How can we resist the tendency to believe what is evolutionarily adaptive at the expense of truth? And would it increase or diminish human flourishing to do so?
Jessica Na, Interlake High School, United States
Third Prize for the 2020 Psychology Prize | 8 min read
Humans have a natural tendency to process information in a way that saves time and minimizes cognitive efforts. We categorize things we observe into our existing knowledge, better remember what we have seen more recently, or are quicker to identify information that is consistent with our beliefs. While these patterns of thinking, referred to as heuristics, help us quickly make sense of the world and make expedited decisions, they often come at the expense of the truth. Given that humans have evolved to use heuristics in everyday decisions, how can we resist such “hard-wired” tendencies, especially when using heuristics may lead to faulty conclusions? In this essay, I will first demonstrate how heuristics can result in inaccuracies despite their evolutionary benefits, using stereotypes as an example to illustrate the negative implications of heuristics. Based on my analysis of the sources of biases in heuristic thinking, I propose ways in which we can intervene to resist this tendency of stereotyping others. Finally, I will discuss how such interventions can promote human flourishing.
Heuristics are evolutionarily adaptive strategies that enable humans to systematically process information and make decisions quickly (Haselton et al., 2015). We are most likely to rely on heuristics when we face a situation that affords limited time or information, as heuristics “reduce the complex tasks of assessing probabilities and predicting values to simpler judgmental operations” (Tversky & Kahneman, 1974, p.1124). From an evolutionary standpoint, using such mental shortcuts is particularly useful when one experiences a threat to one’s safety, as the cost of engaging in a slower and more complex reasoning outweighs the potential benefit of enhanced accuracy (Arkes 1991). In a study that induced participants to feel an ambient physical threat by lowering the light level of the room, participants showed a stronger belief than those in the control condition that outgroup men were violent, displaying the use of heuristics that associate outgroups with a greater risk (Schaller et al., 2003). This example shows that heuristic thinking is a deeply ingrained human tendency that gets activated even by the subtle cue of the environment.
Although heuristic thinking is useful under limited time and resources, it can also lead to systematic inaccuracies in our judgments or decisions. When people use a representativeness heuristic, they make automatic associations between the entity and the features of its categories based on a previously formed subjective impression, regardless of the objective truth (Tversky & Kahneman, 1974). However, this can lead to erroneous overgeneralization, as these associations are often ignoring the individual characteristics of the entity in question. Stereotyping, a tendency to categorize individuals into groups and develop beliefs about them based on the group membership (Powell et al., 2002), is a clear example of how using a representativeness heuristic can lead to inaccurate beliefs about an individual. For example, a study conducted prior to the 2008 election found that participants thought of Obama as “less American” than British prime minister Tony Blair (Devos & Ma, 2013). Being White prototypically represents American-ness, and therefore, people categorized Obama based on the representativeness of his race rather than his true national identity. Like this example, even if we know the target in question, the power of heuristics is strong enough to influence our belief about others.
As the by-products of heuristic thinking, stereotypes negatively impact individuals on wide- ranging domains. When an individual becomes aware of the negative stereotypes about their social group, they feel anxious about confirming the stereotype (Steele & Aronson, 1995). The stress resulting from such “stereotype threat” depletes the person’s cognitive resources and impairs performance. A process like this affects how one perceives their own abilities even when the stereotype does not apply to them. As such, by engaging in heuristic thinking that generates stereotypes, people may end up stigmatizing others and creating a vicious cycle of letting the stereotypes become self-fulfilled. Then, how can we resist the urge to form erroneous beliefs about others based on heuristics, which seems hardwired and difficult to control?
One way to reduce automatic stereotyping based on heuristics is to have more frequent and high- quality interactions with members of a group that one has limited experience with. “Contact hypothesis” suggests that close interactions between majority and minority members can lead to reduced stereotyping and prejudice (Allport et al., 1954). Through learning more about outgroup members and forming relationships with them on a deeper level, people can de-categorize outgroup members and see them as individuals, focusing on their unique characteristics rather than automatically ascribing stereotypic characteristics to them (Gaertner et al., 1993). Increased interactions with outgroup members also reduce anxiety about the intergroup contact over time (Stephan & Stephan, 1985; Blascovich et al., 2001). As people are more likely to use heuristics when their attentional resources are constrained by the situation (Pohl et al., 2013), reduced anxiety could also lower the likelihood of using heuristics to form quick beliefs about outgroup members.
