Biases In Psychology Which Affect How People’s Intellectual Contribution Is Valued; Behavioural Reactions to Dissonance and Confirmation Bias
This is the final part of three essays examining how people can be dehumanised through everyday mechanisms of perception. The first part examined Prejudicial and Biased Reasoning as Illogical and Irrational; and the second part explored Implicit and Explicit Bias. In the third part we will examine Behavioural Reactions to Dissonance and Confirmation Bias.
“Above all, don’t lie to yourself. The man who lies to himself and listens to his own lie comes to a point that he cannot distinguish the truth within him, or around him, and so loses all respect for himself and for others. And having no respect he ceases to love.”
The lies we tell ourselves have repercussions on the rest of the world. There is arguably no more profound actor in our lives than the person who speaks to us from within our head. Countless literary stories explore the semi-conscious deceits that humans conjure in order to make their own behaviour and actions palatable to the internally curated image of the self.
Eunice Cooper and Marie Jahoda conducted a number of studies with the focus “The Evasion of Propaganda; How Prejudiced People Respond to Anti-Prejudice Propaganda” (Cooper and Jahoda, 1947) where they studied behaviours occurring around cognitive dissonance.
They concluded that their subjects “prefer not to face the implications of ideas opposed to their own so that they do not have to be forced either to defend themselves or to admit error”
They identified particular strategies employed so that the participants could avoid the introduction of dissonance. Here are included some excerpts from the paper on the avoidance strategies people employed annotated with exact or contemporary media so context can be better grappled with:
Identification Avoided; Understanding “Derailed‘
The study illustrated how some prejudiced respondents understood the propaganda at first then went to such lengths to extricate themselves from their identification with it that in the end they misunderstood the message in the media. The writers reported this as a “derailment of understanding.” In the study they used cartoons depicting a ‘Mr Biggott’ as the media to expose to people who held prejudices.
“The respondent at first identified with Mr. Biggott, saying, among other things which indicated this identification, ‘I imagine he’s a sour old bachelor – (laughing) – I’m an old bachelor myself.’ He also seemed to be aware of Mr. Biggott’s prejudices.
As the interview progressed, in order to differentiate himself from Mr Biggott he concentrated on proving that Mr. Biggott’s social status was inferior, that he was a parvenu [a person of humble origin who has gained wealth, influence, or celebrity]. This led to a loss of focus on the real problems presented by the cartoons…”
The Message Made Invalid
“The process of mis-identification leads to more rationalized argumentation. Understanding has been admitted too openly to permit distortion of the message. The respondent accepts the message on the surface but makes it invalid for their self in one of two ways.
They may admit the general principle, but claim that in exceptions one is entitled to one’s prejudices; or they may admit that the individual item is convincing in itself, but that it is not a correct picture of usual life situations involving the minority group discussed.”
“The first type of distortion occurred as a common reaction to a protolerance propaganda booklet. This was presented in the form of a series of well-drawn comic cartoons exposing the absurdity of generalizations about various groups.
It concluded with the Golden Rule, ‘Live and let live.’ Prejudiced persons frequently followed the whole story with interest and amusement to the end, accepting the Golden Rule, but added: ‘But it’s the Jews that don’t let you live; they put themselves outside the rule.’
Perhaps even more frequent is the tendency to accept the isolated story presented in propaganda as ‘just a story.’ In the story, a Jewish couple in an occupied Belgian Village are saved by the loyal support of the villagers who hide them from the Gestapo. The dramatization was followed by a direct appeal, spoken by Kate Smith, for sympathy and tolerance toward the Jews.
Considerably more of the apparently prejudiced respondents than of the others in the test audience refused to admit the applicability of this dramatic story to other situations. They called it an ‘adventure story,’ a “war story,” they discussed the dramatic highlights with great interest, but treated the explicit appeal attached to the incident either as if it had not occurred or as an unjustified artificial addition.”
Here you can see an example of the kind of propaganda comic which is refered to:
Changing the Frame of Reference
“…in these cases the prejudiced person’s perception is so colored by his prejudice that issues presented in a frame of reference different from his own are transformed so as to become compatible with his own views. Quite unaware of the violation of facts he commits, he imposes on a propaganda item his own frame of reference.”
This type of response was found in a study of a cartoon depicting a congressman who has native fascist, anti-minority views. The cartoon series seeks to expose and ridicule him so as to focus the readers’ attention upon such native anti-democratic movements and to cause them to disapprove of these tendencies.
For example, in one cartoon, the Congressman is shown interviewing an applicant in his office. The man has brought a letter of recommendation saying that he has been in jail, has started race riots, has smashed windows. The Congressman is pleased and says, ‘Of course I can use you in my new party.’
One respondent commented: ‘It might be anything crooked … might be a new labor party. That shady character makes me think so, the one applying for a job.’
Another, in response to the second picture in the series said: ‘I… a bunch of men down in Congress that are more interested in keeping their jobs, interested in the votes rather than anything else . . . I never liked Senator Wagner….’
Another: ‘It’s about a strike… about trouble like strikes.., He is starting a Communist party.’
The type becomes clearest in the following reply: ‘It’s a Jewish party that would help Jews get more power.’ The only clue that these respondents took from the cartoon was the fact that it tried to show up a bad politician. The rest they supplied themselves by identifying the Congressman with whatever appeared to them to be ‘bad politics.’
Thus they imposed their own ideology on the cartoon and arrived at an interpretation satisfactory to them – an interpretation which, however, represented a complete misunderstanding of the cartoon’s message”
The Message is Too Difficult
“The remaining type of misunderstanding can be dismissed quickly. This takes the same form as misunderstanding by unprejudiced people. Some respondents frankly admit that ‘they don’t get the point.’ This is most frequently due to intellectual and educational limitations of these respondents or to defects in the propaganda.”
