Category Archives: Social Cognition

Confirmation Bias, Satire, and Stephen Colbert

Stephen Colbert

By: Christopher C. Duke, PhD

Even if you are not a psychologist, you have probably heard of confirmation bias. Whether you have heard of it or not, you have most certainly seen it and engaged in it. Confirmation bias is the very human tendency to seek out information that confirms our existing world views rather than challenges them. Likewise, we tend to interpret ambiguous evidence as supporting our views (Balcetis & Dunning, 2006). We all know people who have strong political views on particular topics. Are they likely to read and watch material that supports their views, or opposes their views? What about ourselves? We tend to think of ourselves as rational and logical judges of the world around us, but this is often not the case. Confirmation bias is well illustrated in the following quote (courtesy of You Are Not So Smart) from Terry Pratchett’s The Truth.

“Be careful. People like to be told what they already know. Remember that. They get uncomfortable when you tell them new things. New things…well, new things aren’t what they expect. They like to know that, say, a dog will bite a man. That is what dogs do. They don’t want to know that man bites a dog, because the world is not supposed to happen like that. In short, what people think they want is news, but what they really crave is olds…Not news but olds, telling people that what they think they already know is true.”

Confirmation bias is a long established phenomenon in social psychology, but more recent research applies confirmation bias to satire. Satire is interesting in that it supports one type of argument through making the opposing argument, allowing a huge potential for confirmation bias to influence our interpretation. As a result, satire is often misunderstood, such as in the case of Archie Bunker from All in the Family. Bunker was written as an ignorant and racist character, intended by creator Norman Lear to satirize bigotry and be disliked by the audience. Surprisingly to Lear, a segment of the audience saw Bunker not as satire, but as a role model (Vidmar & Rokeach, 1974).

More recent research has turned its eye to how people interpret The Colbert Report. Stephen Colbert, in his own words, plays a parody of certain types of conservative pundits. Prior evidence suggests that some of the people intended to be Colbert’s satirical targets actually believe Colbert supports them, such as when Colbert was invited to host the 2006 White House Press Correspondents Dinner, or when presidential candidate Mike Huckabee thanked Colbert for his endorsement. In the study by LaMarre, Landreville, and Beam (2009) participants provided a range of survey data, including their political orientation and beliefs about The Colbert Report. More liberal participants believed Colbert was liberal and that the show was satirical. More conservative participants believed Colbert was conservative and genuinely believed his “satirical” arguments. Essentially, viewers of liberal and conservative orientations tended to perceive Colbert as supporting whatever views they personally held. Some might interpret these findings as unfavorable towards conservatives. However, everyone can be prone to these types of biases, and believing you are immune may make you more vulnerable. Without a doubt, political orientation is no inoculation against cognitive and social biases.

Here is one tip for overcoming confirmation bias within yourself: When most people do “reality testing” they seek information that confirms their existing views are correct. Instead, try to do the opposite. Try to find evidence that argues against your existing views. It may be uncomfortable, but it can be more likely to lead to information that is accurate rather than just comforting.

Balcetis, E., & Dunning, D. (2006). See what you want to see: Motivational influences on visual perception. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 91, 612-625.

LaMarre, H. L., Landreville, K. D., & Beam, M. A. (2009). The Irony of satire: Political ideology and the motivation to see what you want to see in The Colbert Report.  International Journal of Press/Politics, 14, 212-231.

Vidmar, N., & Rokeach, M. (1974). Archie Bunker’s bigotry: A Study in selective perception and exposure. Journal of Communication 24, 36–47.

On Being Phony at Being Phony: The Impostor Phenomenon

By: Christopher C. Duke, Ph.D.

Do you ever feel like you are, in some way, a fraud? Despite your successes in life – your good grades, your professional accomplishments, the high praise you receive from others – have you felt like you will eventually be unmasked as an impostor? This feeling is surprisingly common, and has been termed the Impostor Phenomenon (or Syndrome). It’s not a “real” disorder (you won’t find it in the DSM), but it is a very real phenomenon that affects many genuinely successful people.

First described by Clance and Imes (1978), these feelings are especially prevalent among graduate students, who feel they have been let in by accident, and they will eventually be unmasked as intellectual frauds. This is a concertn that is particularly relevant to the readers of this blog. However, the Impostor Phenomenon often lingers with highly successful professionals. A partial explanation could be that the more we progress in an area, the more we become aware of the limitations of our knowledge and abilities. This is not a new idea; Bertrand Russell said “One of the painful things about our time is that those who feel certainty are stupid, and those with any imagination and understanding are filled with doubt and indecision.” But that may not be the whole story; many researchers have suggested the Impostor Phenomenon disproportionately affects women, raising the question of whether internalized negative self-stereotypes may be working to sabotage perceived self-efficacy and the internalization of success.

