Can Cognitive Biases serve as a useful explanation for prejudice and bigotry?
#1
Background: Often, commentators on issues of prejudice and bigotry attempt explanations for such behavior based on 'cognitive biases' and often supplementing these with an Evolutionary Psychology narrative. A common example is the use of 'in-group bias' to explain sectarianism. However, 'in-group' is a very fluid concept and such a bias can no means be considered anything like a mechanistic explanation of sectarian behavior. Following is an edited transcript between forum members, on the scientific grounding of these concepts and their applicability to social issues such as bigotry.

RR:
Quote:The problem with a lot of the claims around prejudice from cognitive psychology is that they talk of it, as if prejudice exists in a vaccuum. Information-processing approaches, favoured by cognitivists posit prejudice as an 'error' inside our neural circuits...

AI :
Quote:Well, rather than *'error' inside our neural circuits* some of us prefer to think that some interesting mistakes we make (especially in optical illusions etc) is due to parameter-settings of the neural circuitry being tailored for stimulus statistics very different from the stimuli being currently encountered (and thus eliciting a a suboptimal response). This is approach is useful in areas like early sensory processing where neural circuits are fairly well-characterized. For 'higher' cognitive functions, the neural correlates are more tenuously identified and hence it is harder to speak the language of 'parameter-settings' and tuning. I guess this is what critics of evolutionary psychology object to as the assumed 'hypermodularity' of cognitive function i.e. positing rather than demonstrating that the current action is being performed by an anciently wired neural circuit

RR:

Quote:Arvind, it comes down to the 'level of explanation' that one seeks to theorize. I am not debating optical illusions, however, if optical illusions are used to explain racism, prejudice and extreme hostilities, then I suspect we might as well be operating in some experimental vaccuum - one which, social psychologists are guilty of committing time and again.

In psychology, we've mostly seen studied prejudice as an off-shoot of information processing filters/ cognitive biases, instead of problematizing it as a phenomena that needs to be studied within perspectives of social mobilizations. It is about establishing prejudice as the problem and the origins of prejudiced perception as the subject of enquiry.

It is this 'perceptual paradigm' of prejudice that needs to be challenged. Bear in mind, that with that assertion, I am also acknowledging the contribution cognitive psychology has played in bringing prejudice back to the forefront, if not exactly problematized the nature of the phenomena.

In the current paradigm of cognitive biases, prejudice is seen as 'resulting from distorted and negative perceptions that ordinary members of a dominant group hold about ordinary members of subordinate groups.' (And this has been demonstrably used by us in our analyses of privilege on various dimensions... right?)

AI :
Quote:I agree, as do my colleagues, that perceptual scientists have more secure physiological grounds and clear-cut paradigms to base their claims on, than many 'social neuroscientists' whom you rightly say maybe functioning in an experimental vacuum. Thanks to your explanations above, I now more fully understand how one must be wary of extending perceptual paradigms to other contexts, and how this can be even counterproductive. In fact when I said earlier that /// For 'higher' cognitive functions, the neural correlates are more tenuously identified and hence it is harder to speak the language of 'parameter-settings' and tuning./// I was alluding precisely to the dangers of pretending that all cognitive and behavioral functions can be studied in a perceptual framework.

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#2
A bias-centric explanation seems to ignore an important aspect of bigotry as an 'emergent property' of crowds and certain kinds of mobilization. A fuller account of the origins of bigotry needs to take into account both 'top-down' factors (i.e. influences traceable to the group dynamic) and 'bottom-up' ones (i.e. individual predispositions such as biases). The interplay of the two is of interest, for instance, (i)to study how certain environments and mobilizations may have a role of exacerbating certain biases, or (ii) to understand how individual differences may explain how some persons are able to withstand the madness of the crowds even when they are in the thick of things. What these accounts mean in terms of 'accountability' and penalties of mobilizers (instigators, ringleaders etc.) vis-a-vis the faceless crowd and passive onlookers, will have considerable policy implications.
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#3
(23-Nov-2011, 10:28 PM)arvindiyer Wrote: A bias-centric explanation seems to ignore an important aspect of bigotry as an 'emergent property' of crowds and certain kinds of mobilization. A fuller account of the origins of bigotry needs to take into account both 'top-down' factors (i.e. influences traceable to the group dynamic) and 'bottom-up' ones (i.e. individual predispositions such as biases).


Yes, I can see that as a limitation in approaching prejudice form the point of view of cognitive bias alone. But to be fair, many cognitive biases apply specifically to people in groups, and therefore are a measure of how group level "emergent" forces translate at the level of the individual. While this may not be interesting from a 'holistic' (used in the scientific sense here) point of view, it can be quite relevant when it comes to actually addressing prejudice on the individual level by adjusting for our cognitive biases. I read a couple of papers when writing the article (will search for the links) where the idea of correcting for our cognitive biases was discussed.

Quote:The interplay of the two is of interest, for instance, (i)to study how certain environments and mobilizations may have a role of exacerbating certain biases, or (ii) to understand how individual differences may explain how some persons are able to withstand the madness of the crowds even when they are in the thick of things. What these accounts mean in terms of 'accountability' and penalties of mobilizers (instigators, ringleaders etc.) vis-a-vis the faceless crowd and passive onlookers, will have considerable policy implications.

These are indeed interesting questions. I suspect there is a body of literature on these questions. Rakshi is the best person to enlighten us on these.
"Fossil rabbits in the Precambrian"
~ J.B.S.Haldane, on being asked to falsify evolution.
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#4
(23-Nov-2011, 10:28 PM)arvindiyer Wrote: A bias-centric explanation seems to ignore an important aspect of bigotry as an 'emergent property' of crowds and certain kinds of mobilization. A fuller account of the origins of bigotry needs to take into account both 'top-down' factors (i.e. influences traceable to the group dynamic) and 'bottom-up' ones (i.e. individual predispositions such as biases). The interplay of the two is of interest, for instance, (i)to study how certain environments and mobilizations may have a role of exacerbating certain biases, or (ii) to understand how individual differences may explain how some persons are able to withstand the madness of the crowds even when they are in the thick of things. What these accounts mean in terms of 'accountability' and penalties of mobilizers (instigators, ringleaders etc.) vis-a-vis the faceless crowd and passive onlookers, will have considerable policy implications.

I agree with the points you make. Expression of bigotry does occur from a confluences of factors. However by reading your first sentence I get the feeling that you are reluctant to attribute in-group and out-group biases as playing a key role in bigotry. Please note that the fact that such biases are products of our evolution does not excuse us for acting out on these biases. No accountability is lost just because a plausible explanation for bigotry can be made based on our evolved in-group and out-group biases.



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#5
Can Cognitive Biases serve as a useful explanation for prejudice and bigotry?
YES YES YES YES YES YES YES YES YES YES.
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#6
(08-Apr-2013, 07:59 PM)LordPlaguies Wrote: Can Cognitive Biases serve as a useful explanation for prejudice and bigotry?
YES YES YES YES YES YES YES YES YES YES.

What the OP meant to ask was more like "To what extent can cognitive biases serve as a useful explanation for prejudice and bigotry?", avoiding any naive all-caps side-taking in a Nature-Nurture type debate. In a judicial setting, that could well mean "To what extent is being 'cognitively compromised' (once a working standard for this has been evolved) an extenuating circumstance for someone charged with xenophobic violence?". The question, "Can bigoted behaviors be undertaken even by those who are not 'cognitively compromised' or 'cognitively predisposed to xenophobia'?" is raised immediately from the observation that no empirical fact even correctly apprehended can fully preclude bad behavior or ensure good behavior.
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