Cognitive Biases and Real Examples
A lot of scenes in movies, books, or TV shows represent a character’s judgment which is affected by cognitive bias. How does this bias represent an obstacle to critical thinking? How would you explain the error to that character?
Here is an example. In the Disney film Pocahontas, both the English explorers and the Powhatan tribe demonstrate the dangers of stereotyping and bandwagon bias. In the scene Savages, we see Governor Radcliff, the leader of the exploration, rounding up his men, preparing them to fight the “savages.” He rallies his men by singing of their barbaric nature, the main chorus ‘Savages, savages…barely even human,’ (ethnocentrism/stereotyping). His men, wanting to save Smith, prepared themselves to fight the Powhatan tribe even when they knew this was against Smith’s wishes but jump at Radcliff’s suggestion to save Smith. In this scene, we see more and more English explorers taking up arms preparing them for battle (bandwagon bias).
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Radcliff, however, used Smith’s capture to his advantage (self-interest bias). He was under the assumption that Powhatan people were hiding gold in the outskirts of Virginia and he wanted it for himself. Therefore, he used Smith’s capture to advance his own interest without considering the outcome this battle could have brought on both the English explorers and tribal members.
Meanwhile, we see the same ethnocentrism/stereotyping mindset from the Powhatan tribe. Phrases like “pale face demon,” and statements “they’re different from us which means they can’t be trusted” show a great deal of ethnocentrism/stereotyping bias.
Biases destroy our ability to individually evaluate the diversity of values, beliefs, and social stratification of others. Both groups failed to see that their beliefs, values, and social stratification were not the only possible way to live.
If I was to talk to Radcliff or Powhatan, I would use the Socratic Method. I would ask them to define the word savage. Next, I would ask them to support their claim. In hopes that they would see that all men, no matter what ethnicities is not a savage. I would explain that their fears of each other are driving them into battle but that fear could be eliminated if they would take the time to invest in learning about each other’s customs and culture.
The second great area of biases is famous disasters from history.
Here is the example. The holocaust was due to several cognitive biases including, ethnocentrism/stereotyping and the bandwagon bias. Around 6 million Jewish people and 11 million other victims were killed on the basis of creating an Aryan race. Antisemitism at the time was contributed to the stab-in-the-back legend. This legend credited the German defeat in WWI to internal traders, thought to be Jews and communists. These views made the extermination of the Jewish people easy and favorable.
These biases create an obstacle to critical thinking because many German people did not base their beliefs on evidence but rather on groupthink, egocentrism, and stereotyping. Cognitive biases influence our thought by disrupting objective judgment.
If I could talk to the German government, I would ask them to define a human. I would then ask them if Jewish people fit their definition. I would also ask them to produce evidence proving the stab-in-the-back legend. Then I would explain to them that all life has value; that one group of people is not more valuable than another group.