Key Concepts: Dual + Process Theories and the Tripartite Theory of Mind

There is an interesting chapter (which I link to here) by Stanovich on the “tripartite” mind that got me thinking about research, as well as being human.

Stanovich distinguishes, first, the Autonomous Set of Systems (TASS) which includes all automated parallel/associative processing. This is the set of systems that creates a “primary” representation of reality. They create the world as we initially perceive it – drawing on schemas as well as perceptual inputs. This is what dual systems theorists call System 1.

Second, he distinguishes the algorithmic mind – which creates secondary – “decoupled” representations. This is most clearly related to working memory capacity – our capacity to sustain representations in memory (and screen out distractions). He distinguishes two general abilities of the algorithmic mind, the second more sophisticated than the first. The first starts with the simplest model of the world that the person can come up with quickly, then adjusts that model, serially (one adjustment at a time). In social terms, this could be someone who is angry at their boss and who we advise to “correct” for different biases associated with anger. Basically, the angry person has one model, then we advise them to adjust it so that – if our advice is helpful – it better resembles the world.

There is a second ability of the algorithmic mind – to simulate different models of the world, and to select between them. This is a more cognitively-loading process. Intuitively, people are more likely to use this ability when they are thinking about the future. Even then, they’ll tend to want to default to a simpler process and start with a single model and then serially process it until they’re more confident in it. This approach will ultimately be more biased, assimilating or contrasting to the first impression. I think we’ve all found ourselves unable to fully break away from that initial model when forecasting future events.

Simulating and comparing multiple models could (should!) also be the process when people are perspective-taking. Rather than starting with a single model or schema (often a cultural schema) and then comparing their target’s behavior to that model (adjusting their impression of the target accordingly), people could start with multiple possible interpretations from different sources and rely on unfolding personal experience to distinguish the superior from the inferior models. Ethnographers and clinical psychologists become very good at this sort of thinking.

Last, in Stanovich’s theoretical model, is the reflective mind. This includes intentional, guiding goals, that a) can trigger the need to go beyond the TASS (the autonomous set of systems) and b) guide the algorithmic mind. People, of course, can differ in their tendency to override the TASS or to engage in single model vs. multi-model thinking. Measures like the Need for Cognition, the Need for Cognitive Closure, Personal Need for Structure, Actively Openminded Thinking, etc provide the researcher information.

I should, in closing, note that TASS-processing isn’t bad! Ideally, people would grow better at a)  recognizing when TASS-processing will fail them and b) being mindful enough of their goals that they can judge when a model is 1) sufficiently detailed and 2) gives appropriate weights to different variables. The TASS, at least in perhaps too tightly controlled thin slicing studies, can be better at both “1” and “2.”

Research Methods Intro: Attitude Strength and Attitude Change – Survey Items in Context

Value
Social scientists use the word “attitude” to refer to a positive or negative impression of some specific thing. That thing could be internal – most people have a negative attitude towards physical pain, for example. It could also be external. A stereotype is either a positive or negative attitude towards members of a social category. Prejudice, as I will be talking about it, is a negative attitude towards a person based on their membership in a social category. For a fuller look at stereotyping, click.

Regarding attitudes, decades of carefully designed experiments (Bohner & Dickel, 2011) ask the following questions:

  1. When we take an attitude in the moment, how much of our positive or negative feeling is driven by our memories, how much by other thoughts, feelings, and experiences that we are having at the same time?
  2. How complex are our attitudes? How complex is the thing we are reacting to? Do we feel ambivalent about it? Do we pay attention to different features of it in different contexts? Do we have an overall impression or are we still making up our minds?
  3. Do our attitudes reflect our most important, foundational beliefs and perspectives on the world?
  4. Do we think that our attitude is legitimate? Do we accept it and agree with it? Are we proud of it? Or do we think that we’re being unfair or even immoral?
  5. Do we think a lot about our attitude? Do we try to shape it in the moment?
  6. Do we act on our attitude?
  7. What would change our minds?

The purpose of these decades of research has mainly been a) to better understand how attitudes relate to behavior and b) to understand how to change destructive or unwanted attitudes.

Process
We tend to measure attitudes by asking people to agree or disagree with a statement on a bipolar likert scale. Explicit measures are subject to social desirability concerns and, particularly when doing cross-cultural research, reference group effects. In understanding reference group effects as they apply to surveys, imagine a 7-point scale that asks you to do the following:

Please rate your agreement with the following statement –

“It is personally important to me to be nonprejudiced.”

