stereotypes through their research, as they will be better understood.