Biases In Psychology Which Affect How People’s Intellectual Contribution Is Valued; Implicit and Explicit Bias
This is the second part of the paper I have written examining biases In psychology which affect how people’s intellectual contribution is valued. As an enquiry, the first part examined the central notion that ‘Prejudicial and Biased Reasoning is Illogical and Irrational’. The final part of the series explores Behavioural Reactions to Dissonance and Confirmation Bias.
In this next part of the paper, we go on to examine the differences between inherent and explicit bias, followed by looking at what is meant by cognitive bias and how they affect the judgements we make.
In Two Minds: Explicit and Implicit Biases
Prejudices and biases can be conscious or unconscious – explicit or implicit. As the famous pioneer of psychology Carl Jung put it: “Everyone knows nowadays that people ‘have complexes.’ What is not so well known, though far more important theoretically, is that complexes can have us. The existence of complexes throws serious doubt on the naive assumption of the unity of consciousness, which is equated with ‘psyche’, and on the supremacy of the will.” (Jung, 2014)
A complex is described as ‘an unconscious organized set of memories, associations, fantasies, expectations, and behaviour patterns or tendencies around a core element which is accompanied by strong emotions’ (Roesler, 2017). I suggest that this is an appropriate description of how prejudices are rooted in our psychology, and that they present as vividly as daylight often contradicting an openly espoused set of values.
Where dissociation was largely recognised by psychologists as a feature of pathology (that is of illness) Jung was to articulate dissociation in a much more universal and everyday sense suggesting that ‘autonomous complexes’ or ‘splinter psyches’ exist on a continuum from the normal functioning of the individual in society to abnormal mental states which get identified as ‘multiple personality disorder’ or ‘alternate personalities’ (Noll, 1989).
I see this kind of dissociative psychological dynamic as active in group dynamics in things as normative as friendship and professional networks. It more vividly exists amongst the darker sociological phenomena of the ostracism of outgroups.
This all poses interesting and challenging questions, particularly when we hear the commonly rehearsed in-defence adages that get wheeled out along the lines of ‘Im not racist, some of my best friends are black’; ‘Im not sexist, I love women’; ‘Im not prejudiced against the homeless, Im doing them a favour by not giving them money as they will only spend it on booze and drugs’….
Often people fail to see things from other people’s perspectives and points of view. What would happen if we tuned into the thoughts of the friends to find that they were thinking ‘Yeah, he/she is fairly harmless, they are just a bit racist and unaware’…
The Cognitive Bias of Self Belief
Social psychologists David Dunning and Justin Kruger, after which the ‘Dunning–Kruger effect’ is named, studied a particular kind of cognitive bias which showed how people tend to hold overly favourable views of their social and intellectual abilities whilst often lacking the competences required to correct these misperceptions (Kruger & Dunning, 1999).
Once again, the evidence points to reasons why we must develop mechanisms for checking and correcting our cognitive biases – particularly those which are unconscious and implicit in people who believe they are not behaving in prejudiced ways.
A famous incident that happened in 2018 in the United States is where two black men were arrested without reason by police officers in a Starbucks coffee shop. This caused a national scandal as people who were watching on filmed the incident and challenged the police officers before the two men were handcuffed and taken away. This caused the Starbucks chain to close all 8000 shops in the country for a day of implicit bias training.
The BBC reported on Starbucks race row: Howard Schultz ‘ashamed’ of cafe arrest
Our understandings are shaped by our experience, encounters, what we have been taught and the cultures which we have been privy to. A considerable body of evidence demonstrates that most people hold unconscious, implicit assumptions which affect their judgments and perceptions of other people.
John Searle wrote the book ‘The Construction of Social Reality‘ which examines how we create our world views based upon the materials we have had available to us viewing them as objectively valuable and subjectively meaningful.
Implicit bias manifests in the expectations or assumptions people hold about physical or social characteristics and these are shaped by categorical presumptions (stereotypes) that are based on factors like a person’s gender, socio-economic status, ethnicity, sexuality, physical ability or age.
Even in people who have conscious intentions to be fair, and who believe that they are egalitarian, implicit biases occur. What is termed ‘the illusion of transparency’ comes into play which describes a tendency for people to overestimate the degree to which their personal mental state is known by others. Another orientation of this is the ‘observer’s illusion of transparency’ where the tendency for people to overestimate how well they understand other people’s personal mental states (Savitsky & Gilovich, 2003).
