From something I'm working on . . .
Identity-protective cognition and accuracy
Identity-protective cognition is a form of motivated reasoning—an unconscious tendency to conform information processing to some goal collateral to accuracy (Kunda, 1990). In the case of identity-protective cognition, that goal is protection of one’s status within an affinity group whose members share defining cultural commitments.
Sometimes (for reasons more likely to originate in misadventure than conscious design) positions on a disputed societal risk become conspicuously identified with membership in competing groups of this sort. In those circumstances, individuals can be expected to attend to information in a manner that promotes beliefs that signal their commitment to the position associated with their group (Sherman & Cohen, 2006; Kahan, 2015b).
We can sharpen understanding of identity-protective reasoning by relating this style of information processing to a nuts-and-bolts Bayesian one. Bayes’s Theorem instructs individuals to revise the strength of their current beliefs (“priors”) by a factor that reflects how much more consistent the new evidence is with that belief being true than with it being false. Conceptually, that factor—the likelihood ratio—is the weight the new information is due. Many cognitive biases (e.g., base rate neglect, which involves ignoring the information in one’s “priors”) can be understood to reflect some recurring failure in people’s capacity to assess information in this way.
That’s not quite what’s going on, though, with identity-protective cognition. The signature of this dynamic isn’t so much the failure of people to “update” their priors based on new information but rather the role that protecting their identities plays in fixing the likelihood ratio they assign to new information. In effect, when they display identity-protective reasoning, individuals unconconsciously adjust the weight they assign to evidence based on its congruency with their group’s position (Kahan, 2015a).
If, e.g., they encounter a highly credentialed scientist, they will deem him an “expert” worthy of deference on a particular issue—but only if he is depicted as endorsing the factual claims on which their group’s position rests (Fig. 1) (Kahan, Jenkins-Smith, & Braman, 2011). Likewise, when shown a video of a political protest, people will report observing violence warranting the demonstrators’ arrest if the demonstrators’ cause was one their group opposes (restricting abortion rights; permitting gays and lesbians to join the military)—but not otherwise (Kahan, Hoffman, Braman, Evans, & Rachlinski, 2012).
In fact, Bayes’s Theorem doesn’t say how to determine the likelihood ratio—only what to do with the resulting factor: multiply one’s prior odds by it. But in order for Bayesian information processing to promote accurate beliefs, the criteria used to determine the weight of new information must themselves be calibrated to truth-seeking. What those criteria are might be open to dispute in some instances. But clearly, whose position the evidence supports—ours or theirs?—is never one of them.
The most persuasive demonstrations of identity-protective cognition show that individuals opportunistically alter the weight they assign one and the same piece of evidence based on experimental manipulation of the congruence of it with their identities. This design is meant to rule out the possibility that disparate priors or pre-treatment exposure to evidence is what’s blocking convergence when opposing groups evaluate the same information (Druckman, 2012).
But if this is how people assess information outside the lab, then opposing groups will never converge, much less converge on the truth, no matter how much or how compelling the evidence they receive. Or at least they won’t so long as the conventional association of positions with loyalty to opposing identify-defining groups remains part of their “objective social reality.”
Frustration of truth-convergent Bayesian information processing is the thread that binds together the diverse collection of cognitive biases of the bounded-rationality paradigm. Identity-protective cognition, we’ve seen, frustrates truth-convergent Bayesian information processing. Thus, assimilation of identity-protective reasoning into the paradigm—as has occurred within both behavioral economics (e.g., Sunstein, 2006, 2007) and political science (e.g., Taber & Lodge, 2013)— seems perfectly understandable.
Understandable, but wrong!
The bounded-rationality paradigm rests on a particular conception of dual-process reasoning. This account distinguishes between an affect-driven, “heuristic” form of information processing, and a conscious, “analytical” one. Both styles—typically referred to as System 1 and System 2, respectively—contribute to successful decisionmaking. But it is the limited capacity of human beings to summon System 2 to override errant System 1 intuitions that generates the grotesque assortment of mental miscues—the “availability effect,” “hindsight bias,” the “conjunction fallacy,” “denominator neglect,” “confirmation bias”—on display in decision science’s benighted picture of human reason (Kahneman & Frederick, 2005).
