It should come as no shock to anyone, really, that people have all sorts of interesting cognitive biases. Finding and describing these biases would seem to make up a healthy portion of the research in psychology, and one can really make a name for themselves if the cognitive bias they find happens to be particularly cute. Despite this well-accepted description of the goings-on in the human mind (it’s frequently biased), most research in the field of psychology tends to overlook, explicitly or implicitly, those ever-important “why” questions concerning said biases; the paper by Herrera et al (2012) that I’ll be writing about today (and the Jury Room covered recently) is no exception, but we’ll deal with that in a minute. Before I get to this paper, I would like to talk briefly about why we should expect cognitive biases in the most general terms.
When it comes to the way our mind perceives and processes information, one might consider two possible goals for those perceptions: (1) being accurate – i.e. perceiving the world in an “objective” or “correct” way – or (2) doing (evolutionarily) useful things. A point worth bearing in mind is that the latter goal is the only possible route by which any cognitive adaptation could evolve; a cognitive mechanism that did not eventually result in a reproductive advantage would, unsurprisingly, not be likely to spread throughout the population. That’s most certainly not to say that accuracy doesn’t matter; it does, without question. However, accuracy is only important insomuch as it leads to doing useful things. Accuracy for accuracy’s sake is not even a potential selection pressure that could shape our psychology. While, generally speaking, having accurate perceptions can often lead towards adaptive ends, when those two goals are in conflict, we should expect doing useful things to win every time, and, when that happens, we should see a cognitive bias as the result.
A quick example can drive this point home: your very good friend finds himself in conflict with a complete stranger. You have arrived late to the scene, so you only have your friend’s word and the word of the stranger as to what’s going on. If you were an objectively accurate type, you might take the time to listen to both of their stories carefully, do your best to figure out how credible each party is, find out who was harmed and how much, and find the “real” victim in the altercation. Then, you might decide whether or not to get involved on the basis of that information. Now that may sound all well and good, but if you opt for this route you also run the risk of jeopardizing your friendship to help out a stranger, and losing the benefits of that friendship is a cost. Suffering that cost is, all things considered, evolutionarily, would be a “bad” thing, even if uninvolved parties might consider it to be it the morally correct action (skirting for the moment the possibility of costs that other parties might impose, though avoiding those could easily be fit in the “doing useful things” sides of the equation). This suggests that, all else being equal, there should be some bias that pushes people towards siding with their friends, as siding against them is a costlier alternative.
So where all this leads us is to the conclusion that when you see someone proposing that a cognitive bias exists, they are, implicitly or explicitly, suggesting that there is a conflict between accuracy and some cost of that accuracy, be that conflict over behaving in a way that generates an adaptive outcome, trade-offs between cognitive costs of computation and accuracy, or anything else. With that out of the way, we can now consider the paper by Herrera et al (2012) that purports to find a strange cognitive bias when it comes to the interaction of (a) perceptions of credibility, responsibility, and control of a situation when it comes to domestic violence against women, (b) their physical attractiveness, and (c) their prototypicality as a victim. According to their results, attractiveness might not always be a good thing.
Though, let’s face it, attractiveness is, on the whole, typically a good thing.
In their study, Herrera et al (2012) recruited a sample of 169 police offers (153 of which were men) from various regions of Spain. They were divided into four groups, each of which read a different vignette about a hypothetical woman who had filed a self-defense plea for killing her husband by stabbing him in the back several times, citing a history of domestic abuse a fear that he would have killed her during an argument. The woman in these stories – Maria – was either described as attractive or unattractive (no pictures were actually included) along the following lines: thick versus thin lips, smooth features versus stern and jarring ones, straight blonde hair versus dark bundled hair, and slender versus non-slender appearance. In terms of whether Maria was a prototypical battered woman, she was either described as having 2 children, no job with an income, hiding her face during the trial, being poorly dressed, and timid in answering questions, or as having no children, a well-paying job, being well dressed, and resolute in her interactions.
Working under the assumption that these manipulations are valid (I feel they would have done better to have used actual pictures of women rather than brief written descriptions, but they didn’t), the authors found an interesting interaction: when Maria was attractive and prototypical, she was rated as being more credible than when she was unattractive and prototypical (4.18 vs 3.30 out of 7). The opposite pattern held for when Maria was not prototypical; here, attractive Maria was rated as being less credible than her unattractive counterpart (3.72 vs 3.85). So, whether attractiveness was a good or a bad thing for Maria’s credibility depended on how well she otherwise met some criteria for your typical victim of domestic abuse. On the other hand, more responsibility was attributed to Maria for the purported abuse when she was attractive overall (5.42 for attractive, 5.99 for unattractive).
Herrera et al (2012) attempt to explain the attractiveness portion of their results by suggesting that attractiveness might not fit in with the prototypical picture of a female version of domestic abuse, which results in less lenient judgments of their behavior. It seems to me this explanation could have been tested with the data they collected, but they either failed to do so or did and did not find significant results. More to the point, this explanation is admittedly strange, given that attractive women were also rated as more credible when they were otherwise prototypical, and the author’s proximate explanation should, it seems, predict precisely the opposite pattern in that regard. Perhaps they might have had ended up with a more convincing explanation for their results had their research been guided with some theory as to why we should see these biases with regard to attractiveness, (i.e. what the conflict in perception should be being driven by) but it was not.
I mean, it seems like a handicap to me, but maybe you’ll find something worthwhile…
There was one final comment in the paper I would like to briefly consider with regard to what the authors consider two fundamental due process requirements in cases of women’s domestic abuse: (1) the presumption of innocence on the part of the woman making the claim of abuse and (2) the woman’s right to a fair hearing without the risk of revictimization; revictimization, in this case, referring to instances where the woman’s claims are doubted and her motives are called into question. What is interesting about that claim is that it would seem to set up an apparently unnoticed or unmentioned double-standard: it would seem to imply that women making claims of abuse are supposed to be, by default, believed; this would seem to do violence to the right that the potential perpetrator is supposed to have with regard to their presumption of innocence. Given that part of the focus of this research is on the matter of credibility, this unmentioned double-standard seems out of place. This apparent oversight might have to do with the fact that this research was only examining moral claims made by a hypothetical woman, rather than another claim also made by a man, but it’s hard to say for sure.
References: Herrera, A., Valor-Segura, I., & Expósito, F (2012). Is Miss Sympathy a Credible Defendant Alleging Intimate Partner Violence in a Trial for Murder? The European Journal of Psychology Applied to Legal Context, 4, 179-196