There is still a lot we don’t know about the Impostor Phenomenon – its frequency, distribution among demographic groups, ultimate causes, and how to reduce its negative effects. Much more empirical research is needed. But we can say for sure that if you feel like your successes have somehow been an accident and that it is only a matter of time before you are unmasked, you are by no means alone, and you share this feeling with many of the bright and talented. If you do feel this way, try talking with your friends and advisors about it. You may be surprised to learn just how common it is to feel like an impostor.

Clance, P. R., & Imes, S. (1978). The Imposter Phenomenon in high achieving women: Dynamics and therapeutic intervention. Psychotherapy Theory, Research and Practice, 15, 241-247.

Laursen, Lucas (2008). No, you’re not an impostor. Science Careers.

Reshaping reality by reshaping social perceptions: the power of talk in promoting equality

By: Christopher C. Duke, Ph.D.

If you have taken an introductory social psychology class, you have probably heard of stereotype threat. This is a phenomenon where making people aware of a stereotype that could refer to the self increases the chance that the stereotype will come true. For example, on math tests where the students’ gender is made salient, women tend to perform worse than men. When the researchers emphasized to participants that gender scores on the test tended to be equal, their scores became equal. The same difference has been found on tests between black and white students; when the students’ race was emphasized, black students’ scores were lower than white students, but when equality was emphasized, the scores were the same.

While there are still competing explanations for why stereotype threat occurs, it is a very well documented phenomenon that can help to explain demographic achievement gaps. Fortunately, there are ways to counter the negative effects of stereotype threat and reduce demographic inequalities. One of the earliest ways discovered is to emphasize the expected positive outcomes on a task for under-achieving groups. While this does work, it is not always practical in real-world situations. An ideal solution would be a brief intervention with long-lasting effects that could work across many different situations. Smith and Postmes (2011) found that allowing small groups to discuss and challenge the validity of the stereotype can also reduce stereotype threat, though the duration of this promising positive effect was not fully known. This suggests groups can use discussion to reinterpret negative group stereotypes in a way that can empower the group and overcome negative effects.

A new study in Science advances our knowledge of the positive potential stereotype threat interventions (Walton & Cohen, 2011). The researchers theorized that stereotype threat occurs in part when people construe feelings of social adversity as an indictment of their social belonging. If social adversity can be portrayed by students themselves as universal to all students but temporary, then the negative effects of stereotype threat might be reduced. In the experiment, black and white first-year college students were subtly encouraged to generate such messages in the hopes that it would have long-lasting positive effects throughout their university career. This is indeed what happened, and the effects were powerful and long-lasting: compared to a control group, black students who received the intervention as freshmen achieved higher grades. Not only were their academic scores better, but they reported better health and they visited the doctor less, too. These effects were mediated by the students’ subjective construal of adversity; this means that feelings of social belonging are likely to be a key part of the process in reducing stereotype threat. Interestingly, students did not attribute these positive effects to the brief intervention they experienced three years earlier. Considering the brevity of the intervention, and the durability of its effects, this appears to be a very powerful tool in reducing demographic achievement gaps. More research is needed to better understand the processes behind and effects of the intervention, but it speaks to the power of social expectations to cripple our accomplishments, and yet also of our power to take steps to consciously reshape the social landscape in a way that leads to real and lasting change for the better. People often lament that we talk too much about problems instead of taking action; in some cases, talking may be one of the best actions we can take.

Smith, L. G. E., & Postmes, T. (2011). Shaping stereotypical behaviour through the discussion of social stereotypes. British Journal of Social Psychology, 50, 50-74.

Walton, G. M., & Cogen, G. L. (2011). A brief social-belonging intervention improves academic and health outcomes of minority students. Science, 331, 1447-1451.

Astrology, the Forer Effect, and the Allure of Personal Feedback

By: Christopher C. Duke, Ph.D.

You may have heard some of the recent discussions that the astrological zodiac is actually astronomically inaccurate. Because of shifts in the earth’s axis called precession, similar to how a spinning top wobbles, the traditional zodiac has been drifting out of its original alignment for hundreds of years. That means that old zodiac signs have shifted in date and a new 13th constellation, Ophiuchus, could also be included in the zodiac. Thus, even if you buy into the idea that stars can influence your fate, astrologers have focused on the “wrong” stars for many hundreds of years. Now, hopefully most readers know that astrology is limited to, if we are being generous, “entertainment value” only (see Carlson, 1985 if you need empirical convincing). However, millions of people take astrology seriously, and that makes its appeal a topic of legitimate psychological investigation. So, why do so many people believe that horoscopes provide insight into their lives?

