Happy New Year: Resolving Our Resolutions

There are some important items often omitted from the Annual All American Resolutions To Be Broken exercise.   We think of our physical appearance, our health, our finances, but not often about how we think about our own thinking.

What if one of our Resolutions was “I will be more aware of my biases?” Or, “I will be more aware of what primes my thinking pump when I am presented with a situation that is outside my experience?”   For example, what if we were to listen to a newscaster saying, “Two men, Juan Gonzales and Ignacio Sanchez, have been charged with auto theft in the hijacking of a car in downtown Middle City.”

Imagine we were to hear this hypothetical example and think: (1) Spanish speaking; (2) Illegal.   Do the numbers support these conclusions?

Statistically speaking, we know that there are 308.7 million people living in the United States, of which 16% or about 50.5 million are self identified as Hispanic or Latino.  We also know that 63% of those who are Hispanic or Latino are of Mexican descent.  [Census 2010 pdf] What we don’t know from the hypothetical broadcast is the citizenship status of the two men in question.  The “immigrant” status would only apply IF they are first generation.

We also know that “unauthorized immigrants” make up 3.7% of our national population, and 28% of the total foreign-born population.  [Pew]  The numbers would support a conclusion that the two men in the hypothetical were probably of Mexican descent, but if 72% of our foreign born population resides here legally we cannot assume their “illegal status.”

Are the men in our hypothetical Spanish speakers?  It depends on their generation.  If they are first generation immigrants then English fluency is about 23%.  However, if they are second or third generation immigrants then the fluency rate increases to 88% and 94% respectively.  [Pew]

In short, only one of the preconceived notions is statistically supportable — IF the men are first generation immigrants.   Our two hypothetical miscreants (if indeed they were to be judged guilty) are statistically more likely to be (1) here legally, and (2) be at least marginally fluent in English.   Evidently, if we made the two initial assumptions about them, then we were applying a stereotypical answer to an individual situation.  We do this all the time, but at some point — especially when we are discussing public policy — we need to put up the Mental Stop Sign, take a breath, and look more carefully at the actual situation.

Just as hyperventilating political hyperbole has primed our pumps on some important issues, like immigration, preconceptions about how public policy is made colors our judgment on others.  We have to admit that in many cases we are “primed.”

“Bargh and Pietromonaco showed some people neutral words whilst others were shown hostile words, very briefly flashed up on a computer screen. Both groups then read about a character with ambiguous behavior. Those who had been primed with hostile words interpreted the behavior as being more hostile.”  [ChangingMinds]

There is a host of  Repetitive Priming examples available in our current public discourse.  “Repetitive priming occurs where the repetition of something leads to it influencing later thoughts.” [ChangingMinds] Now imagine an advertising campaign in which 30 second commercial messages were shown over a 3 month period in which a split screen shows parents flipping a light switch on in the nursery to illuminate their newborn baby sleeping, along side a sunset view of a benign looking nuclear power plant.    When it comes time to decide whether to apply public policy supporting nuclear power or renewable energy technologies — which is “positively primed?”  Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima notwithstanding?  Alternately, if  Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima are shown before a question is posed about the efficacy of nuclear power — how does our perception change?   The research tells us that “hostile words” (or pictures)  yield hostile behaviors.

However, we need to consider how we think of terms like hostile and unhappy, which are often conflated.  Two New York University researchers looked at relative “happiness and unhappiness” in political terms:

“The results indicated that conservatives were, on average, happier than liberals. Further, the data indicated that this was because conservatives have a higher rationalization of inequality. That is, they are less bothered by things like income inequality, gender inequality and marital inequality than liberals. Put another way, conservatism was associated with higher rationalizing of inequality, which in turn, was associated with greater life satisfaction. (In stats lingo, the relationship between political orientation and life satisfaction was “mediated” by rationalization of inequality). All other variables measured were controlled for in their analyses and did not explain the relationship between happiness and political orientation.” [PsychologyToday]

In short, it’s not that conservatives are unaware of the statistics of income inequality — or gender inequality, or marital status inequality — it’s that those who think in conservative terms have rationalized the inequality.  Rationalization is one of our protective mechanisms, especially when we have some doubts about our attitudes and behaviors.  Using rationalization is perfectly natural, but what we need to do more often  is to recognize when we’re doing it.

Thus, it might not be a bad idea to pose some different kinds of New Year’s Resolutions, such as (1) Attempting more often to confront impressions with statistical data and other “hard” evidence; or (2) Being a bit more introspective about what has “primed” my response to a situation; or (3) Recognizing the difference between when I am being rational and when I am rationalizing.

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