Ev­ery­one is bi­ased, in­clud­ing you: the play de­signed by neu­ro­sci­en­tists

The Guardian Australia - - The Guardian View / Science - Nic Flem­ing

“It’s her word against his,” says a mid­dleaged male ju­ror in thick-rimmed glasses. “Some­one of his ex­pe­ri­ence wouldn’t do some­thing so risky.” A woman to my right says the de­fen­dant is prob­a­bly guilty, but maybe not beyond rea­son­able doubt. “But why would she lie?” asks an­other fe­male ju­ror.

Eleven strangers and I are dis­cussing whether renowned chil­dren’s sur­geon Si­mon Huxtable tried to rape Sally Hodges, the mother of a for­mer pa­tient. She says he tried to kiss her and then force him­self on her. Huxtable says Hodges made up the al­le­ga­tion af­ter he spurned her ad­vances. Mo­bile phone records show he was at her home for 26 min­utes but he told po­lice he was there for only 10. His brows­ing his­tory re­veals he has an in­ter­est in rape porn.

I fid­dle with a yel­low la­bel that says I’m ju­ror num­ber 11. Ex­cept I’m not re­ally. The wit­nesses are ac­tors, and we’ve been watch­ing their tes­ti­monies on tablets at the Her­bert Art Gallery and Mu­seum in Coven­try. The case is fic­tional, but shared pre­tence is en­gag­ing and our de­lib­er­a­tions be­come heated.

The Jus­tice Syn­di­cate is part in­ter­ac­tive play, part psy­chol­ogy ex­per­i­ment de­vel­oped by au­di­ence-cen­tric New­cas­tle theatre group FanSHEN and Kris De Meyer, a neu­ro­sci­en­tist at King’s Col­lege Lon­don. It ex­plores how we form and change opin­ions, our ten­dency to stick to ini­tial in­stincts and how groups in­flu­ence our views. De Meyer hopes that data gath­ered dur­ing the shows and their im­mer­sive na­ture will gen­er­ate new in­sights into hu­man de­ci­sion-mak­ing.

It’s a sub­ject we surely need to un­der­stand bet­ter. On Mon­day, pro­test­ers jos­tled and yelled at Tory MP Anna Soubry in West­min­ster, call­ing her a “fas­cist” and “scum” be­cause of her pro-Re­main stance. Across the At­lantic, di­vi­sions ap­peared to deepen still fur­ther as Don­ald Trump and lead­ing Democrats traded in­sults over his de­mands for a wall on the Mex­i­can bor­der. The in­creas­ingly po­larised and hos­tile na­ture of pub­lic dis­course raises im­por­tant ques­tions. If hu­mans have the ca­pac­ity for rea­son, why do we make so many bad de­ci­sions? How come peo­ple cling to ex­treme or ir­ra­tional views in the face of facts? And can psy­cho­log­i­cal in­sights lead to bet­ter, more ra­tio­nal de­ci­sions?

The start­ing point for many who grap­ple with these ques­tions, in­clud­ing those be­hind The Jus­tice Syn­di­cate, is the work in the 1950s of Amer­i­can social psy­chol­o­gist Leon Festinger. Based on a ba­sic hu­man de­sire to be con­sis­tent, Festinger said we com­pare our­selves to oth­ers to eval­u­ate our own opin­ions and abil­i­ties, and that those in groups with di­verg­ing opin­ions will ei­ther seek to move to­wards con­sen­sus, os­tracise in­di­vid­u­als with op­pos­ing views or form en­trenched fac­tions.

