Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Shocking: People play events into biases

There's a neat new paper over at the SSRN: They Saw a Protest: Cognitive Illiberalism and the Speech-Conduct Distinction, by researchers at Yale’s Cultural Cognition Project.

In the study individuals are shown a video of a protest at a building, and are then asked whether the protesters violated a law that that prohibits intentionally interfering with, obstructing, intimidating, or threatening a person seeking to enter, exit, or remain lawfully on the premises. There were actually two videos, identical except that the designers of the study altered the videos to change what was being protested. One video is edited so that the protest seems against military recruiters for violating gay rights; the second video is edited so that the protest is against an abortion clinic.

Here’s the video for the abortion clinic:

Here is the same number at the military recruiting center.

What people saw depended on their beliefs in predictable ways: when they were protesting something they didn't like, it was earnest, rational dissent, otherwise it appeared like physical intimidation.

I'm a big believer in Jonathan Haidt's characterization of our brains as articulate confabulators, primarily engaged in rationalizing our prejudices. I have rarely witnessed someone change their mind on something important to them based on any one fact; sure, disinterested people do, but not anyone who's invested several years on a subject. Last week's John Tierney's NYT article on academics highlights they are just as biased as the uneducated, even though they consider them paragons of rational, unbiased thought ('scientific'). He quotes Jon Haidt on how academics focus on certain disparities as important or not:
Anywhere in the world that social psychologists see women or minorities underrepresented by a factor of two or three, our minds jump to discrimination as the explanation,” said Dr. Haidt, who called himself a longtime liberal turned centrist. “But when we find out that conservatives are underrepresented among us by a factor of more than 100, suddenly everyone finds it quite easy to generate alternate explanations."


Dave said...

I'm pretty sure I've linked to this here before, but it covers similar ground: A political scientist found that voters tend to pick their candidates first and then assume the candidates' positions on the issues, rather than chose which candidate to vote for based on the issues.

michael webster said...

I have probably changed my mind once or twice in 30 years on academic issues that I am fully vested in. But for the most part, like others, I are more likely to craft a ready response to an argument rather than update my beliefs.

I am not sure I see a difference between what Haidt is claiming and what Festinger articulated about cognitive dissonance in the 50's.

Adrian Meli said...

Eric, thanks for posting the study as it had an interesting design to it. We clearly anchor to our believes and seek out confirmatory biases so I always find examples in an experimental setting fascinating. I had not heard of the term "articulate confabulators" before but it is a great thought. - Adrian Meli

Anonymous said...

"Still, a man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest" - Simon and Garfunkel


William Newman said...

I agree that rationalization and willful blindness are usually the way to bet. Sometimes, though, people really do change their minds from new evidence. Maybe especially when some piece of evidence that they've staked some credibility on collapses. The implosion of the USSR and the underperformance of the other central-planning darlings of the same era really did seem to change some people's minds, perhaps even as much as was logical. And I suspect the snow at Copenhagen caused even more shift in opinions about AGW than was logically warranted. That's not to say it caused a huge shift --- maybe it only shifted 1% of people's opinions or so. But logically it shouldn't've shifted people much at all, just weather in one small area for a short time. (I'm a strong critic of the IPCC position on AGW, I just don't think snow in Copenhagen is one of the strong arguments against it, so I've spent some time puzzling why that event seemed to get traction out of proportion to its logical importance.) Similarly my impression is that the Bellesiles affair had more impact on people's opinions about gun control than it should have for reasons of ordinary logical induction. Changing one's mind can be painful, but holding onto an increasingly embarrassing position can be painful too: decisions, decisions...