Studies show that people will often act in ways consistent with how they are treated. Therefore, treating someone according to a stereotype will likely produce behavior that confirms the stereotype. This is called a self-fulfilling stereotype.
Consider Rick Genest:
I hated pretty much everything and everybody. I just wanted to pass out in the gutter and swear at cars as they went by, shit like that. I wasn’t a happy person at all. That’s why I got the skull tattooed on my face in the first place, I suppose—I wanted to fucking kill everybody.
But that’s not how it worked out. His tattoos didn’t freak everyone out and ruin their day; people loved them. They flocked to him. They complimented him and took pictures with him. And Genest began to feel… good.
…since having them done I’ve become a much happier and nicer person… I started getting all this positive feedback – people would come up to me and say how cool they thought it looked. I started getting invited to parties and bars all the time. Strangers ask to have pictures taken with me.
I’ve been having so much fun with it that life has definitely changed for the better. I honestly wouldn’t change a thing… not that I have much choice in the matter.
So basically his tattoos were a big fuck you to the world. He “hated pretty much everything and everybody.” But they inspired others to start treating him positively and, in response, he became a positive person.
Sometime after this article was published, Genest was “discovered” and since then he’s done quite a bit of modeling and acting. His life is certainly different now, but the happiness his tattoos brought him didn’t come from the fame and fortune, it came before all that, just from people being friendly. An awesome example of the self-fulfilling stereotype.
NOTE: This post appeared in 2009 and was fleshed out for a two-page essay for Contexts magazine.Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.