He also out­lined how, when hu­mans hold con­tra­dic­tory ideas, or their ac­tions con­flict with their beliefs, they suf­fer a form of men­tal dis­com­fort called cog­ni­tive dis­so­nance. His PhD stu­dent El­liot Aron­son fleshed this con­cept out, show­ing how this is es­pe­cially likely to lead to poor de­ci­sion-mak­ing when it con­cerns some­thing that is im­por­tant to our self-im­age. “If I see my­self as some­one who is smart, com­pe­tent and kind, and you give me some in­for­ma­tion that I have done some­thing fool­ish, im­moral or hurt­ful, I have a choice,” says US social psy­chol­o­gist Carol Tavris, co-author with Aron­son of Mis­takes Were Made (But Not By Me). “I can re­vise my view of my­self, or I can dis­miss the ev­i­dence. Most peo­ple take the least painful path and dis­miss the ev­i­dence.”

These pres­sures can lead to con­fir­ma­tion bias – the ten­dency to pay at­ten­tion only to in­for­ma­tion that con­firms our ex­ist­ing beliefs. It is per­haps the best known of hu­man bi­ases. Dur­ing the 1970s, No­bel prizewin­ning psy­chol­o­gist Daniel Kah­ne­man out­lined a series of other men­tal short­cuts that can lead us astray. The “avail­abil­ity heuris­tic”, for ex­am­ple, may mis­tak­enly con­vince us that car travel is safer than fly­ing. A £100 pair of jeans might seem like a bar­gain if re­duced from £200, even if they cost £2 to make, thanks to the “an­chor­ing ef­fect”. And the “rep­re­sen­ta­tive­ness heuris­tic” can mis­lead gam­blers into think­ing they are due a win fol­low­ing a string of sta­tis­ti­cally un­re­lated losses. Kah­ne­man went on to out­line how the brain uses rapid, in­tu­itive pro­cesses to make some de­ci­sions and slow, more con­scious and de­lib­er­a­tive pro­cesses for oth­ers.

Some ar­gue our cog­ni­tive bi­ases only look strange if we see hu­man rea­son­ing in­di­vid­u­al­is­ti­cally. French cog­ni­tive psy­chol­o­gists Hugo Mercier and Dan Sper­ber ar­gue in their 2017 book The Enigma of Rea­son that as highly social an­i­mals, we are deeply con­cerned with ap­pear­ing to be wise, com­pe­tent and trust­wor­thy to oth­ers. Our rea­son­ing ca­pa­bil­i­ties there­fore evolved not to reach the most log­i­cal so­lu­tions to prob­lems but to help us ar­gue our case and jus­tify our po­si­tions. “We are con­stantly jus­ti­fy­ing our­selves and seek­ing to per­suade oth­ers that we are the kind of per­son they want to co­op­er­ate with,” says Mercier, of the Jean Ni­cod In­sti­tute in Paris. “From this per­spec­tive, it makes no sense to hold on to ar­gu­ments that con­tra­dict your point of view, but it does make sense to have a con­fir­ma­tion bias.”

In a 2015 study, Mercier asked par­tic­i­pants to tackle a series of rea­son­ing tasks, and pro­vide jus­ti­fi­ca­tions for their choices. When later asked to eval­u­ate their own state­ments dis­guised as those of oth­ers, more than half dis­agreed with them­selves.

Po­lit­i­cal po­lar­i­sa­tion has been a hot topic since 2016, the year Bri­tain voted to leave the EU and Don­ald Trump moved into the White House. De Meyer, how­ever, has been track­ing the phe­nom­e­non since Ge­orge W Bush’s nar­row vic­tory in the 2000 pres­i­den­tial elec­tion, through the rise of the Tea Party move­ment, anti-Barack Obama sen­ti­ment and the rum­bling ac­ri­mony over cli­mate change.

Aware of the in­sights psy­chol­ogy had to of­fer, he and film-maker Sheila Mar­shall pro­duced the 2016 doc­u­men­tary Right Be­tween Your Ears, which fea­tured Amer­i­can Chris­tian ra­dio host Harold Camp­ing and his fol­low­ers, who be­lieved that God would gather up his cho­sen few and then de­stroy the Earth with huge earthquakes on 21 Oc­to­ber, 2011. It cap­tures the in­ten­sity of the cog­ni­tive dis­so­nance suf­fered by be­liev­ers, who had left their jobs and sold their homes, on re­al­is­ing the end had not in fact been nigh.

