Monday, October 19, 2015

The Importance of Context, Confirmation Biases, and the Fundamental Attribution Error

Recently, a photo of a group of young women taking selfies at a ball game went viral. Not only did this become an online joke, it was used by some as more evidence of the younger generation as self-absorbed and vain.

However, a recent post on provided some important context for this picture. I won't repeat everything from the post here - you should definitely check it out at the link above - but in short, the girls, and everyone else in the audience, were asked to take selfies. They were just participating. After the public shaming of these young women, they were offered free tickets as an apology, which they instead asked to be donated to an organization that supports victims of domestic violence.

So that picture above? That's what classy ladies who also know how to have fun look like.

Why were people so quick to believe that these young women were acting out of vanity, not participation? One potential reason is because it confirms a stereotype we have about young people. This phenomenon is aptly called "confirmation bias" - we look for, and remember, evidence that confirms our expectations, and ignore or forget information that disconfirms our expectations. This is one reason that anecdotes are not useful evidence if you're trying to get at the truth of a phenomenon. You might be able to remember, for example, 20 times you observed women drive poorly, but fail to remember the 20 times you observed men drive poorly. (And as I've blogged before, memory can be very biased.)

Another reason, which could occur in concert with confirmation bias, is the fundamental attribution error (or FAE, because damn, is that a really long name). FAE is based on in-group-out-group theories; our in-group is made up of people like ourselves and our out-group is made up of everyone else. How we define that group at a given moment depends on context - it could be gender, race, age group, education level - and research suggests that we begin grouping people as "like us" and "unlike us" based on some pretty arbitrary information: what team you were randomly assigned to, whether someone picked the same painting from two options, etc.

For those who love learning psychological terms to impress your friends expand your knowledge, we call this latter concept the "minimal group paradigm."

FAE basically states that we look for evidence to confirm that people in our in-group are good, and unlike people in our out-group. If we observe someone in our in-group doing something positive, we attribute that to their personality - they're just good people. If we observe someone in our in-group doing something negative, we attribute that to the situation - something made them do that.

And we do the opposite with people in our out-group. When they do something positive, we attribute it to the situation, and when we observe them do something negative, we attribute it to their personality.

When we saw these young women taking selfies at the ball game, many of us attributed it to their personalities - they're vain. No one stopped to consider that maybe there was a situational explanation. Then came along and demonstrated that there was a situational explanation. And we all felt like assholes said, "if I'd known that information when I saw the picture, I wouldn't have been so quick to judge." Because we're good people. It was the situation. (See how pervasive the FAE is? Hey, I have a PhD in social psychology and I did the same thing.)

Contextually yours,

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Totally Superfluous Movie Review: The Craft

Because it’s October, and because I was talking about this movie with friends recently, I decided to watch The Craft again tonight.

I’ve seen this movie many times – it spawned a generation of young women fascinated with the occult, and has a great soundtrack, including a great cover of “Dangerous Type” by one of my favorite bands, Letters to Cleo.

The thing that struck me about this movie upon watching it again tonight is the underlying theme of belonging. On its surface, the theme seems to be about control – fascination with magic and other supernatural forces stems, at least in part, from a desire to feel in control of the world around us. With magic, we can punish the people who hurt us, make our crush love us, and change our situation, all things that happen in the movie.

But the deeper issue is the need to belong, something we all experience, but is often the focus of our lives as children and teenagers. Sarah (Robin Tunney) first befriends Nancy (Fairuza Balk), Bonnie (Neve Campbell), and Rochelle (Rachel True) because she is a new student and has no friends in a new town. She also meets Chris and falls for him, but is devastated when he rejects her and spreads nasty rumors about her. Her focus then becomes getting Chris to accept (love) her.

Bonnie wants to get rid of her scars, so she can feel normal. Rochelle is stifled socially and on her swim team because of a hateful bully (played by the ever-awesome Christine Taylor, who can pull off everything from plucky love interest to racist bully), and wants to make the bullying stop. Finally, Nancy wishes to escape poverty and an abusive stepfather, because even though she claims she doesn’t care what others think of her, she does (including Chris).

Of course, in trying to belong and feel accepted, they become the monsters they fought so hard against. This is a common theme in horror movies (look for a blog post on that later!). Sarah realizes first that they’ve taken things way too far, unfortunately a little too late to help Chris. When she tries to stop Nancy, Bonnie, and Rochelle from hurting people, they lash out at her. Only through being accepted by (and accepting) Lirio is Sarah able to make things right - or perhaps more symbolically, only through Sarah accepting herself is she able to find the strength to make things right.

If you’re looking for education on Pagan religions, obviously this is not the place to look. Probably one of the most common misconceptions of these religions is that the purpose is to do magic. But the Pagans were farmers, and their religion and ceremonies were built around the harvest and nature. Magic was considered one of many natural forces they sought to understand and, when possible, control.

But if you’re looking for an allegory of adolescence, and the price of belonging (at least in certain ways), check out The Craft!

Craftily yours,