The Bias Trap: Are We All Just A Bunch of Motivated Reasoners?

The Bias Trap: Are We All Just A Bunch of Motivated Reasoners?
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There were a ton of great responses to my last post about conservative white men and climate change denial. Perhaps most notably, some savvy respondents called into question whether there is anything unique about these “CWMs” when it comes to being biased in favor of supporting their own beliefs and identities. 

For instance, risk assessment guru David Ropeik had this to say:

May I note that the “identity protection” theories Riley and Dunlap cite are relevant not just to CWMs. The underlying worldviews of how we want society to operate drive selective perception of the facts by all of us. It’s the same phenomenon that fuels leftist denialism re:GM food or nuclear power, for example. We believe, or deny, so our views agree with OUR group, so OUR group will be stronger and the group will accept us as a member in good standing. This is important for the survival of an animal that has evolved to be social and rely on the group for health and safety. And this is true of all of us, not just CWMs. Your post, and ‘Cool Dudes’, feeds the polarization around climate change, by singling out one group (which does happen to be the group the most clearly refuses to accept the overwhelming evidence on climate change) for doing what we all do on various issues.

Meanwhile, Dan Kahan of Yale wrote the following:

“System justification” – along w/ “authoritarian personality” etc. – implies an ideological asymmetry in motivated cognition: those in power “rationalize” in effect. The “identity-protective cognition” theory (a form of motivated cognition; protection of identity is only one of the goals that can motivate in the relevant sense) suggests symmetry: everyone will face psychic pressure to fit perceptions to facts that promote the status of their group & their standing within it. This particular study investigated a hypothesis in which the two theories predicted the same result. But there are situations in which they would not. 

Are Kahan and Ropeik right? Do we *all* do it, just on our pet issues?

It’s a tough question to answer. But let me discuss one important stab at comparing left and right wing biases, found in several studies by Linda Skitka of the University of Illinois-Chicago and her colleagues.

In a well known 2002 paper (see the 5th study), Skitka showed that liberals, unlike conservatives, update their initial views about whether a person who has contracted AIDS while knowing the risks, and engaging in unprotected sex, deserves government subsidized health care services. Conservatives and liberals have the same negative first impression of such a person—they feel personal disapproval or even revulsion. But liberals then change their minds, go against their first impulses, and decide that the person deserves to be treated equally anyway. Conservatives don’t.

But Skitka showed in a more recent study that there are  contexts in which conservatives, too, go against what you might expect. For instance, and as the last study implied, conservatives usually tend to think that there are no “extenuating circumstances”—that you’re personally responsible for what you do and how things turn out, whether you’re a criminal or someone on welfare or someone who knowingly contracts AIDS. However, in the newer study, Skitka showed that conservatives do consider extenuating circumstances (or what she calls “situational” factors rather than “dispositional” factors) when members of a group that they support, like the military or the police, are accused of wrongdoing.

However, I will note Skitka and her colleagues did not detect conservatives actually changing their views when confronted with new or contradictory evidence—e.g., seemingly definitive proof that soldiers or police had actually done something wrong. She just caught them going against their general tendency to make “dispositional” rather than “situational” attributions. Honestly, you could argue just as easily that she captured flip-flopping (or, special pleading on behalf of the military and the police) as that she captured open-mindedness and flexibility.

In any case, while I agree that everybody has biases, I’m not sure that means I must also agree that everybody is equally biased. To butcher George Orwell, why couldn’t it be the case that all humans are biased, but are some humans are more biased than others?

I note that Kahan’s own research, for instance, shows that liberals perform a very different maneuver on nuclear power than conservatives perform on climate change. On both of these issues, you would expect the two groups to be biased and unwilling to accept the science: liberals because they distrust industry, conservatives because they think (or feel) that science is going to interfere with hierarchy or the free market. But get this: As liberals get more educated and better at mathematical reasoning, they become more supportive of nuclear power; as conservatives get more educated and better at mathematical reasoning, they become less accepting of climate change. What’s up with that? 

I have a pet theory to explain this. It may be controversial, but here goes: Liberals who study the evidence realize that while no form of energy is risk free, if you consider nuclear risks in the context of the risks posed by other energy sources, it is pretty hard to end up virulently anti-nuclear. There are just too many other bad—I would say worse—ways of getting energy (like coal!). This is a conclusion that I think you reach even if you do tend to distrust industry in general.

Frankly, though, this is a much bigger topic than I can hope to address in one blog post; and the evidence presented here is subject to varied interpretations.

Let me end, though, by quoting one comment on the last post that, I think, shows a person responding in the way that we all need to try to respond if we’re to have any hope of overcoming our biases.

This individual—I can’t tell if it’s a man or a woman–questions his/her own biases, trying to imagine a situation in which s/he might be face with scientific evidence that threatens his/her core assumptions and beliefs, and pondering what s/he would do in that situation:

This article helps explain some of the hostility I’ve encountered as a newly minted environmental lawyer. I’m used to people who are less than thrilled to see me and my clients, but this feels different, as though every zoning battle is a clash of civilizations and a fight to the death far beyond the actual stakes of the case. Which I suppose it is, if you are a CWM (or F) who believes that environmentalism is a threat to your culture, your tribe, your way of life. So what then? Presenting scientific evidence or legal argument doesn’t work–the fact that the science or law supports my side means automatically that it is corrupt and not to be trusted. (A number of the comments above demonstrate exactly what I’m talking about). I’ve tried to ask myself how I would feel if science supported as factual something that struck at the core of my values–for example, if most scientists agreed that women were stupider than men.[They don’t think that.–ed]  How would I react? Wouldn’t I attack the science and suggest that it isn’t settled? Wouldn’t I attack the scientists as self-interested? Wouldn’t I look for alternate explanations and oppose political “solutions”? What evidence would I require before I believed it? Unfortunately, this exercise leaves me staring into the post-modern abyss …

Postmodern abyss? I’m not sure. To me, this thought exercise shows that the commenter is open-minded, introspective, and flexible–a mode of thinking to which we should all aspire, no matter where we lie on the political spectrum.

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