Gregory R. Maio Ph.D.

Attitude Check

Rallying the Troops Versus Quieting the Indignation

Being open-minded isn't enough to overcome our own biases.

Posted Jul 10, 2017

A new National Rifle Association (NRA) video advertisement in the United States sparked controversy last week.  A number of critics indicated that the emotive ad barely falls short of calling for violent action, while further diminishing the potential for productive dialogue between left-wing and right-wing advocates.

By Tracy Robillard [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Source: By Tracy Robillard [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The emotive ad reminded me of a couple of articles I have come across in the past few years. One of these articles follows up decades of research in different areas of psychology, all of which point to a tendency for our mental processes to create coherence in our feelings and beliefs (Simon, Stenstrom, & Read, 2015). Over a series of experiments, the authors highlighted how emotional attachments to an individual create biased beliefs about the person even when there is no direct logical connection between the basis for the sympathy and the biased beliefs. For instance, learning that a person has lost a loved one in a car accident can lead to sympathy toward the person, resulting in greater reluctance to believe that the person cheated in an irrelevant situation. The authors argued that we can now explain this type of biased reasoning using sophisticated mathematical models of cognitive networks that drive people to seek coherence.

The other article re-examines decades of evidence suggesting that people who are open-minded in personality and values are more likely to be tolerant of other groups (Brandt, Chambers, Crawford, Wetherell, Reyna, 2015). The authors wondered whether this effect might actually be driven by a tendency of researchers to focus on unconventional or unusual groups, which might by definition be more similar to the people who are characteristically open-minded (sexual minorities).  If this is the case, then high open-mindedness might predict more intolerance of relatively conventional groups (e.g., business people), and people relatively low in open-mindedness might actually be more tolerant of the conventional groups.  The authors and predicted and found this pattern, which suggests that everyone can be intolerant of people with world-views that conflict with their own, regardless of where they stand on the personality dimension of open-mindedness.

Taken together, these articles paint a bleak picture. Our cognitive architecture may drive us to seek coherent explanations in line with our feelings, and open-minded personalities are not invulnerable to this effect. As applied to political dialogue, it implies that powerful psychological forces can create a mental wedge between us and others who have different world-views.

The first step to combating these forces is to recognize their existence.  By acknowledging that we are all vulnerable to their impact, we can take steps to actively seek out evidence for our own biases and to humbly correct them when we can.  This activity is not something easily accomplished on one’s own, but perhaps anything is possible in a supportive social atmosphere, with individuals who accept each other’s strengths and limitations in a more understanding manner.

Author note: Please see Open for Debate for more.

References

Brandt, M. J., Chambers, J. R., Crawford, J. T., Wetherell, G., & Reyna, C. (2015). Bounded openness: The effect of openness to experience on intolerance is moderated by target group conventionality. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 109(3), 549–568.

Simon, D., Stenstrom, D. M., & Read, S. J. (2015). The coherence effect: Blending cold and hot cognitions. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 109(3), 369–394.

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