Tuesday, January 4, 2011

That Psychic Was So *Accurate*! (Part 20 of Cognitive Biases)

In our 20th installment of Cognitive Biases, we cover subjective validation, the tendency to think a statement is true if it means something to us; suggestibility, the extent to which we accept or act on the suggestions of others; and system justification theory, the cognitive bias of patriotism.

Subjective Validation

Subjective validation, also known as the personal validation effect, is the tendency to consider a statement correct if it’s meaningful to the listener. It’s related to the Forer effect and validated by confirmation bias, and it’s the basic technique that reinforces belief in paranormal phenomena. The listener focuses on and remembers the accurate statements and forgets or ignores the inaccurate ones, forming an impression of the psychic’s success that is wildly inflated.

Say anything, and it’s possible to find meaning in it. “I sense a father figure trying to contact you from the spirit world,” becomes validated if there’s anyone in the subject’s life that can be made to qualify. “I hear the phrase ‘broken wheel,’” the psychic says, and of all the thousands of possible associations, the subject finds one with personal meaning, and the psychic is validated.

What if the phrase ‘broken wheel’ evokes no associations? Then the psychic says, “I hear the name ‘Charles,’” and so forth until there’s a winner. Selective memory comes into play as well, so the subject doesn’t remember the ‘broken wheel’ figure, but remembers the ‘Charles’ association vividly.

The strength of the effect depends less on the skill of the psychic, of course, and much more on the level of desire of the subject. If we want to believe, we’ll find the evidence we need.


You are suggestible to the extent you are inclined to accept or act on the suggestions of others. Some people are naturally more suggestible than others, of course, but suggestibility in individuals is varied. Intense emotions, current level of self-esteem or assertiveness, and age play a role.
The nature of suggestibility plays a big role in hypnosis. There are three different types of suggestibility, according to Dr. John Kappas.

  • Emotional Suggestibility. A suggestible behavior characterized by a high degree of responsiveness to inferred suggestions that affect emotions and restrict physical body responses; usually associated with hypnoidal depth. Thus the emotional suggestible learns more by inference than by direct, literal suggestions.
  • Physical Suggestibility. A suggestible behavior characterized by a high degree of responsiveness to literal suggestions affecting the body, and restriction of emotional responses; usually associated with cataleptic stages or deeper.
  • Intellectual Suggestibility. The type of hypnotic suggestibility in which a subject fears being controlled by the operator and is constantly trying to analyze, reject or rationalize everything the operator says. With this type of subject the operator must give logical explanations for every suggestion and must allow the subject to feel that he is doing the hypnotizing himself.

With all of that, there’s surprisingly little consensus on what suggestibility is and how it works. Is it a function of character, a learned habit, a function of language acquisition and empathy, a biased term used to provoke people to greater resistance, or something else?

Common examples of suggestible behavior in everyday life include "contagious yawning" (multiple people begin to yawn after observing a person yawning) and the medical student syndrome (a person begins to experience symptoms of an illness after reading or hearing about it).

Placebo response may also be based on individual differences in suggestibility, at least in part. Suggestible persons may be more responsive to various forms of alternative health practices that seem to rely upon patient belief in the intervention. People who are highly suggestible may be prone to making poor judgments because they did not process suggestions critically and falling pray to emotion-based advertising.

System Justification Theory

System justification theory (SJT) is a scientific theory within social psychology that proposes people have a motivation to defend and bolster the status quo, that is, to see it as good, legitimate, and desirable.

According to system justification theory, people not only want to hold favorable attitudes about themselves (ego-justification) and their own groups (group-justification), but they also want to hold favorable attitudes about the overarching social order (system-justification). A consequence of this tendency is that existing social, economic, and political arrangements tend to be preferred, and alternatives to the status quo are disparaged.

Early SJT research focused on compensatory stereotypes. Experiments suggested that the widespread endorsement of stereotypes such as "poor but happy" or "rich but miserable" exist to balance out the gap between those of low and high socioeconomic status.,Later work suggested that these compensatory stereotypes are preferred by those on the left while people on the right prefer non-complimentary stereotypes such as "poor and dishonest" or "rich and honest", which rationalize inequality rather than compensate for it.

According to system justification theory, this motive is not unique to members of dominant groups, who benefit the most from the current regime; it also affects the thoughts and behaviors of members of groups who are seemingly incurring disadvantages by it (e.g., poor people, racial/ethnic minorities). System justification theory therefore accounts for counter-intuitive evidence that members of disadvantaged groups often support the societal status quo (at least to some degree), often at considerable cost to themselves and to fellow group members.

System justification theory differs from the status quo bias in that it is predominately motivational rather than cognitive. Generally, the status quo bias refers to a tendency to prefer the default or established option when making choices. In contrast, system justification posits that people need and want to see prevailing social systems as fair and just. The motivational component of system justification means that its effects are exacerbated when people are under psychological threat or when they feel their outcomes are especially dependent on the system that is being justified.

More next week.

To read the whole series, click "Cognitive bias" in the tag cloud to your right, or search for any individual bias the same way.

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