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Posts Tagged ‘bias’

Here’s an interesting little RSA-style, 12 minute video on the psychology of persuasion:

The information mainly is delivered by Arizona State University’s Robert Caldini, of whom it is written, at the Farnam Street blog:

is the author of Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion and the co-author of the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and Business Week International Bestseller Yes! 50 Scientifically Proven Ways to be Persuasive.

For my part, every time I come across information like this I’m struck that (1) it doesn’t get much mention in argumentation theory and (2) that if it is even half correct then the potential for abuse is considerable. Any critical thinking class worth its salt should make students aware of dynamics like those depicted here.

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I keep hearing from colleagues in other disciplines that the stakes are incredibly low in contemporary psychology.  Requests for explanation get me no further than utterances of despair over the stranglehold caused by increased ethical standards for research on humans.  There will be no more Stanford prison experiments or Milgram authority tests.  All that is left are either peculiar lab objectifications of the social or discourse analysis.

I don’t understand the despair:  we’ve learned what we needed to from Zimbardo and Milgram, surely.  The new social psychology involved with cognition and discourse provides good fodder for argumentation studies (or at least it can).  It encourages critical thinking that will be informed by empirical analysis of what works, rather than armchair speculations.  All this feeds democracy.

Argumentation and discourse analysis (of which I have only the vaguest understanding) seem especially important given the current proliferation of discourse.  Discourse may also be the site of some of the most persistent stumbling blocks to social justice.  Micro-inequalities and implicit bias impede women’s and minorities’ social and political participation.

Cecelia Ridgeway suggests implicit bias may be a central cause for the stalled gender revolution:  despite the massive improvements for women in wealthy countries during the 20th century the progress stalled around 1990.  On the major markers of social status (income, wealth, and political participation as I recall), we are still where we were 22 years ago!

While Ridgeway argues we cannot directly affect our cognitive biases, given their deep and unconscious operation, we can certainly affect their impact on our discourse, watch for it, and compensate.  We can revise our hiring and promotion practices, we can change more casual standards too perhaps, e.g. by making direct eye-contact with marginalized people.  That could be part of critical thinking too, and might aid its impact. Attention to micro-inequalities may be critical too in the sense of necessary to push beyond the stall, and psychology is helping us sort them out.  The stakes remain pretty high for women and minorities.

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I hadn’t heard of this before, but in a very interesting article on his blog Predictably Irrational (after the excellent book of the same name) behavioral economist and theorist about rationality Dan Ariely describes what he calls the endowment effect:

[T]he endowment effect [is] the theory that once we own something, its value increases in our eyes.  […]

But ownership isn’t the only way to endow an object or service with meaning. You can also create value by investing time and effort into something (hence why we cherish those scraggly scarves we knit ourselves) or by knowing that someone else has (gifts fall under this category).

And then there’s the power of stories: spend a fantastic weekend somewhere, and no matter what you bring back – whether it’s an upper-case souvenir or a shell off the beach – you’ll value it immensely, simply because of its associations.

I’ve got to think that this effect is something in which argumentation theorists and researchers should have an interest, as it seems to fit handily into accounts of all sorts of biases and blind spots that hobble the abilities of persons to think critically about their own positions or standpoints as well as those of others.  Of particular interest is that research like Ariely’s might help to explain why a conclusion often seems more compelling to many people when the speaker relates her particular path to arriving at it in the form of a narrative rather than by giving an argument for it.

You can read the full story, which includes the account of Ariely’s recent experiment on the endowment effect here.

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