Author Archives: ellietruffa

Bias, heuristics, and judgment: Racial bias and police force

Bias, heuristics, and judgment: Racial bias and police force

*I realize this post is political, and therefore has the potential to be off-putting. I apologize in advance if I tread on anyone’s particular position on this contemporary issue*

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During the past decade, the news has been increasingly covering stories involving racial bias and police brutality. We, as a society, are being confronted with a huge problem.

There has been an enormous debate between whether racial bias has been a cause for more violence, or at least an increased awareness of this violence. Between “black lives matter” and “all lives matter” campaigns, it has become clear that as a nation we do not agree as to why so much violence, particularly against minorities, exists and has filled the news. Endless Facebook arguments to governmental debates have occurred over this issue, pitting friends and foes alike against each other.

Whether we agree with the politics behind it or not, the issue of racial bias has become evident in various discussions across the nation.

Some people reading this post may disagree with the fact that racial bias has anything at all to do with what has been occurring in our nation. However, if we do attribute some blame to instances of racial biases, we must ask ourselves… Why do some people have guns drawn on them more than others on the basis of nothing more than the color of their skin?

I personally do believe that there are problems that a lot of people have been denying exist in our society: racism and privilege, and the consequences of both. It’s not pulling the “race-card”, it’s not saying that everyone who is white or conservative or a police officer is racist and violent, but it is acknowledging that we, as a society, have huge underlying problems, and a particular lack of understanding or empathy for those who experience these problems.

As a contemporary issue, I was interested to see how a cognitive psychological perspective and understanding could apply to the argument behind the existence of racial bias, police brutality, and why nothing (until more recently) has significantly change in our society to rectify such injustices, and support my own personal and political opinion.

As we have learned very clearly this semester that human beings aren’t always rational. There is a specific, cognitive psychological concept we have discussed that I see as contributing to racial bias and systematic, institutionalized racism.

Stereotypes.

Explicit stereotypes are the result of intentional, conscious, and controllable thoughts and beliefs. Explicit stereotypes usually are directed toward a group of people based on what is being perceived by an outsider of the group. These stereotypes are what we say out loud, what we consciously believe and hold to be true.

Although some people proudly expose their potentially racist ideologies, since I like to believe that everyone tries to overcome racism, I would like to focus on implicit stereotypes.

An implicit stereotype is an unconscious attribution of specific qualities to a member of a certain social group. “These stereotypes are influenced by experience, and are based on learned associations between various qualities and social categories, including race or gender. Individuals’ perceptions and behaviors can be affected by implicit stereotypes, even without the individuals’ intention or awareness. Implicit stereotypes are an aspect of implicit social cognition, the phenomenon that perceptions, attitudes, and stereotypes operate without conscious intention. The existence of implicit stereotypes is supported by a variety of scientific articles in psychological literature”

Implicit stereotypes can be activated by the environment, and operate outside of intentional conscious cognition. For example, we can unconsciously stereotype all pitbulls as being dangerous. This stereotype may be associated with one event that we may have seen in the past (or what we have been told is the past…), but the source of these associations may be misidentified, or even unknown by the individual who holds them, and can persist even when an individual rejects the stereotype explicitly and outwardly. Therefore, regardless of the beliefs you think you may hold, racial bias still is a part of your thought process. Like a fish that swims through water, we live in a society where race is still an issue. In truth, everybody really is a little bit racist.

Our feelings and experiences can dictate how we perceive the world, influencing our decision-making processes, actions, and how we perceive and treat others. Although this can be useful to us because if we know what to avoid and how particular things made us feel (we can run, avoid, or fight if we need to), stereotyping, or relying on heuristics, can really set us back. Similarly to stereotypes, heuristics are shortcut to solutions, things we use to understand our daily lives quickly and arguably efficiently. However, these heuristics are not always correct. Although they require less effort, they aren’t the most efficient. However, we use heuristics because unlike algorithms, they require much less mental effort. Availability and representativeness play a huge role in perpetuating racial bias.

Attitudes, stereotypes, and prejudices are all things that can influence our behavior and feelings toward an individual or group, such as racial minorities.

An attitude is “…an evaluative judgment of an object, a person, or a social group”. We can form an attitude toward anyone, like golfers. We can have many different types of attitudes toward golfers, either be positive or negative, that influence how we treat, interact with, perceive, and understand other golfers.

