Introducing Cognitive Bias

01 Jun in Personal, THF, Wisdom
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Obama Hitler

Image by Fresh Conservative via Flickr

I know many of you have emailed how much you enjoy the 'Teabonics' flickr stream running on the right-hand side of the site, but I think it has run its course.  Besides the fact that it is becoming reptitive, it's also a bit mean-spirited for my taste.  When someone is behaving like a regressive racist, I know how satisfynig it can be to laugh at their public displays of grammatical creativity.  But poking fun does little but enhance our own false sense of superiority while solidifying the in-group/out-group dynamic so antithetical to rationality.  Whatever catharsis we gain by discounting an entire sub-culture over a handful of individuals comes at the expense of progress.

The experience has, however, piqued my interest in the study of cognitive biases, the 'blindspots' in our thinking which cause us to draw false conclusions based on our own preconceptions rather than the available evidence.  Much like logical fallacies, we're all guilty of using self-serving argumentation that does little to address the issue at hand.  This is not only a defining characteristic of  politics in general, but is particularly critical to the underlying sloganeering of modern communications.  The point at which this becomes truly interesting, however, is when it is unintentional - when our conscious mind is literally incapable of seeing past the fallacious shortcuts in our own logical processes.

Naming these biases on an intellectual level can go a long way in helping us to identify them as they occur. In the context of Teabonics, for example, we may consider the notion of a "Fundamental attribution error" as the tendency to over-emphasize personality for observed behaviors at the expense of power of situational influences. The unfavorable vision I may hold of Joe Teabagger personally may certainly bear influence on his decision to paint a Hitler mustache on a picture of Obama, but there are far larger and more consequential socioeconomic injustices that lead to this form of negative expression.  Discounting Joe's concerns (or indeed, the movement at large) based on a particularly egregious form of behavior inhibits my ability to address whatever validity may underlie his anger. 

This is not to say that we must (or even should) passively condone racist or hurtful sloganeering, but rather that we must be cautious not to allow such assaults to close our minds, nor distract us from including all in our shared version of global justice.  To this end, I am replacing the Teabonics block with a new series on cognitive bias.  You should see a new one every time you visit the site and each will be linked to the wiki entry for further information.  In the meantime, you can enjoy this catchy little diddy that Brad Wray, an AP Psychology teacher, put together to enumerate serval types of biases for his students.

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