There’s a neat new paper over at the SSRN: They Saw a Protest: Cognitive Illiberalism and the Speech-Conduct Distinction, by researchers at Yale’s Cultural Cognition Project.
In the study individuals are shown a video of a protest at a building, and are then asked whether the protesters violated a law that that prohibits intentionally interfering with, obstructing, intimidating, or threatening a person seeking to enter, exit, or remain lawfully on the premises. There were actually two videos, identical except that the designers of the study altered the videos to change what was being protested. One video is edited so that the protest seems against military recruiters for violating gay rights; the second video is edited so that the protest is against an abortion clinic.
Here’s the video for the abortion clinic:
Here is the same video at the military recruiting centre.
What people saw depended on their beliefs in predictable ways: when they were protesting something you didn’t like, it was earnest, rational dissent, otherwise it appeared like physical intimidation.
I’m a big believer in Jonathan Haidt’s characterization of our brains as articulate confabulators, primarily engaged in rationalizing our prejudices. I have rarely witnessed someone change their mind on something important to them based on any one fact; sure, disinterested people do, but not anyone who’s invested several years on a subject. Last week’s John Tierney’s NYT article on academics highlights they are just as biased as the uneducated, even though they consider them paragons of rational, unbiased thought (‘scientific’). He quotes Jon Haidt on how easily academics focus on certain disparities as important or not:
Anywhere in the world that social psychologists see women or minorities underrepresented by a factor of two or three, our minds jump to discrimination as the explanation,” said Dr. Haidt, who called himself a longtime liberal turned centrist. “But when we find out that conservatives are underrepresented among us by a factor of more than 100, suddenly everyone finds it quite easy to generate alternate explanations.”
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