It stands to reason, then, that if identity-protective cognition is properly viewed as a member of bounded-rationality menagerie of biases, it, too, should be most pronounced among people (the great mass of the population) disposed to rely on System 1 information processing. This assumption is commonplace in the work reflecting the bounded-rationality paradigm (e.g., Lilienfeld, Ammirati, & Lanfield 2009; Westen, Blagov, Karenski, Kilts, & Hamann, 2006).
But actual data are to the contrary. Observational studies consistently find that individuals who score highest on the Cognitive Reflection Test and other reliable measures of System 2 reasoning are not less polarized but more so on facts relating to divisive political issues (e.g., Kahan et al., 2012).
Experimental data support the inference that these individuals use their distinctive analytic proficiencies to form identity-congruent assessments of evidence. When assessing quantitative data that predictably trips up those who rely on System 1 processing, individuals disposed to use System 2 are much less likely to miss information that supports their groups’ position. When the evidence contravenes their group’s position, these same individuals are better able to explain it away (Kahan, Peters, Dawson, & Slovic, 2013).
Another study that fits this account addresses the tendency of partisans form negative impressions of their opposing number (Fig. 2). In the study, subjects selectively credited or dismissed evidence of the validity of the CRT as an “open-mindedness” test depending on whether the subjects were told that individuals who held their political group’s position on climate change had scored higher or lower than those who held the opposing view. Already large among individuals of low to modest cognitive reflection, this effect was substantially more pronounced among those who scored the highest on the CRT (Kahan, 2013b).
The tragic conflict of expressive rationality
As indicated, identity-protective reasoning is routinely included in the roster of cognitive mechanisms that evince bounded rationality. But where an information-processing dynamic is consistently shown to be magnified, not constrained, by exactly the types of reasoning proficiencies that counteract the mental pratfalls associated with heuristic information processing, then one should presumably update one’s classification of that dynamic as a “cognitive bias.”
In fact, the antagonism between identity-protective cognition and perceptual accuracy is not a consequence of too little rationality but too much.
Nothing an ordinary member of the public does as consumer, as voter, or participant in public discourse will have any effect on the risk that climate change poses to her or anyone else. Same for gun control, fracking, and nuclear waste disposal: her actions just don’t matter enough to influence collective behavior or policymaking.
But given what positions on these issues signify about the sort of person she is, adopting a mistaken stance on one of these in her everyday interactions with other ordinary people could expose her to devastating consequences, both material and psychic. It is perfectly rational under these circumstances to process information in a manner that promotes formation of the beliefs on these issues that express her group allegiances, and to bring all her cognitive resources to bear in doing so.
Of course, when everyone uses their reason this way at once, collective welfare suffers. In that case, culturally diverse democratic citizens won’t converge, or converge as quickly, on the significance of valid evidence on how to manage societal risks. But that doesn’t change the social incentives that make it rational for any individual—and hence every individual—to engage information in this way.
Only some collective intervention—one that effectively dispels the conflict between the individual’s interest in forming identity-expressive risk perceptions and society’s interest in the formation of accurate ones—could (Kahan et al., 2012; Lessig, 1995).
Rationality ≠ accuracy (necessarily)
. . . . Obviously, it isn’t possible to assess the “rationality” of any pattern of information processing unless one gets what the agent processing the information is trying to accomplish. Because forming accurate “factual perceptions” is not the only thing people use information for, a paradigm that motivates empirical researchers to appraise cognition exclusively in relation to that objective will indeed end up painting a distorted picture of human thinking.
But worse, the picture will simply be wrong. The body of science this paradigm generates will fail, in particular, to supply us with the information a pluralistic democratic society needs to manage the forces that creat the conflict betwen the stake citizens’ have in using their reason to know what’s known and using it to be who they are as members of diverse cultural groups (Kahan, 2015b).
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