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Subliminal 7: Sorting People and Things


What we read into looks, voice, and touch. . . how to win voters, attract a date, or beguile a female cowbird

Chapter 6 surveys the ways that subtle social cues affect our judgments of others, without our knowledge. This ranges from our voting of politicians (based more than we’d like on how “competent” they look) to our attraction to others (based more than we notice on their voices, which change slightly depending on fertility cycles and all that jazz). Other subtle cues like posture and eye contact send quite a bit of info about social status that is computed subconsciously by others. Luckily, these things can be noticed, and changed.

Why we categorize things and stereotype people. . . what Lincoln, Gandhi, and Che Guevara had in common

This whole chapter (7) is reminiscent of Yudkowsky’s posts on 37 Ways Words are Wrong. We automatically categorize things without knowing it, which is an amazing function of our brain in conserving energy and memory. Unfortunately, this leads to some problems that only now humanity is learning about that have probably contributed to a huge amount of erroneous philosophical musings and social problems (theory of the forms, essentialism, racism, in-group out-group biases)

This has pretty huge implications for the abortion debate too. By many definitions, including the medical-scientific one (is that a real thing?) zygote’s count as humans. But due to our unconscious categorization instincts, we are likely to imbue something called “human” with attributes that exist in other things with the same label. So we may think it is wrong to kill a zygote-human because when we think of other humans, we think it is wrong to kill them. This is related to Yvain’s Worst Argument in the World. But there may be some significant differences within the label that make one wrong to kill, and the other right or neutral to kill. Pro-lifers have an edge in the debate because our subconscious minds are on their side.

The segment on the implicit attribution test is probably one of the most important steps in a case that unconscious stereotypes exist, even when people consciously reject stereotypes.

Kindle Notes:

it is easy to underestimate the complexity of what is involved in categorization because we usually do it quickly and without conscious effort. When we think of food types, for example, we automatically consider an apple and a banana to be in the same category—fruit—though they appear quite different, but we consider an apple and a red billiard ball to be in different categories, even though they appear quite similar (2534).

one of the principal ways we categorize is by maximizing the importance of certain differences (the orientation of d versus b or the presence of whiskers) while minimizing the relevance of others (the curviness of versus b or the color of the animal). But the arrow of our reasoning can also point the other way. If we conclude that a certain set of objects belongs to one group and a second set of objects to another, we may then perceive those within the same group as more similar than they really are—and those in different groups as less similar than they really are (2541).

The experimenters found that once the lines were thought of as belonging to a group, the subjects perceived them differently. They judged the lines within each group as being closer in length to one another than they really were, and the length difference between the two groups as being greater than it actually was.2 Analogous experiments have since shown the same effect in many other contexts (2551).

Earlier we saw how the brain fills in gaps in visual data—for instance, compensating for the blind spot where the optic nerve attaches to the retina. We also saw how our hearing fills gaps, such as when a cough obliterated a syllable or two in the sentence “The state governors met with their respective legislatures convening in the capital city.” And we saw how our memory will add the details of a scene we remember only in broad strokes and provide a vivid and complete picture of a face even though our brains retained only its general features. In each of these cases our subliminal minds take incomplete data, use context or other cues to complete the picture, make educated guesses, and produce a result that is sometimes accurate, sometimes not, but always convincing. Our minds also fill in the blanks when we judge people, and a person’s category membership is part of the data we use to do that (2628).

The challenge science presents to the legal community is to move beyond that, to address the more difficult issue of unconscious discrimination, of bias that is subtle and hidden even from those who exercise it (2749).

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