Mel Gibson and Social Category Bias

13 April 2007 at 11:12 pm 4 comments

| Peter Klein |

Back to cognitive biases and heuristics. One interesting and common example is a sort of stereotype or social category bias. To make sense out of complex information about people we often think in terms of clusters of attributes, assuming that individuals possessing one trait in the cluster possess the other traits as well. Economics professors, for example, tend to be logical, systematic, nerdy, and socially awkward. If we meet someone who is logical, systematic, and nerdy, we assume he is also socially awkward, even without knowing anything specific about his social skills.

This came to my mind last fall when when reading about Mel Gibson’s film Apocalypto. Gibson’s Passion of the Christ made him a hero among conservative Christians. In promoting Apocalypto, an action-adventure set during the twilight of the Mayan empire, Gibson was harshly critical of the Bush White House, likening the US invasion and occupation of Iraq to Mayan imperialism and the death of US soldiers to Mayan human sacrifice. In response, the conservative film critic Michael Medved accused Gibson of selling out to “Hollywood liberals.”

In other words, Medved lumps together as “conservative” a particular set of attributes or beliefs — Christianity, support of the Bush Administration, hawkish foreign policy, and so on — assuming that individuals either accept or reject the entire bundle. To Medved, it is inconceivable that one could be a traditionalist Christian and simultaneously oppose US policy in Iraq.

My own view — as someone who considers himself culturally conservative yet also strongly objects to the current Administration’s foreign policy — is that such bundling in this case is highly misleading, tending to reduce the level of political dialogue in the US to that of a grade-school shouting match.

The point, of course, is that social category bundling, like all heuristics, can be useful or misleading, depending on context. It appears to be particularly harmful when applied to political ideology and political decision-making — all the more reason to reject “libertarian paternalism” as nonsense.

Entry filed under: - Klein -, Classical Liberalism, Cultural Conservatism, Ephemera. Tags: .

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4 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Chihmao Hsieh  |  14 April 2007 at 10:37 pm

    It’s apparently also currently useful in terms of prime time television ad revenue:

    http://www.nbc.com/Identity/

    I haven’t seen the show yet, and I’m not sure whether I want to…

  • 2. twofish  |  16 April 2007 at 10:53 am

    This gets even worse when you are dealing with different societies and cultures. The “bundle of opinions” someone has in another part of the world could be very different than in the United States, and projecting one’s bundles onto someone else can lead to problems (the classic bundle is democratic reformer versus dictatorial hard liner). Bad bundles is also responsible for the confusion over whether China is a “friend” or “enemy” when in fact the answer is that the question doesn’t make sense.

    However, that gives you one good thing about looking at another cultural context in that it allows one to question the bundles that one has. For example, socialism is defined as a system of non-market central planning and state ownership of property. These two are “bundled” together for odd historical reasons, but they don’t have to be.

    The bundle also applies to categorization of disciplines. The fact that I’m interested in both law and physics makes no sense with the categorization of knowledge used in Western universities, but it makes sense if you look at the Chinese parts of my intellectual background. The fact that law, economics, and physics are considered separate disciplines has to do a lot with the class structure of 18th century England and the results of the English Revolution. Basically in 19th century England, physicists didn’t become lawyers, whereas in 19th century China, they did.

  • 3. Alex  |  6 April 2008 at 5:07 pm

    I can not see how it relates to libertarian paternalism.

  • 4. Bruno  |  16 April 2008 at 1:37 pm

    Twofish: Lovely comment.
    As someone who considers himself a cultural liberal (sorry Peter! ;-), I can say have run into such misconceptions many times. Why? because I am pro-gun control but not pro-abortion, critical of US and European colonial and post-colonial policies, but at the same time extremely critical of post-colonial societies themselves. I am very spiritual but sort of scoff at my “overly green” acquaintances (sort of, I try not to be too judgmental). I believe in socialism but am not anti-business. I admire the Cuban revolution but abhor the lack of liberties in Cuba. Need I say more? Nobody understands me ha ha ha …

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