A stereotype is the “…association of a person or a social group with a consistent set of traits”. This may include both positive and negative traits, such as women are more understanding or women are irrational and therefore are bad decision-makers. There are many types of stereotypes that exist: racial, cultural, gender, group – all being very explicit in the lives of many people within and outside these groups.

Prejudice is an “…unfair negative attitude toward a social group or a member of that group”. Prejudices can stem from many of the things that people observe in a different social group that include, but are not limited to, gender, sex, race/ethnicity, or religion.

(see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Implicit_stereotype)

Stereotypes, heuristics, and bias play a huge part, I believe, in what has been contributing to the violence we have been seeing.

One way to see this is by looking at the role the media plays in perpetuating stereotypes. Media often portrays minorities in negative lights to explain things such as rates of crime, instead allowing us, as a society, to accept responsibility for the racism we perpetuate (through looking at the effects of institutionalized racism, social stratification, etc). For example, why is it that when Tamir Rice, a twelve year old boy playing with a toy gun outside a recreation center, was shot and killed by a police officer, media immediately began describing the “thuggish” lives of his parents? They later claimed because they were trying to “explain why he had a toy gun”, but what kid hasn’t played with a toy gun or some other “badass” object to feel cool? I “smoked” candy cigarettes when I was twelve, but even better, I know plenty of people who at young ages played violent and realistic (killing-focused) video games, which are much more violent than playing with a fake gun (that was probably bought at any local toy store).

And perhaps the police officers who encountered Tamir Rice truly feared for their lives. The police officers aren’t necessarily the bad guys here. They, just like us, just like Tamir, encounter and are influenced by racial bias and stereotypes. They weren’t relayed the information that the gun was probably fake, or that the person carrying the gun was a child. So why did this happen? Because our society fears minorities and other groups due to racial stereotypes and other stereotypes. Because racial stereotypes probably influenced the 911 operator’s decision not to share crucial information.

After Tamir Rice was killed by a police officer, I saw this particular picture on Humans of New York, a favorite Facebook page of mine to follow. With interesting stories and powerful, thought-provoking anecdotes, Humans of New York always provides additional insight into contemporary issues. This picture shows three young men, all minorities. They were asked, “What is your greatest struggle right now?”.  The reply? “Not being white”…

https://www.facebook.com/humansofnewyork/photos/a.102107073196735.4429.102099916530784/663217220419048/?type=1

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I’m not seeking to challenge anyone’s personal political opinion. Discussing the issue and suggesting that you open your mind and heart to new information and new perspectives in accordance to cognitive psychological research is not demanding that you change your mind. Rather, have that new information further influence your opinions with a greater understanding of human thought.

This message has meaning, and I believe this meaning can transcend political positions.

I mean, what’s better than to end the semester with a potentially controversial, political post…

I’m just going to leave it at that.

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Vegas, baby!

Today in class we briefly discussed decision-making and gambling, a topic that can be very interesting. I also watched 21 two days ago, a movie about counting cards, making this subject ever more poignant to me (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0478087/). I decided to do more research in the area of decision-making and gambling, with a brief commentary on 21.

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Gambling is a widespread form of entertainment. The term itself is defined as “playing games of chance for money; bet”, or “taking risky action in the hope of a desired result” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gambling). What is evident here is that gambling is risky. Often times, it is a stressful and cognitively demanding experience due to the risk of “losing it all”. However, people pursue the possible but ever eluding prize of “winning it all” because of the chance that they just might. But in a cognitive perspective, why do people gamble?

A cognitive psychological approach in analyzing gambling can offer insights into the interaction between cognition and decision-making. “The house always wins” is a phrase well-known by most gamblers (and a lot of non-gamblers); however they choose to continue gambling away. This provides an interesting contradiction for cognitive psychologists to analyze. Although the odds are against the gambler, the gambler chooses to continue. Logically, gambling is not a sound way to increase profit for the gambler; in fact, it is always stacked so that the casino will reap a steady profit at the expense of gamblers as a whole. So why do people continue to gamble?

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As mentioned in class, availability heuristics play a role. Availability heuristic is a mental shortcut that relies on immediate examples that come to a given person’s mind when evaluating a specific topic, concept, method or decision. These heuristics operate on the notion that if something can be recalled, it must be important, or at least more important than alternative solutions which are not as readily recalled (things that are more easily remembered are judged to be more prevalent) (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Availability_heuristic). By creating the “presence” of winners, casinos draw people in. These winners are highlighted to make them more memorable, more available during the cognitive processes involved in decision making. People start buying into the invalid belief that winning during gambling is guaranteed, or at least that gambling is in their favor due to the illusionary correlation between gambling and winning. However, as mentioned before, games are stacked against the gambler in favor of the house. This leads gamblers astray, contributing to irrational gambling behavior.