There have been some 20 Jus­tice Syn­di­cate shows since early 2017. The soft­ware on which it runs also gath­ers re­search data, track­ing how con­sis­tent par­tic­i­pants are when asked three times dur­ing the piece which way they are lean­ing, and how long they view pieces of ev­i­dence for. An ini­tial anal­y­sis of re­cent shows found that al­most half of par­tic­i­pants failed to change their ini­tial lean­ings at all, despite the in­tro­duc­tion of new ev­i­dence.

“In­di­vid­u­als take very dif­fer­ent views on what bits of in­for­ma­tion are im­por­tant,” says Joe McAlis­ter, the com­pu­ta­tional artist who de­vel­oped the soft­ware. “It’s taught me that peo­ple have a lot of dif­fer­ent and un­usual bi­ases, which is fas­ci­nat­ing but also quite ter­ri­fy­ing.” The al­le­ga­tions of sex­ual as­sault made against Hol­ly­wood mogul Har­vey We­in­stein and US judge Brett Ka­vanaugh both af­fected Jus­tice Syn­di­cate de­bates and ver­dicts. McAlis­ter says younger par­tic­i­pants have fo­cused more strongly on is­sues of con­sent.

Re­cent fail­ures to re­peat ex­per­i­ments that sup­port im­por­tant con­cepts in psy­chol­ogy have led to a loss of con­fi­dence in the dis­ci­pline. Some blamed the use of highly ar­ti­fi­cial de­ci­sion-mak­ing tasks for this “re­pro­ducibil­ity cri­sis”. De Meyer be­lieves in­ter­ac­tive theatre can pro­duce more re­al­is­tic re­sults. “It al­lows us to recre­ate some­thing with a cer­tain level of re­al­ism, and opens up doors to do psy­cho­log­i­cal re­search in a new way that we couldn’t do 20 years ago.”

Oth­ers seem to agree. In De­cem­ber, De Meyer and FanSHEN pro­duced a new piece, com­mis­sioned by the Cab­i­net Of­fice, to probe peo­ple’s re­ac­tions to a na­tional power grid fail­ure. Work on a sce­nario about some­one dy­ing due to med­i­cal neg­li­gence will be­gin next month. De Meyer wants to use the for­mat to study why peo­ple are more likely to blame those of dif­fer­ent eth­nic groups to them­selves for er­rors.

He also hopes his work can help ex­plain ris­ing po­lit­i­cal po­lar­i­sa­tion. Re­search by US think­tank the Pew Re­search Cen­tre shows a grow­ing gulf in the views of Repub­li­cans and Democrats on key top­ics such as race, the en­vi­ron­ment and the role of gov­ern­ment. An­other study shows Amer­i­cans in­creas­ingly dis­like or even loathe those who sup­port the party they them­selves op­pose.

Many blame social me­dia for fan­ning the flames of divi­sion. “The way peo­ple use social me­dia and select their own on­line news sources keeps them in their own lit­tle con­fir­ma­tion bias bub­bles,” says Tavris. “Tweets go vi­ral when they re­ally res­onate with a group or re­ally anger a group,” says De Meyer. “Social me­dia seems to be am­pli­fy­ing ex­ist­ing di­vi­sions and prob­a­bly mak­ing them worse.”

Psy­chol­ogy offers in­sights, both to in­di­vid­u­als who want to make bet­ter de­ci­sions by learn­ing about their own rea­son­ing pow­ers, and those seek­ing the se­crets of per­suad­ing oth­ers. In a 2014 study, Mercier and col­leagues found only 22% of par­tic­i­pants could solve a rea­son­ing task on their own, but when small groups dis­cussed their think­ing, this rose to 63%. “If peo­ple are rea­son­ing on their own or only with peo­ple they agree with, nine times out of 10 they will stick to bi­ased po­si­tions and you are go­ing to get po­lar­i­sa­tion,” he says. “But if you take a group of peo­ple with some kind of com­mon in­cen­tive but who dis­agree about some­thing, then rea­son can help them get a bet­ter an­swer.”