One answer is the Forer Effect, which is a cognitive bias where people are likely to interpret statements or predictions as being personally relevant. However, these statements can apply to nearly anybody. In a 1948 study, psychologist Bertram Forer gave participants a “unique personality analysis” and asked them to rate its accuracy from 1 to 5. The “unique personality analysis” was always the same, but had an average accuracy rating of 4.26. This was the statement:

You have a need for other people to like and admire you, and yet you tend to be critical of yourself. While you have some personality weaknesses you are generally able to compensate for them. You have considerable unused capacity that you have not turned to your advantage. Disciplined and self-controlled on the outside, you tend to be worrisome and insecure on the inside. At times you have serious doubts as to whether you have made the right decision or done the right thing. You prefer a certain amount of change and variety and become dissatisfied when hemmed in by restrictions and limitations. You also pride yourself as an independent thinker; and do not accept others’ statements without satisfactory proof. But you have found it unwise to be too frank in revealing yourself to others. At times you are extroverted, affable, and sociable, while at other times you are introverted, wary, and reserved. Some of your aspirations tend to be rather unrealistic. Security is one of your major goals in life.

The “analysis” above was simply a combination of sentences from several different horoscopes. The effect has been duplicated by other researchers many times, with most people claiming it to be 80% to 90% accurate; it appears nearly any horoscope can apply to nearly any person. One of the tricks to this “accuracy” is to say two statements that appear to be opposites and cover everything in between, eg, “at times you are extroverted, while at other times you are introverted.” A similar trick is to say something that is true of just about everyone, eg, “you need for other people to like you” or “you have considerable unused capacity.” Finally, these statements tend to flatter our own egos. People tend to find personally relevant information satisfying, particularly when it is complementary, as many of the above statements are, eg, “you are an independent thinker.”

While most of you are already aware of the psychological tactics that make astrology convincing to some people, pop psychology can exploit many of the same cognitive biases. When you hear about a psychological analysis method or personality test, be critical, consider the Forer Effect and ask yourself the following questions: What evidence is there to support the claims? Is the evidence peer-reviewed? Is the promoter selling something? Pop psychology can appear convincing because it often appears to have a veneer of academic rigor, and for this reason we must be especially critical and skeptical when considering psychological theories.

Carlson, S. (1985). A double-blind test of astrology, Nature, 318, 419-425.

Dickson, D.H. & Kelly, I.W. (1985). “The ‘Barnum Effect’ in Personality Assessment: A Review of the Literature”. Psychological Reports, 57, 367–382.

Forer, B.R. (1949). “The fallacy of personal validation: A classroom demonstration of gullibility”. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 44, 118–123.

What makes us happy on Valentine’s Day?

Cut-out book of Valentines circa 1940.

Valentine’s Day was established in honor of three early Christian martyrs named Saint Valentine, but today people celebrate romantic love or love more generally.  Since romance is so salient on this holiday, people who are single can feel ostracized and sometimes motivated to support an anti-love mantra.  I wonder if the second biggest Hallmark holiday is really worth the hype (either for or against). Is love or a partner really what makes people happy in life?

Perhaps one of the answers can be found by looking at one of the current hot topics in social psychology research: the intersection of emotion regulation and well being.  A quick look at the latest program from the annual meeting of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology reveals numerous talks and posters on the topic of mindfulness and emotion regulation.

A recent paper points to the importance of the perspective from which people try to adaptively reflect on their feelings.  According to Ayduk and Kross (2010), participants who analyzed negative experiences from a self-distanced perspective (versus a self-immersed perspective) were less likely to ruminate and reported less negative emotions.  Maybe people’s affective experiences on Valentine’s Day have more to do with how they think about their lives and less about relationship status.

Read more:

Ayduk, Ö. and Kross, E. (2010). Analyzing negative experiences without ruminating: The role of self-distancing in enabling adaptive self-reflection. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 4, 841–854.

Meditation vs. Medication: Which Should You Choose?

“I” love “you”

By Erica Zaiser

Valentine’s Day is tomorrow and so many couples may be reflecting on the status of their relationship. If you aren’t already over-thinking what every little thing your partner does (or doesn’t do) this season means, here is yet another way in which you can dissect the quality of your relationship during your romantic evening. Or, at the very least, this might give you something interesting to talk about with your date when you realize you have nothing in common but already paid for two overpriced three-course Valentine’s Day meals.

According to recent research on the language of couples, the words used when a couple discusses their relationship can be indicative of their satisfaction in the relationship and its longevity. In studies looking at daily Instant Messaging conversations between couples, researchers found that the pronouns used most could predict both satisfaction with a partner and the likelihood that the relationship would still be intact 6 months later. For women, their use of “I” was most related to satisfaction with their partner. But men’s use of “me” suggested a small negative relationship with their partner’s satisfaction with them. Although negative emotion words had no relation to satisfaction or stability, the use of positive emotion words by men was related to increased satisfaction for both partners and an increased chance of relationship survival.

There is other research suggesting that the use of “I” can be beneficial over “you” because “you” can be blaming while “I” is self-reflective, but this research shows that there may be gender differences between the perception of and meaning behind pronoun choice. Furthermore, the researchers suggest that word choice by couples is context dependent. Using “you” when discussing the relationship is very different from the use of “you” in normal everyday conversation.

Happy Valentine’s Day everyone. Try not to spend the whole evening with your date (if you are lucky enough to have one) counting their “you”s and “I”s.

Read more: Am “I” more important than “you”

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