Also, exposing people to counter-stereotypical examples can reduce the bias that may result from using erroneous heuristics. Frequent interactions with diverse groups of people would increase the chance of encountering a person who does not conform to socially-constructed stereotypes, thus changing what is thought of as “representative” of a group in one’s mind. Research by Dasgupta and Asgari (2004), which examined the stereotypic beliefs about one’s own social group, provides compelling evidence that even a brief exposure to a counter-stereotypic exemplar can impact people’s automatic beliefs. In this study, female students saw pictures or read paragraph-long descriptions of famous women in positions of power (e.g., Ruth Bader Ginsburg, U.S. Supreme Court Justice), which is counter to the common stereotype that associates women with subordinate roles or less power. After seeing or reading about women in power, participants were quicker to associate women with leadership compared to those who saw control stimuli. The result was replicated by a year-long study that examined the longer-term effects of attending a college with a greater proportion of female leadership. Compared to the ones who attended a coeducational college, those who attended a women’s college were less likely to show automatic stereotypic beliefs about women. This effect was explained by how frequently one was exposed to female leaders (i.e., female faculty).
Another way to prevent people from forming inaccurate beliefs based on stereotypes is to interrupt automatic, heuristic thinking and to facilitate slower reasoning that can systematically correct one’s biases (Kahneman, 2011). When the circumstance affords one to use mental shortcuts, biases can creep in. This happens often in the evaluation process within organizations, but simple measures that disrupt the automatic process of heuristic thinking can prevent people from reaching these biased conclusions. For example, in one resume screening study, it was found that portfolios with the same qualification levels were four to six times more likely to get rejected when they had ethnic minority names (e.g., Arab names) as compared to ethnic majority names (e.g., Dutch names) (Derous & Ryan, 2012). However, anonymizing resumes and thus removing the cues that activate heuristic thinking has
been shown to reduce such biases (e.g., Åslund & Skans, 2012; Kang et al., 2016). Ambiguous evaluation criteria also invite biased evaluations based on the use of stereotypes instead of objective evidence of individual traits. Stanford researchers found that the performance reviews at a company with little evaluation guidelines showed a gendered pattern in the criteria used: women were criticized for being too aggressive, and men for being too soft (Mackenzie et al., 2019). When the researchers created a checklist to help managers use criteria consistently and reference specific data to base their evaluations, gender gaps in ratings were reduced.
Would resisting a tendency to use heuristics and stereotype others help human flourishing? A large volume of literature suggests so. One direct evidence comes from the results of multiple studies that used the “jigsaw classroom” paradigm (e.g., Blaney et al., 1977; Lucker et al., 1977; Aronson et al., 1978). These studies were designed based on the contact hypothesis in an effort to resolve the racial
tensions across the U.S. in the 1970s. In the “jigsaw classroom,” a diverse group of students were instructed to learn from each other and cooperate on tasks that required interdependence. Such close and respectful intergroup interactions resulted in a remarkable decrease in negative ethnic stereotypes (Blaney et al., 1977; Geffner, 1978). Coupled with the reduction in stereotypes, students in the jigsaw classroom showed better academic performance, greater liking of school, and higher self-esteem than students in traditional classrooms. In particular, minority students showed a significant improvement in their performance, which effectively narrowed the achievement gap between White and racial minority students (Lucker et al., 1977).
Benefits of reduced biases and stereotyping are not only apparent in individuals who are the targets of stereotyping, but also those who engage in the act of stereotyping. A study by Prati and colleagues (2015) found that a thought exercise to think about a gender counter-stereotype led participants to display less dehumanization of unrelated outgroups such as asylum seekers and the homeless. In other words, the intervention targeting stereotypes not only changed participants’ beliefs about the group in question, but also shifted their views on unrelated groups. Importantly, this effect was explained by the reduced reliance on heuristics. The finding suggests that interrupting heuristic thinking can enhance cognitive flexibility in individuals by helping them adjust their prejudiced beliefs about a wide range of social groups. Reduced stereotyping also opens individuals up to more diverse perspectives that enable them to think more innovatively and attain higher-quality solutions (Hoffman & Maier, 1961). These positive outcomes of the reduced biases are shown to lead to measurable business outcomes. A study by the Boston Consulting Group found that companies with more diverse leadership teams reported higher revenue and “earnings before interest and taxes” (EBIT) margins (Lorenzo et al., 2018). As such, reduced stereotyping, or the environment that provides opportunities for reducing stereotypes through intergroup contact, contributes to a greater flourishing of individuals and work groups.
Without a doubt, heuristic thinking is an evolutionarily adaptive tendency that helps humans navigate the world under limited time and resources. However, it is important to notice that it often leads humans to inaccurate beliefs about others as illustrated by the examples of stereotyping. Based on the empirical evidence from social psychology, I proposed various ways that can help people resist the natural tendency to rely on heuristics and stereotypes. While we should continue using heuristics under situational constraints, we should take a more analytic approach and remove possible biases in our thinking when we can afford time and cognitive efforts. Taking this balanced approach will have far- reaching positive implications for individuals and society.
Humans are continuously evolving beings. If we remind ourselves that slowing down at the right moment and checking our own biases can better serve others and ourselves, our beliefs about the world will gradually shift closer to the “true” state of the world, making the society a more fair and just place than before.
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