This kind of psychological dynamic feeds into our ability to believe both that we have communicated effectively around a situation (i.e. informing people what they need to know to get into university), and also that we have ‘read’ or assessed the people we are meant to facilitate (i.e. say if we are in the charge of helping widening participation groups into education).
Cultures of Bias: Racism
Some behaviours that result from implicit bias are manifest in actions, and others are embodied through the absence of action. Implicit bias as well as explicit bias function to reduce the other people to less that they ultimately are. These biases manifest as prejudices factor into how individuals belonging to disadvantaged groups get access to fewer or no opportunities than are otherwise available to those in the privileged ingroups.
In her book ‘White Privilege; The Myth of a Post-racial Society’, Prof Bhopal Kalwant challenges the serenity of images projected in the UK institutions of education. Bringing together a body of research showing that modern policy has increased discrimination for non-white communities as well as certain groups of ‘othered’ whiteness such as Gypsies and Travellers (Bhopal, 2016).
The word ‘othered’ simply means to view or treat an individual or group of people as intrinsically different from, and alien, to one’s own self or group.
Despite legislation and various legal enforcements, institutional inequalities continue to persist in education and other organized spaces. Research shows that people of colour persistently experience disadvantages in the education system, they experience racism in schools and are also less likely to go to Russell group universities (Posh Yins – Scot’s dialect).
Bhopal also suggests there is evidence that people of colour who are academics experience “covert, subtle nuanced forms of racism in the liberal academy in which Whiteness and White privilege remain the norm” (Bhopal, 2016).
There can be multiple reasons for these kind of covert and persistent cultures of bias and prejudice, but in context with this essay I am interested in those rooted in the psychology of the individuals who create the structures. Policy may change, laws may be introduced and signs may be put up, however some things can remain embedded in the psychological foundations of the people who reify and make real the institutions.
We can look to the work of Prof Lesley McAra discussing long term policy in the social justice system: “What we have found in our study is that no matter what the policy, the overarching policy – the government policy changes from time to time – (we have had 3 different phases of policy over the last thirty years) no matter what that policy is, the decision making practices are the same.
There is a disjuncture between policy, and actually what happens on a day to day level. So what the police and what the sentencers seem to actually do in terms of their decision making is that they focus their attention on the most poor, the most dispossessed, and those who become known to them – the usual suspects.” (McAra, 2016).
Festinger’s Cognitive Dissonance
We can see how prejudicial behaviours can remain in currency whilst dissonant overt messages can be transmitted and projected out into the world looking on. As Jung suggested that the unity of consciousness is a naïve assumption and on this basis we can start to appreciate the reality of what is known as cognitive dissonance, a theory laid down by social psychologist Leon Festinger (Festinger, 1957).
Cognitive dissonance is a psychological state where an individual’s cognitions (beliefs, attitudes, and behaviours) are simultaneously at odds with each other (Festinger, 1957). People experience cognitive dissonance as uncomfortable and are generally moved to resolve the inconsistencies they experience in their psyche.
Festinger proposes that dissonance and, thus discomfort, can be reduced by adding new consonant cognitive elements to the total cognitive system filling in the picture (ibid. page 28) or by actively avoiding situations which bring into play the encounters of dissonance. I read these behavioural strategies as moving towards or away from encounter. One strategy seeks out information to complete or evolve a partial understanding, and one seeks to close off to the acknowledgement that their understanding might be insufficient or incomplete.
Relating this to how ingroup identification might work to reinforce biases and prejudices, Festinger suggests:
“It is only when quite a large number of persons who associate with one another have the identical dissonance which cannot be resolved in easier ways, that by supporting one another they may actually be able to maintain the opinion that it is really not raining at all. If everyone believes it, it most certainly must be true. It is undoubtedly already apparent to the reader why and how proselyting activities may be manifestations of pressure to reduce dissonance.” (ibid, Page 200)
It is in this manner that we might understand institutional prejudice and collective bias in ways that might account for the brutalising populations of people of colour, the ransacking and destruction of the natural environment, and the mass devaluation of LGBTQ communities….
In the next section we are going to have a look at examples of the ways in which people react when confronted by their cognitive dissonance and explore how confirmation bias can play a role in allowing people to convince themselves they are correct or not part of the problem.