In answering that question, you have to decide whether you “Agree very much” or “Agree” or “Disagree very much.” However, what is it to be nonprejudiced? Personal perceptions of cultural standards necessarily shape your answer.

Despite concerns about reference groups and social desirability, many explicit measures produce reliable – consistent – responses over time. In the absence of experimental manipulations, most people will respond to the same question similarly when they first answer it and when they answer it again a week or several weeks later.

In understanding the attitude, we can also directly ask people about:

  • the personal importance of their attitudes
  • whether they feel they have an attitude that reflects a clear stance
  • whether they feel that their attitude is the correct one to hold.

By asking participants to reflect on their attitudes, we can better predict the stability of the attitude, whether they will act on it, and how they will respond to people who disagree with them.

Attitude extremity (distance from the midpoint on the scale) and attitude accessibility (amount of time it takes to answer the survey question) can be calculated from the original question without necessitating additional questions. Attitude extremity may reflect both passion and automaticity – people may report more extreme attitudes when they have stronger emotional responses. They may also report more extreme attitudes when they are responding on first instinct, without taking the time to have a “sober second thought.”

Attitude accessibility, on the other hand, can reflect both difficulty interpreting the question and actual difficulty or ease deciding how you feel about something.

Because our deliberate answer on a survey may be different from our initial feeling, there are also numerous implicit measures of attitudes. These measures all attempt to gauge one’s degree of negativity or positivity in a way that is unobtrusive and more difficult for the participant to control. Numerous measures have been developed (see Fazio & Olson, 2003 and Gawronski & De Houwer, 2014 for reviews) to various degree of success. They tend to take two forms. In one, the participant’s positive or negative feelings facilitate responding to other positive or negative stimuli. In the second, positive or negative feelings are attributed to a neutral stimulus – a Chinese ideograph, when the participants is not familiar with those ideographs – for example. Various semantic versions of implicit measures – looking at the strength of associations between different concepts – have been designed as well.

Explicit and implicit measures, taken together, can improve your ability to predict whether people will act on their attitudes, how they will respond to attitude-relevant information, and how they will interact with people who disagree with them. If there is implicit-explicit discrepancy, for example, participants may try to resolve this discrepancy by being more sensitive to relevant information and processing that information more carefully. Implicit measures may be better predictors of behavior when a participant is a) indecisive (an undecided voter, for example), b) under time pressure (culling a stack of résumés for a job), or c) making complex, multiply-determined judgments (a hiring decision, for example). Explicit measures, on the other hand, may be sufficient or even superior predictors when a) implicit and explicit measures are congruent, or b) the person is making a decision based on a limited number of variables and has the time to process relevant information.

Research Methods Intro: Surveys – Standardizing How We Ask People About Prejudice

Value:
Individual survey questions may introduce noise – there’s rarely a perfect question that will be interpreted the same way by all people. Individuals may also tend to fill out any given question in certain ways, liking more moderate or more extreme responses, for example. Both of these factors introduce noise.

However, with enough questions and enough people providing data, you can deal with the first issue by identifying clusters of questions that tap into the same general idea. You can deal with the second issue by administering the survey to many different people and looking at correlations with other surveys and behavioral measures.

We can also use this process to identify differences between groups – if questions cluster for some groups but not for others – we have to think carefully about why this might be the case, why the same survey questions might tap into different ideas for different groups of people.

We can then compare the survey response to what we learned from our participant observation. Do differences in the language that people use to talk about race show up as actual differences in survey response? Do similarities show up as actual similarities?

Process:
There are numerous surveys available to tap into prejudice, stereotyping, and interpersonal motivation. Commonly used scales include the Modern Racism Scale (McConahey, 1986), the Pro and Anti-Black Attitudes Questionnaire (Katz & Haas, 1988), Dunton and Fazio (1995)’s Motivation to Control Prejudice Reactions scale, and Plant and Devine (1998)’s Internal and External Motivations to Respond Without Prejudice. These surveys have been extensively studied – predicting a variety of behavioral traits including reactions to African American authors and speakers and in person interracial interactions.

These surveys, in general, focus on negative attitudes towards African Americans as a group (with the exception of the Pro and Anti-Black Attitudes Questionnaire, which considers positive and negative attitudes).