Another cognitive process that contributes to gambling behavior is a distorted appraisal of control during gambling, aka, a belief in competency. Competence is described as possessing the knowledge, skill, and motivation to accomplish a task (http://www.psychologyinaction.org/2011/04/15/competence-vs-performance/). Belief in competency provides the gambler with an illusion of control. Because of this belief, the gambler confuses a game of chance and risk with a game of skill. If they are skilled enough, they will win; therefore justifying playing the game. Again, by buying into the inaccurate belief that they have some type of control, thereby overestimating their chances of winning, the gambler is led astray.

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As Dr. Rettinger mentioned as a joke, slot machines are much like Skinner boxes. However, there is research displaying the accuracy of this statement. According to this study, http://stoppredatorygambling.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/04/Clark-Decision-Making-During-Gambling.pdf, unpredictable monetary wins such as the varying wins from gambling are compelling forms of positive reinforcement, strengthening the instrumental response (continued gambling). Gambling is also associated with physiological arousal that is manifested in heart rate increases, elevated cortisol levels, and elevated noradrenaline and dopamine levels (hey Dr. Stahlman). Environmental cues such as the flashing lights or the chime of coins associated with the physiological arousal mentioned above become conditioned stimuli due to Pavlovian conditioning processes (reward processes). Gambling is also seen as serving to alleviate disagreeable states of boredom, anxiety, or low/depressed mood (negative reinforcement). It becomes clear when reading through this study that these emotional learning mechanisms play key roles in motivating irrational gambling behavior.

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However, 21’s (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/21_(2008_film) ) exploration into blackjack and beating the dealer is much less gambling than it is conscious decision-making based off of an algorithm. Instead of using availability heuristics and inductive reasoning, the “big” players use deductive reasoning, strategies, systems, and algorithms to create true competency. Their gambling behavior is not irrational, in fact, it is very logical. By counting cards the players in the movie are able to use the stacked system in their favor, almost guaranteeing monetary reward. In fact, it’s almost tempting to learn… Vegas, baby!

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Memory – What is to be trusted?

In class, we have discussed a lot when it comes to memory. Memory encoding, memory retrieval, working memory, long-term memory, false memories, forgetting memories…we discuss memory because it is a fundamental aspect of human life. In short, memory is a degraded form of re-experience. Our memories are what define who we are, how we react, how we process and learn from our experiences. By re-experiencing our experiences, we make decisions and come to conclusions. We insist on particular versions of events and tell stories. A common defense during an argument is, “Well I remember that…[!]”. We live our lives in accordance to our experiences. Memory is essentially held dear to us. We, literally, cherish our memories.

But what do we really remember? How you would feel if you realized a major memory, a major life experience, was being re-experienced wrong? That you were remembering incorrectly? That you were basing decisions off of, or telling a story of, a memory that never happened? Or at least didn’t happen the way you thought it did? How would this change you? How would this change your perception of your memories? Of your particular “truth”?

I found this concept very intriguing because as I said, memory is essential to the human conscious experience. Yet memory can be altered by a multitude of errors. Schema-based errors, retrieval errors, decay, and interference are a few of the ways that memory can be compromised. To a point, memory can even be malleable. Yet most of us would like to believe that when we recall a memory, that we are recalling it correctly.

This CNN article discusses a particular cognitive psychologist’s research into memory and memory functions http://edition.cnn.com/2013/05/18/health/lifeswork-loftus-memory-malleability/. This article discusses how memory is not as reliable as we may think. Elizabeth Loftus, the cognitive psychologist, is particularly interested on the malleability of memory… or rather, the ability to “change” your mind. Loftus specializes in the areas of memory distortion and false memories. According to this article, Loftus’ research shows your memory works more as a transcription of history created by multiple people’s perceptions and assumptions that’s constantly changing, rather than a definitive set of events recorded and retrieved in pure accuracy.

In fact, memory retrieval can be influenced by our surroundings. Loftus showed how different word choices or misinformation can illicit the report of not completely accurate memories. From recalling a car crash to identifying a perpetrator in a line up, these new sources of information can change eye witness testimony by supplementing, distorting, or contaminating their memories, making them unreliable.

