Tag Archives: in-group bias

Partisan Innumeracy

In his memoir, China in Ten Words, writer Yu Hua recalled an event following the end of the cultural revolution. Literature had been banned for many years but the memory of its joys had lingered in much of the population. Hua’s formative years had been during the intellectually desiccated period. Emerging from a time when being seen with any book other than officially sanctioned volumes of or about Chairman Mao could have grave consequences, he and many others craved stories featuring relatable human characters and situations.

Eventually China loosened its intellectual restrictions and the word that bookstores would be opening spread like a prairie fire. Hua tells of a local bookstore that announced it would distribute coupons for two books each to the first few customers to come to the shop’s opening. Hua rose before dawn and was dismayed to find several hundred people already in line, many of whom had been in line all night.

To occupy themselves those waiting speculated on how many coupons the shop owner would hand out. The speculations fell into three general groups. Those who’d gotten in line the day prior were sure their proaction would be rewarded with coupons. Those who arrived later and comprised the middle of the line agreed among themselves there would be more coupons for such obviously high-quality people who’d been wise enough to arrive before the deadbeats behind them. Those like Hua, farther back in the line, reached a consensus there would be enough coupons for them. After all, all of them were clearly quality people for having the foresight and diligence to arrive so early. Hilariously, each person’s assessment derived not from any objective assessment, such as estimating the number of books visible through the shop window, but rather on an emotional assessment of how deserving they were for making the effort to be in the line and, tellingly, how undeserving those farther back in the line were, considering they were comparative slackers. When the shop door opened and the actual number of coupons—50—was announced, persons one through 50 smugly congratulated themselves while the remainders moaned and cursed. Person 51 felt auspiciously unlucky and the number ’51’ became shorthand for unlucky throughout the town.

It’s entertaining to poke fun at the sort of irrational innumeracy the Chinese villagers displayed but it’s a universal flaw in human thinking. Our estimates and judgments of others’ estimates and judgments skew sharply in keeping with our sense of identity. Logically, our sense of who we are, which involves ongoing comparisons of ourselves with others, is a psychological matter that has no bearing on quantifiable facts about the world.

Take the results of a recent Ipsos/Axios survey in which American’s belief in whether the reported number of COVID-19 deaths was accurate, under-reported, or excessive. Beliefs closely aligned with political perspectives (which are primarily sociological and psychological, not fact oriented). This does not mean objective facts cannot align with a group’s position on a matter. It means such alignment often has less to do with a group’s objectivity or rationality than with how convenient the facts are to a group’s claims about what is real or important.

As for a more facts-based approach to assessing COVID-19 related death counts, the article linked in the preceding paragraph provides objective reasons for why an undercounting scenario is likely:

  • Insufficient testing obscures many COVID-19 deaths.
  • Several states’ death rates are significantly higher than statistics for other causes would suggest, and are still inceasing.

What’s important to most people, however, is not recognizing accurate facts or more valid reasoning but feeling they are true to their in-groups’ values and self-definition.

Are We Racists?

BMAI friends. The following ramble is my first cut at making sense of the grave role racial (and other) bias is playing in the world today. This was prompted by comments I see daily from my family and friends on social media. Thinking about the great lack of self- and group-awareness many of the commenters display, I turned my scope inward. How do my own innate, evolved biases slant me to take my group’s and my own privileges for granted and make invalid assumptions about those I perceive (subconsciously or explicitly) to be ‘the other’? I put this forward to start a discussion and hope you will contribute your own insights and references. Feel free to post comments or even insert questions, comments, or new text directly into my text. Of course, you can create your own new posts as well. Thanks.


Two Levels of Racism
 
1. Population Group Level
 
Racism is an expression of group dynamics. Consider two levels of racism. First, there’s systemic racism where conditions in a population generally favor one race over others. One race (or maybe a few races) has greater access to material and cultural influence in the population. This does not occur accidentally, but through the ongoing efforts of the dominant group to achieve and expand its controlling influence.
 
2. Individual and Local-Group Level
 
That’s where the second level of racism comes in. How a person perceives any group’s efforts to attain equal access and influence depends on whether the person is in the dominant group or the aspiring group. There are many ways individuals and their affinity groups perceive and act within the racially unequal system to maintain or change the racial inequalities. The group in power perceives efforts in its favor as good, appropriate, justified, patriotic, necessary, ethical, moral, and even (when there’s a shared group supernatural narrative) ordained, holy, etc. When a member of an out-group appears to support (or at least not outwardly oppose) the in-group’s dominance, members of the in-group view that as a proof that they are rightfully on top.
 
The group in power perceives any questioning of its dominance in the larger population as suspicious, dishonest, lazy (attempts to gain more access than is deserved), subversive, unpatriotic (or even treasonous), or (through the lens of dogma) evil, anti-God, etc. Obviously, racism (and other efforts to maintain inequality) is at work when these perceptions are acted out by legislators, law enforcers, prosecutors, juries, judges, presidents and their staff members, the private sector, and individual members of the favored group.
 
Members of a group with less influence perceive their questioning of the dominant group’s power in opposite terms from how the dominant group sees their struggle. Members of lower-access groups experience their quest for equality on all fronts as expressions of their inherent right–even necessity–to pursue “life, liberty, and happiness.” They see the efforts of dominant groups to control and exclude them as unjustified oppression by people who abuse the power provided them within a biased system that clearly needs to be changed.
 
On the first (population) level, racism is an aspect of the in-group/out-group dynamics that are present in all of us. Our ‘hard-wired’ programming is to subconsciously favor those we perceive to be more like us (in outward appearance, views, and culture) and subconsciously feel some degree of aversion and suspicion (and often fear) of those whose appearances, views, and culture vary from ours. Groups (through the actions of their members and leaders) use their power to slant social and economic systems to favor their own power and influence and to decrease the influence of those they perceive as not members of their group(s). When this natural bias results in one racial group having greater access to resources (education, healthcare, emergency services, and other public services; jobs; legislative influence; judicial equality; media visibility; etc.), systemic or structural racism is in place.
 
A takeaway of all this is that we are all racists, in the sense that the human brain has evolved complex social navigation functions that include strong biases in favor of one’s perceived in-group and disfavoring members of all other groups. To the extent we are hard-wired to perceive people who (as a category) look superficially different from us as somehow less safe or worthy of inclusion and power-sharing, we are innately racist. When we make the effort to become aware of, challenge, and ensure our racial biases do not influence our words and actions, we are moving toward a less bigoted way of being.