Looking Left and Right: Biased Assimilation

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We naturally impute credibility—including knowledge and shared interests—to putative experts whose cultural outlooks are congenial to our own. Accordingly, to the extent we defer to credible experts when sorting through competing claims about societal dangers, we are again drawn to beliefs that cohere with our cultural commitments.
The link between perceptions of harm and cultural outlooks, moreover, is unlikely to be severed by disconfirming empirical information. Real-world people tend [not to] update their prior beliefs based on new information, [instead] they tend to evaluate the persuasiveness of new information based on its conformity to their experience. Known as ‘biased assimilation,’ this tendency also has a straightforward cultural explanation: ordinary persons aren’t in a position to identify when new information is credible, and thus a ground for updating their prior beliefs, without recourse to the very same cultural heuristics that have generated their existing beliefs. Biased assimilation is especially strong when the belief under challenge is one that is predominant within a group—such as a cultural one—that is central to a person’s identity. In that situation, acceptance of the new information threatens to drive a wedge between a person and others whose judgment she respects and whose good opinion she values. Accordingly, if the source of the new information is someone perceived to hold cultural commitments opposed to one’s own, the pressure to reject that information is all the more intense. (links/citations in the original 2007 study by Dan M. Kahan: The Cognitively Illiberal State)

If you can set aside the professional jargon, the observation is perfectly reasonable, logical, and understandable. Of course we don’t have time (or the interest, or the inclination, or sometimes even the skills) to properly evaluate contested issues, especially the “Big Ticket” items such as climate change, economic policies, deficits, peak oil, gay marriage, etc., etc., etc. That’s why we have experts and preferred media or political sources to wade through the muck for us.

If an answer or perspective or policy or proposal or effort is good for them, then it becomes good for us. And now we’re free to go back to the day-to-day responsibilities and opportunities burdened by one less concern. Certainly for matters of relatively minor impact on our lives, that simplified decision-making process is especially useful.

It’s recognized that just presenting more information won’t often change the minds or opinions of others. This is all the more obvious when that result would leave another at odds with the “group(s)” they most identify with. Also perfectly reasonable, logical, and understandable.

But for issues such as those mentioned above, while those short-cuts make sense, they may not always be in our ultimate long-term best interests. The key is to appreciate that consideration before we resort to passing along decisions or option-selections to others. Those Big Ticket items may not all affect us equally and/or significantly—now or in the future—but they will have tangible effects on the communities we’re in and the policies employed or dismissed. Those consequences my not be as obvious, but they matter.

For a variety of reasons, for example, it is quite clear that there is a significant number of citizens and officials who absolutely deny climate change is happening now or will be an influence in any meaningful definition of the future. That their ideologies and principles on other issues are likewise consistent makes it all the more difficult to convince them that reality is not on their side. Seems kind of nuts to ignore such a great body of facts, but ignore them they do!

Accordingly, any “expert” or official or media outlet sharing that same disbelief will be accorded far more respect and given much greater credibility for truth-telling than those with opposing views. Whatever explanation is best-suited to justify the dismissive treatment is good enough.

But let’s pause for a moment and consider this: even if one chooses not to believe in climate change, the great body of information and data and current experiences and logical extrapolations suggest either (a) legitimate considerations worth pondering, or (b) a conspiracy to manufacture evidence and observations and conclusions so unbelievable and so intricate that it defies anything resembling human experience! Is it really possible that literally tens if not hundreds of thousands of scientists and photographers and pick-the-profession experts have somehow collaborated to such an extent that all of their efforts ought to be dismissed with the same ease as my assertion that I can fly at will?!

In issue after issue bearing at least a similar potential for untold and widespread harm, does it make sense for everyday citizens to rely on the tried and true psychological short-cuts without even a moment’s pause to consider what the “other” side is suggesting?

Given the breadth and depth of data at hand, are so many still willing to put so much at risk by blindly relying on their own stable of preferred experts?

What if they are wrong? What conversations will we then have with our children who will wonder just how dumb we were when we had opportunities to at least do something?

~ My Photo: Gloucester MA Harbor from Eastern Point – 08.04.11


Looking Left and Right:
Inspiring Different Ideas, Envisioning Better Tomorrows


* I invite you to enjoy my two new books [here and here], and to view my other   blogs–both at this website [see below] and also at Peak Oil Matters

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Life Will Answer Thought-provoking inquiries & observations about how (and why) Life does … and does not, work for everyone. [Inspired by my book of the same name]

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Be the change you want in the world Gandhi

This blog is offered to encourage more enlightened public discourse—by sharing observations about the ideologies which motivate our political, economic, and cultural debates. The simple hope: shedding light on current “strategies” will prompt more of us to realize a different approach is at least worth considering … assuming a better future is worth pursuing. (It is!)

The world is not dangerous because of those who do harm, but because
of those who look at it without doing anything Albert Einstein