When in Greece

ATHENS – Italian President Mario Monti, US President Barack Obama, and other leaders have declared, “We are not Greece,” in order to explain why their countries are not on the brink of financial collapse. A few months earlier, Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou announced, “We are not India,” to explain why Greece will not become a country of cheap labor.

These types of remarks are based on stereotypes, which can be useful despite their often discriminatory bias. In fact, stereotypes can help us to make sense of the world and take swift decisions, but they can also lead to errors in judgment.

The comments about Greece and India are disturbing not merely because they employ stereotypes that risk mangling facts, but also because they use stereotypes as a way to explain a country’s collective failures. It is not the assertion that “Greeks are all bankrupt” that is troubling, but rather the idea that “Greeks are bankrupt because they are Greeks.” The implication is that Greece has certain inherent characteristics that cause its financial problems, or that India possesses a trait that inevitably results in low wages – a trait that other countries are lucky not to possess.

This type of reasoning, referred to as “essentialism,” has been a subject of philosophical investigation for centuries, as well as a topic of psychological research in the last few decades. Essentialism is the view that people and objects have inner and unchangeable essences that determine their characteristics.