Sunday, October 16, 2005

The representative heuristic

The representative heuristic is what determines the reaction of people to others that are different from them. I.e.: after a report in the media that, for example, black people are x times more likely to commit gun crime (hypothetically), or that muslims are x times more likely to suicide bomb (hypothetically), the representative heuristic will have people generally expecting a random black person to shoot them (irrespective of the black person's context) or expect any random muslim to blow them up.

The representative heuristic is the essence of how society is institutionally prejudiced. It is formed from childhood when as children, we are taught to learn by association. For instance, we learn to associate dark clouds with storms so that we don't need a weather forecast to tell us what's coming when we see dark clouds. We are taught the predispositions and the prejudices of the grown ups. At that tender age, whilst still very impressionable, we absorb ideas like sponges. We hear the adults make comments about others, call names, make jokes, etc, that in our eyes seem acceptable as we grow up. As children, we don't know better.

A report by Jennifer Richeson of Dartmouth College in New Hampshire (USA) on cognitive neuroscience, reveals that brains are drained by hidden racial biases. The idea behind this theory of resource depletion is that the effort expended on suppressing prejudice depletes the ability to use cognitive control in subsequent tasks. To cite a few findings, the report states:

"In the study, 30 white students were given computer test asking them to classify names as those of black or white people, and words as being positive and negative concepts...When viewing photos of black individuals, all the students' brains lit up in the frontal lobe area - known to be involved in cognitive control, says Richeson. In sharp contrast, this area did not light up in any of the students viewing pictures of white individuals. "It's pretty amazing," she says."
"... level of brain activity correlated very closely with poor performance in a test of thinking ability given right after a face-to-face interview with a black person. The researchers believe this indicates that the subject's mental resources have been temporarily drained by their efforts to suppress their prejudices"
"People with implicit racial prejudices are left mentally exhausted after interacting with someone from a different race, perhaps because they are trying to quell their feelings."
What this experiment does not answer, of course, is whether the prejudiced participants were striving to overcome their prejudices, or merely to cover them up. Dr Richeson remarks of her results that, there's a subtle, but powerful, difference between trying not to do the wrong thing, and building positive habits through friendships and cultural exchange, so that doing the right thing becomes the automatic response, one that does not require active damage control. Read the entire article here: New scientist

It is my belief that many are hijacked by the "system" too often, which explains the high levels of "control" exhibited in the presence of blacks in the study above. I do believe that the representative heuristic is responsible for the prejudices exhibited in today's multicultural societies. With so much information about different groups at hand, I'm inclined to think that prejudice is due to some associations embedded in our brains from childhood that are difficult to unlearn.
I have two questions:
1. Has the media helped perpetuate or alleviate the negative effects of the representative heuristic approach to life? (see this article for an example)
2. How do you think the above research can affect an outcome at a job interview?


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