Back in our mock jury room, and an ini­tial show of hands re­veals that, af­ter hear­ing the ev­i­dence, we see Si­mon Huxtable as guilty by a slim ma­jor­ity or 7-5. “She was drunk and upset,” ar­gues ju­ror num­ber four, a young male. “But what would she have to do for peo­ple to be­lieve her?” asks a fe­male jury mem­ber, who adds a not guilty ver­dict would send out the wrong mes­sage to other vic­tims. “His sex­ual fan­tasies, how­ever ex­treme, are ir­rel­e­vant,” says a male ju­ror. “We need to fo­cus on the facts of the case.”

An­other vote shows that 10 min­utes of dis­cus­sion has shifted opin­ion to 7-5 for not guilty.

At this point, I no­tice a ma­tri­ar­chal ju­ror across the ta­ble is speak­ing both fre­quently and sen­si­bly and that many par­tic­i­pants are look­ing in her di­rec­tion when they speak. She is ar­gu­ing with in­creas­ing con­vic­tion that the ev­i­dence against Si­mon Huxtable is merely cir­cum­stan­tial. A short while later, we vote again, reach­ing a not guilty ver­dict by 10-2. Dur­ing a de­brief­ing ses­sion, Dan Barnard of FanSHEN de­scribes some or the psy­cho­log­i­cal con­cepts un­der­pin­ning the show and en­cour­ages us to con­sider how they af­fected our de­ci­sions.

The show’s cre­ators be­lieve greater un­der­stand­ing of the men­tal trig­gers that af­fect our own de­ci­sions and those of oth­ers could help us all be­come a lit­tle more open-minded, tol­er­ant and ra­tio­nal. “The most pow­er­ful form of learn­ing is ex­pe­ri­en­tial,” says De Meyer. “My hope is that by mak­ing peo­ple aware of how they are think­ing and be­hav­ing, it helps them to deal with real sit­u­a­tions in which emo­tions and

in­stincts might other­wise take over.”

The Jus­tice Syn­di­cate is run­ning on9 Fe­bru­aryat theN­ational Jus­tice Mu­seum, Not­ting­ham;11-23 Fe­bru­aryat the Bat­tersea Arts Cen­tre, Lon­don; and14 April at the Plea­sance theatre, Ed­in­burgh as part of the Ed­in­burgh in­ter­na­tional sci­ence fes­ti­val Test your pow­ers of rea­son­ing

1. A bat and a ball cost £1.10 in to­tal. The bat costs £1 more than the ball. How much does the ball cost?

2. It takes five ma­chines five min­utes to make five wid­gets. How long does it take 100 ma­chines to make 100 wid­gets?

3. A patch of lily pads on a lake dou­bles in size daily. It takes 48 days for it to com­pletely cover the lake. How long would it take for the patch to cover half of the lake?

Check your an­swers below. If you strug­gled, don’t worry, you’re in good com­pany. Just one in six of more than 3,000 Amer­i­cans, mostly of col­lege stu­dents, got all three right. A third failed to get any cor­rect. US psy­chol­o­gist Shane Fred­er­ick de­vel­oped the cog­ni­tive re­flec­tion test in 2005 to mea­sure the de­gree to which peo­ple ei­ther go with their gut in­stinct or take their time to re­flect on sim­ple but mis­lead­ing puzzles.

An­swers: 1. 5p. 2. Five min­utes. 3. 47 days.

Jus­tice Syn­di­cate jury mem­bers de­brief in Dundee Sher­iff court af­ter reach­ing their ver­dict.Pho­to­graph: Drew Far­rell

A scene from Sid­ney Lumet’s 1957 court­room drama 12 An­gry Men, in which anin­di­vid­ual (Henry Fonda) chal­lenges thema­jor­ity view. Pho­to­graph: Ron­ald GrantAr­chive

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