Cognitive Dissonance and Confirmation Bias
Confirmation bias is a term used to describe tendencies universal in people for the seeking or interpreting bodies of evidence in ways which favour existing beliefs, ideas, or hypotheses (Nickerson, 1998). Confirmation biases commonly arise from the biased search for information, the biased interpretation of information, and/or the biased recalling of information.
Selective attention and selective memory therefore play a significant role in contributions to confirmation biases which count towards people reinforcing their beliefs. Arguments using solely inductive reasoning can give rise to problems of confirmation bias as the propensity to evolve hypotheses in exploratory methods is a common way of learning.
The Italian poet Dante Alighieri wrote about how “affection for one’s own opinion binds, confines the mind”. It is this kind of affection that our understandings are most constrained by and where biases take root in our perception. Knowledge has attached to it two parasitical human passengers – status and power. The politics of knowledge create many issues which get in the way of knowing.
My view is that the politics which surround who gets valued for what knowledge are causing some of the most significant problems our world has to face. I reason that it is because of the specious issues of status and power that many of the psychological dynamics of dehumanisation arise in interpersonal terms.
The emotional charge of someone stating their authority through accounts of knowledge is a heady brew for a simian species such as homo sapiens. So much of our existence has come to rest on who gets resources (food, money, opportunities) in exchange for know-how, that behaviours of gatekeeping and demarcation have become political tactics in the junctures of knowledge exchange.
For some, the enterprise of people setting themselves up as a sort of tacit celebrity in knowledge terms is not uncommon – the ‘go to’ person who gets the attention of others – can result in the attention one gains becoming more attractive than the discovery of the inherent qualities of the knowledge itself.
The politics of knowledge is a site for a prominent streak of narcissism that affects our species which often obstructs the deepening of understandings and the furthering of vital projects which might add value into the collective world. The focus shifts from intrinsic reward to extrinsic reward.
This kind of knowledge related narcissism can be fed by various forms of confirmation bias fuelling a kind of destructive evangelism in individuals who have set themselves up as paladins in their field – a kind of derivative god complex of secular authority. Persona becomes more important than the transmission of the commons displacing a transcendent reality with a limited fixed one.
Sara and Jack Gorman wrote ‘Denying to the Grave: Why We Ignore the Facts That Will Save Us’ which examines how confirmation bias elicits various illogical responses in various scenarios. A helpful point about a social effect of confirmation bias is:
“Ideally, whenever someone asserts a “fact” about an unfamiliar topic, we should maintain a healthy skepticism, ask questions, and even look into it further on our own so that we can come to our own conclusions. When scientists do this together to get an answer to a question it is called collaboration. Confirmation bias, on the other hand, is an anti-collaboration phenomenon. Each person or group of people stridently defends its own position, thus increasingly driving everyone further apart.” (Gorman, & Gorman, 2017)
This idea of anti-collaborative phenomena is an interesting one; can we perceive this as tool to understand where confirmation bias is active ?
Whilst confirmation bias is a type of cognitive bias which can arise as an error of systematic inductive reasoning, the emotional aspects of this psychological phenomenon are vital determinants of how social groups form, change and harden to outside influence. As Jung suggested the unity of consciousness is a naive assumption and we are misled by our images of our desired selves as logical, rational and predictable over being emotive, muddled, irrational animals.
Our capacity to see the existence and operation of cognitive and motivational biases in others more than our self is well studied in what is known as the Blind Spot Bias. Commonly what is found is that we are prone to see our rivals, and even our peers, identified against their political ideology, group or individual history and interests and their drive to see themselves in a positive light. When we reflect on how we apprehend the world, we far more commonly construct the impression of objectivity and freedom from bias (Pronin, Lin, & Ross, 2002).
This kind of bias lead us to attribute others with lesser minds than our selfs, it involves a process which is known as dementalisation and is chiefly involved in dehumanisation which will be explored in the next section of the paper/post. The more remote the target of your perceptions is perceived to be to your ingroup the stronger the dementalisation process possible, the more significantly they will be diminished as less capable, less human, less effected than you and your ingroup.
So to recap, I am examining how various biases inherent in our encultured world view affect the way we perceive, and ultimately act towards, others. These perceptional biases amount to irrational prejudices which affect our behaviours in implicit or explicit ways, such that we do not attribute the same level of cognitive function, emotional reality or general capability to those we perceive as different to us.
Where status and resources become involved, in a certain kind of economy – a dispossessive economy where scarcity is artificially manufactured – the conditions are set for the worst kinds of behaviour to flourish; poverty…
“A poverty of resources is the direct antecedent of child abuse and infanticide in both animals and humans. Limited supply and excess demand animate conflict” (Ibid. Pp. 198) states Forbes in his study ‘A Natural History of Families’.
All this relates to what happens when habitat and resources are withdrawn from a social creature (humans); sibling turns on sibling, parents can ignore and abandon children and they can pit their offspring against each other. This is an indication of what the human animal is capable of and what goes on in the boundaries of shared society.
Organisational structures and cultures which pit one against the other for the basic necessities of our existence have an effect of depersonalising and dehumanising our social existence. The exclusive enclosure of knowledge as a resource through systems of signification (such as formal qualifications and CV culture) acts as a closed guild system keeping people from participating and contributing as valid individuals in society.
These articles exploring psychological aspects of cognitive bias have informed a formulation of how whole communities, cultures and peoples have failed to be valued in the shaddow of dominant cultures of privilege. In particular it asks questions about how infrahumanization and dementalisation processes are linked to outgroup status.