This means that someone may ask you a question about a memory using a particular word choice, therefore causing you to subconsciously alter your story. Hard to prevent, right? And if you hear some type of misinformation about an event, you may subconsciously alter the way you recall that event. It might be unsettling to know that over time that your re-experiencing of your past experiences are actually altered by current and future experiences.

In fact, someone may be convinced that they are re-experiencing an experience that they have never had; they may recall a false memory. False memories are memories of experiences that haven’t happened, or did not happen the way they were recalled. It is, by definition, a mistaken belief about one’s past. Although Loftus used her studies on false memory to deny the process of repression, her research is interesting. It shows how memories can be implanted, to a point where the subjects truly believe they experienced a particular event, felt a certain way, etc. Loftus has looked into how the implementation of false memories in a subject can alter bad habits or change terrible memories. Although this research may be useful in helping addicts incorrectly remember in efforts to help their therapy, studies show that when given the choice, most people would choose to retain their terrible memories. Which goes to show, memory is something we cherish, even if its not entirely accurate.

This article on Loftus and her research really delved into my inquiry of memory and inaccurate memory. The author did not criticize nor applaud Loftus’s work, rather, she just discussed the different aspects of Loftus’s work in memory. In the end, Loftus and others like her are searching into the limits of memory, a fundamental aspect of our humanity – which is something I find infinitely interesting.

Spritzing – Sprinting through reading

After we discussed object recognition and letter recognition in class, I was reminded of an article I had read a year or so ago on Facebook about speed reading. I remembered going through this stimulation where words were flashed at you one by one creating a sentence, and one letter of the word was red (the rest of the text was black). From what I could remember, the article asserted that it could increase your reading speed to ~1000wpm (roughly 1000 words per minute) through using this version of Rapid Serial Visual Presentation (RSVP). I had a strong feeling that this phenomenon would connect greatly to our in-class discussions.

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I attempted to find the original article in order to write my blog post, and was surprised to see that “Spritzing” is already taking over. Since this article emerged, the latest version of the Huffington Post has adopted Spritz, which allows you to read an article using the Spritz technology and method in order to decrease time spent reading. Other partnerships include, but are not limited to, Samsung, Intel, HP, Cengage Learning, Financial Times, and Harvard University. Spritzing has also been featured by over 1,000 publications across the globe, many including Fox Business, CNBC, The Washington Post, Wall Street Journal (http://www.spritzinc.com/press-gallery/). They have also developed software to download on your computer for you to “spritz” (Spritzlet). There are also apps you can download on your phone for Spritz. The Spritz webpage has an application where you can “test yourself”, seeing how well Spritz works for you (you can try multiple reading speeds, seeing which works best for you). Spritz is available in English, Spanish, French, German, Russian and Korean. The Spritz website itself has only been recently copyrighted, making it clear how new this particular technology is.

I believed prior to reading information on the Spritz website that “spritzing” would have a lot to do with cognitive studies regarding letter detection and recognition, involving perhaps word superiority, visual search, and overall increasing accuracy and efficiency. It turns out, I had the right idea. On the website, the science behind Spritz(ing) is discussed. According to the website, the traditional style of reading (reading text in a line, moving your eyes sequentially from one word to the next) is inefficient. Each word has an ORP, or an optimal recognition point, and the ORP for each word (depending on word length) is different. During reading, your eye moves from ORP to the next ORP (eye movement = saccades), reading comprehension and retention then following the processing of the word for meaning and context. This takes a significant amount of time to do, with 80% of the time spent just moving your eyes word to word, seeking out the ORPs. Spritz highlights the ORP instead, and places the word in the right ORP spot, making it so your eye does not have to move in order to process the word. This decreases the time spent searching for these ORPs (decreasing visual search) and thereby increases your reading speed.

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The following video demonstrates the difference in eye movements (saccades) between traditional reading, Rapid Serial Visual Presentation, and Spritzing.

I honestly found all of this very interesting. I liked how the website discussed the science behind “spritzing” on its webpage, making it easy to understand the processes behind its application. I tested myself however, and although it did increase my reading speed, my reading comprehension and retention decreased a bit. I could understand what I was reading, but its 40 minutes later now and I barely remember what I read (although I do remember the general idea). Spritz seems like a useful way to save time in the long run when reading for fun, or for the general idea of things. However, if you are reading to remember (*cough cough* for cognitive psychology), I do not recommend “spritzing”. Then again, I did not test myself at every wpm level. Perhaps if I did I could find one that is just right!

http://www.spritzinc.com/