The Motivation to Control Prejudiced Reactions scale assumes that people have stereotype-driven reactions and seek to control them. The Internal and External Motivations to Respond Without Prejudice scale assumes that these attempts at acting non-prejudiced can be driven by internal (personal) and external (social) reasons.

Internally-driven people, for example, are more likely to act from an egalitarian framework (Johns, Cullum, Smith, & Freng, 2008). This egalitarian framework treats individuals as individuals. Membership in a social category is acknowledged as a potential influence on what an individual becomes. However, for an egalitarian, the individual is best understood as a unique entity, the product of many, interacting, factors.

Other researchers contrast multicultural ideologies – ideologies that acknowledge that belonging to different social categories shapes your experience – with colorblind ideologies – perspectives that judge every individual by the same standard, regardless of what factors lead them to be who they are.

Planning Our Intervention:
As planned, our intervention will focus on those individual who attribute traits to all members of a group based on observations of representations of the group in the media. We want to see if we can get that person to shift their perspective. Perhaps quixotically, we want that individual to attribute traits to most members of the group based on empirically established means and standard deviations.

To do so – we would want to know the specific content of their prejudice, whether they feel any personal or social pressures to avoid being prejudiced, and whether colorblind or multicultural ideologies appeal to them. Each of these factors could influence how they interact with our intervention.

For example, someone who is purely externally (but not internally) motivated to respond without prejudice tends to self-report a greater number of and more extreme negative attitudes towards African Americans. She tends to demonstrate higher levels of implicit – automatic or unobtrusively measured – prejudice (Devine, Plant, Amodio, Harmon-Jones, & Vance, 2002; Hausmann & Ryan, 2004; Amodio, Devine, & Eddie Harmon-Jones, 2008; Plant & Devine, 2009; Schlauch, Lang, Plant, Christensen, & Donohue, 2009). When talking with someone who happens to be African American, she engages in fewer approach-oriented behaviors (she smiles less, asks fewer questions, and makes less eye contact). Further, she is consciously aware of her concern to avoid appearing prejudice and anticipates being less engaged, even before the interaction (Plant, Devine, & Peruche, 2010). They may also be less likely to pay attention to even a racially-irrelevant message when it is attribute to an African American source (Sude & Rios, 2011, conference presentation).

From this portrait, we can infer that it would be difficult to change how this socially (but not personally) motivated respond without prejudice person thinks about race. In order to do so, we would want to increase her personal motivation to change her mind. We would also want to refrain from making her anxious, refrain from signaling that she should take an avoidant, disengaged approach to our intervention.

We could appeal to values that are race-irrelevant, such as intelligence of sound-reasoning. We could then shape her critical thinking and her recognition of lower quality thinking in a way that is race-irrelevant. We could then embed information about race within a wider discussion of using statistics to make more nuanced interpretations of the social world.

If she doesn’t value intelligence or sound-reasoning, we could instead offer an intervention that directly targets her intergroup anxiety – one that will alleviate anxiety and provide effective strategies for smooth and at the same time authentic interracial interaction.

Research Methods Intro: Identifying Variables – Thinking About Race

What variables are relevant to my postulated practical question of how to change people’s use of stereotyping, with regard to racial attitudes?

Well, first I brainstorm a set of variables.

Let’s look at an output from that process:

What are the different characteristics of stereotyping that I see around me?:

  1. Thinking of individuals as belonging to the same “group” or being from the same category of people.
  2. Attributing traits to either a) all members of that group or b) most members of that group.
  3. Attributing traits based on a) observation of a single member of the group, b) observations from an initial encounter with multiple members of the group, c) observations based on the totality of encounters with group members, d) observation of representations of the group in the media, e) popular ways of talking about the group, f) traits attributed to the group that help justify group-based inequalities, g) traits that group members have by definition – believing in Jesus and being a practicing evangelical Christian, for example, h) observations based on a statistical average, i) observations based on a statistical average, taking into account the variability around that average.

With two ways of looking at 2 and nine ways of looking at 3, we already have 18 possible definitions of stereotyping, just from one brainstorming session by one person. In choosing to change the way people stereotype, we have to target a particular type of stereotyping and either eliminate it or change it into a different type of stereotyping.

For example, I might want to take someone who takes 3-d (observations of a group in the media) and infers 2-a (that all members of a group has that trait), and shift them to 3-i (data driven observations about the mean and standard deviation for that group) and 2-b (applied to the way they think about most people in that group).

