Be Aware of Your Perspective

May 22, 2012 § 1 Comment

Updating your opinion in light of new, relevant data (which is a simplified way of talking about Bayesian probability) is something that you likely consider yourself doing everyday, right? In fact, it’s something you probably do do every day. But do you always do it? Do you always update your opinions in light of relevant data?


Well, may be not always. But surely you do so when considering the most important opinions in your life.


Or maybe not.

A few months ago, I read this article, which highlighted our tendency to discount the credibility of certified experts when they do not align with our preconceived opinions. Then, recently, I came across the Cultural Cognition Project (CCP) at Yale University (see second video below).

Cultural cognition (according one article that I will discuss) refers to the tendency of individuals to conform their beliefs about disputed matters of fact (e.g., whether global warming is a serious threat; whether the death penalty deters murder; whether gun control makes society more safe or less) to values that define their cultural identities.

This video (though it doesn’t explicitly mention culture) is an introductory version of the general idea that we often match our perception to our preconcieved opinions:

(As an important aside, this video showing is not meant to be anti-religious. I, myself, am religious. I hope that Bell Tolling never conveys an anti-religious sentiment or disinvites people of any religion. At the same time, I hope that Bell Tolling encourages everyone to learn more about what they think/believe and why…hopefully there is more to it than what is or isn’t left after a natural disaster).

But….getting back to the point about Cultural Cognition:
To give a bit more applicative detail, here is a summary from an interesting paper recently published in the field of cultural cognition.

No means…?

Imagine a case of law in which a man is charged with having raped a woman. More specifically, the man is charged with having initiated sexual intercourse with a woman after she had repeatedly verbalized “No.” The man did not use physical force or threat of force, however, and the woman did not physically resist or try to escape.

Now, you may say that the verdict of this case is clear: if the woman said “No” and the man proceeded, then the woman was raped. Or in other words, “No means no.”

But others might point out that “No” doesn’t always mean “No.” Sometimes “No” means “Yes” or “Maybe.” This would be what we call “token resistance.”1Essentially, a girl saying “No” to add intrigue and excitement to the relationship.

If it’s possible that token resistance took place in the case above, then a simple verdict of rape may become more complicated.

Called the “No means…?” debate, this question of how we define and determine rape is traditionally brought into the classroom by discussion of the case Commonwealth v. Berkowitz, which took place in 1992 and largely mimics the circumstances described in the imaginary case above (accept that there is much greater nuance to Commonwealth v. Berkowitz).

Investigating the “No means…?” debate, Dan M. Kahan of Yale Law School and the Cultural Cognition Project set out to determine why our opinions of what constitutes rape vary. Do they vary according to gender? According to the definition of rape being used? According to something else?

To find out, Kahan conducted a mock jury study (N= 1,500) in which individual subjects read a detailed vignette patterned after Commonwealth v. Berkowitz. They were then asked to indicate their views of the key facts and the correct verdict. Participants were randomly assigned different definitions of rape by which to make their verdict2, but the vignette that they read was exactly the same.

In abstract, the conclusion of Kahan’s findings can be summarized thus:

Individuals (particularly older women) who hold a hierarchic worldview, as opposed to an egalitarian worldview, were more likely to perceive that a woman meant “Yes” when she said “No” and that the defendant had reasonably mistaken her intentions when initiating sexual intercourse. Now, by itself, this finding doesnt seem all that exciting. After all, of course someone’s worldview effects their opinion. But what was particularly interesting about this finding is that, not only did worldview matter, it was a better indicator of a jurist’s verdict than their gender, or even their definition of “rape.” In fact, Kahan concludes that, “cultural predispositions exert such a powerful influence over perception of consent and other legally consequential facts that no change in the definition of rape is likely to affect results.”

Kahan and his colleages have found similar findings for issues such as gun control, the HPV vaccine and the death penalty. It may seem like they are just rehousing old politics in new clothes, or stating the obvious, but they’re not. Worldview is an even better indicator than politics–which has grand implication for how we interpret decisions and how we deliver our messages to individuals.

In recent days, I’ve continued to absorb and contemplate the readings of the CCP. My interim conclusion is this: though my opinions may be affected (or even determined) by my culture, this does not, necessarily, mean that they are wrong. However, in order for me to be confident that my opinions are not insularly naive, it is incumbent upon me to remain conscious of my cultural proclivities and to seek actively to engage with opposing viewpoints.

Video 2.

1As described by Kahan: “Token resistance” is a social script—a form of behavior recognized and performed because of its cultural meaning—that is distinctive of the hierarchical style.  It is not, however, normative within that way of life. On the contrary, it is conceived of as a behavioral strategy of evading the adverse consequences properly visited on those who defy its norms of female sexualty. It is saying “no” when you actually mean “yes,” and can be used both as a means to mitigate the stigma of a female who wants sex and as a means of thrill and heightened passion in the pursuit of sex. There is even more complexity to “token resistance,” however, as described in the abstract of this recent paper.

2The definitions given to participants:

1.       Common law: a man is guilty of rape if he (a) uses force or the threat of force (b) the engage in sexual intercourse with an woman (c) without the woman’s consent and (d) knows or can reasonably be expected to know the woman does not consent

2.       Strict liability: a man is guilty of rape if he (a) uses forcer or threat of force (b) to engage in sexual intercourse with a woman (c) without the woman’s consent; this group was also informed that the “mistaken belief that the woman consented” cannot be used as a defense.

3.       Reform: a man is guilty of rape if he (a) engages in sexual intercourse with a woman (b) without the woman’s consent. This group was also advised that the “mistaken belief that the woman consented” cannot be used as a defense. In addition, “consent” was defined as “words or overt actions indicating a freely given agreement to have intercourse”

4.       No means No: a man is guilt of rape if he (a) engages in sexual intercourse with a woman (b) without the woman’s consent. In this case, subjects were told that “without a woman’s consent” can include simply uttering the word “no.” This group was also advised that the “mistaken belief that the woman consented” cannot be used as a defense.

5. No definition provided

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