Mel Gibson and Social Category Bias
| 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.