Ok – we have a goal – now what are different ways of measuring these variables before we design our intervention?

Research Methods Intro: Categories of Research Question – Example: Teaching Cutting Edge Thinking About Race

Every research project starts with a research question:

  • Observational: I believe that the world works in a certain way. I want to give evidence in favor of (or against) my observation.
  • Theoretical: This theory predicts that the world will work in this way but it hasn’t yet been tested in this particular context. Let’s do it!
  • Inferential: If the world works in one way, it probably works in a logically related way as well. Let’s see!
  • Incremental: The world has been shown to work in this way by numerous studies – let’s confirm the results of these studies and see if we can flesh out the story a bit.
  • Exploratory: Let’s see how the world works.
  • Practical: Can we get the world to work this way?

Let’s take an example. One of my specialties is the study of stereotyping and prejudice. When I hear people talking about stereotyping-related topics in the media and amongst themselves, I often find myself thinking, “Wow! You’re so busy being half right that you’re having this discussion all wrong!” That thought may be pretentious – but let’s go with it. Further, let’s pretend that I have a practical goal – to get a variety of audiences to embrace what I consider to be cutting-edge thinking and practice with regards to racial stereotypes.

So, I have a practical question which I am answering from an interdisciplinary perspective – is it true that I can get an audience to embrace this cutting-edge thinking?

Before we leap into speculating about potential measures of success or failure and potential tools for reaching our goals, let’s take a step back and consider relevant variables.

Research Methods: Purposes

I tackle socially-relevant questions and compare different methodological approaches to answering them.

My specialities are social psychology (M.A. University of Chicago, M.A. University of British Columbia), communication (Ph.D. The Ohio Stat University), and cultural anthropology (BA with honors Darmouth College). The first three required specialization in quantitative research, emphasizing rigorous statistical training and the use of subtle experimentation to identify key variables for understanding human behavior. You may have heard of a “crisis” in the social sciences. I prefer to think of it as growing: As social scientists, we have to be honest about the limitations of our tools and strive to overcome these limitations.

Dealing with the complexity of human behavior is inherently difficult. We are unable to have the same level of certainty that a physicist or chemist may have (and even drug companies have had great trouble replicating key, published and oft-cited, findings in their field). In order to detect a reliable pattern that is consistent across situations, the best human-behavior studies would have thousands of people doing hundreds of tasks, a practical difficulty that is only occasionally surmountable.

All is not lost, however. Even a smaller study can highlight an important relationship between different factors. At that point, it’s the field’s duty to conduct more research, replicate or fail to replicate the result, and to try to understand whether the initial result was due to chance or due to a third variable that moderates (that influences the strength of) the effect.

Looking from an interdisciplinary perspective, however, we can be inspired by laboratory-studied relationships and look for independent evidence of their relevance to “the real world.” The laboratory allows us to take a micro-view, to get at what people can’t or won’t tell us about themselves. We can then take these findings to the field and look for evidence for or against the laboratory results.

As a cultural anthropologist working with the Maori, New Zealand’s indigenous people, I was keenly aware of the fact that my cultural narratives, as well as the narratives the Maori used to describe themselves, drove the questions that I asked. I was able to ask questions that pitted these potential interpretations against one another and to record the response of individual Maori informants. Were they skeptical of the narrative? Did it make sense to them? What was their emotional response? Were some members of the community more open to my account than others? Were they open to the account, but did it strike them as novel? These are all questions an anthropologist asks.

As a communication scientists, I walk a middle ground between the controlled laboratory experiments of social psychology and the qualitative messiness of real world behavior. My collaborators and I manipulate websites carefully and observe average differences in behavior (e.g. selection of messages and time spent reading them). This step has both internal and external validity. However, we then use those differences in behavior to model observed changes in attitudes. We cannot say for certain that the behavior preceded the change in attitudes. Instead, attitudes may have shifted behavior. In our attempt to consider the wider implications of ecologically valid behavior, we lose some control.

Truly useful social science research is a balancing act.

For better or for worse, shaping the world in innovative ways requires an attention to both process and product, the navigation of multiple approaches, and a willingness to investigate and to challenge our most basic assumptions in a systematic way.

In the end, we all do the pragmatic thing. We all choose a side, take a stance, and act. However, we can do so humbly, aware of complexities, without blinders. We can do so boldly, honestly, and in a way that convinces others that we have selected the best response given what we know at the time.