Monday, November 25, 2013

The Discriminating Mind

Human Psychology

There is such a thing as having a discriminating palate; no one would find this objectionable or question whether the individual in question was immoral in some way. Yet, the word itself (discrimination) has, to a large degree, become narrowed to a negative meaning. While negative discrimination against a person or a class of persons is deplorable, Gad Saad looks at how the act of discrimination in itself has positive human adaptive benefits: “People’s understandable desire to not appear as though they discriminate (against others) has yielded some rather shoddy and irrational thinking in contexts where the ability to discriminate between sets of stimuli makes perfect adaptive sense. I’ll begin by offering three examples of discrimination, each of which is a manifestation of the adaptive nature of our perceptual and cognitive systems”:



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by Gad Saad

Some words carry a positive or negative connotation depending on how they are used. Pride is one such example. A person could exhibit pride in their work, in which case this is a good attribute to possess. On the other hand, in some moral precepts pride is considered the most egregious of all seven deadly sins. This brings me to today’s topic, namely the various possible meanings of the verb “to discriminate.” The negative connotation of this word, namely to discriminate against a protected class of people, has utterly usurped all of its other possible meanings. People’s understandable desire to not appear as though they discriminate (against others) has yielded some rather shoddy and irrational thinking in contexts where the ability to discriminate between sets of stimuli makes perfect adaptive sense. I’ll begin by offering three examples of discrimination, each of which is a manifestation of the adaptive nature of our perceptual and cognitive systems:

1) The notion of discrimination is central to the field of psychophysics. For example, what is the amount that one needs to reduce the differential volume of two sounds so that you are able to discriminate between them (known as the differential threshold)? What are the mechanisms that permit organisms including humans to engage in say olfactory discrimination or color discrimination? Needless to say, sensorial discrimination is a central feature of our evolved perceptual and cognitive systems.

2) In my doctoral dissertation (Cornell University, 1994), I proposed the Discrimination Framework, as a means of studying the stopping strategies that people use in deciding when to stop searching for additional information and commit to a choice. Discrimination in this case refers to the cognitive process that allows people to collect sufficient information in favor of one of the two competing alternatives such that it allows them to discriminate between the two options (in terms of which one is the clear winner). The cognitive process of discrimination in my doctoral dissertation is not unlike that found in signal detection theory, a form of stimulus discrimination in psychophysics.

3) Keeping track of statistical regularities in our environment permits us to discriminate between the probabilistic likelihood of events. For example, all other things equal, would you be more afraid of four young men walking down an alley or four elderly men? If you were to state that the young men strike you as more dangerous, does this imply that you are “discriminating” against the youth? Or better yet, does it perhaps mean that you are “discriminating” against the elderly in thinking that they are less capable of being violent? Should you instead answer one of the following two usual canards: a) “I know a young man who is very nice. So it is ‘discriminatory’ to assume that the four young men are more dangerous only because they are young.” Or, b) “Most young men are not violent. Hence, it is ‘discriminatory’ to judge these four young men when most men of their age group are peaceful.” I suspect that even the most politically correct individuals when walking down a dark alley will use greater precaution when confronted with the sight of four young men walking toward them. Their ability to discriminate between statistical realities is not “discriminatory” against the youth (or the elderly). Their caution is perfectly adaptive.

When people refrain from discriminating (in the positive sense of the term), they end up with astonishingly faulty reasoning, which is at times suicidal. For example, in an earlier article, I discussed the adaptive benefits of profiling. On a family trip that we took two years ago, airport security agents should have been able to discriminate between the respective statistical likelihoods of my being a terrorist (adult male born in Lebanon) versus my then two-year old daughter. Since they did not wish to appear “discriminatory", she was randomly chosen for a more in-depth security screening. Incidentally, here is the FBI list of most wanted terrorists: Are you able to identify any statistical regularity in the list, or would it be “discriminatory” to do so? Political correctness and the desperate quest to avoid any semblance of appearing “discriminatory” resulted in the following baffling exchange between Congressman Lamar Smith and Attorney-General Eric Holder.

It would seem that Mr. Holder is unable or perhaps unwilling to discriminate between reality and politically correct fiction. In another of my earlier articles, I discussed the case of a young female teacher who had a sexual relationship with one of her male under-aged students (see here). The legal system did not wish to appear “discriminatory” against men, and as such she was treated much more harshly than was otherwise warranted. Statistically speaking, men comprise the overwhelming majority of pedophilic sexual predators, and as such this universal statistical regularity should have better informed how the law treated this otherwise despicable teacher. 

Finally, in another one of my earlier posts (see here; see also chapter 1 of my trade book The Consuming Instinct: What Juicy Burgers, Ferraris, Pornography, and Gift Giving Reveal About Human Nature), I pointed to a common cognitive error that people commit in mixing up facts that are true at the population-level with supposed “violations” at the individual-level. For example, it is a biological fact that men are taller than women even though WNBA (female) players are taller than most men on earth. This fact, which is unequivocally veridical at the population-level, does not constitute a “discriminatory” statement because one is able to identify woman X who is taller than man Y.

Bottom line: The usurping of the verb “to discriminate” into its strictly negative connotation has yielded cognitive biases that at best result in poor choices and at worst are suicidal in their blissful ignorance of statistical truths.

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Please consider following me on Twitter (@GadSaad).

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Dr. Gad Saad is Professor of Marketing, holder of the Concordia University Research Chair in Evolutionary Behavioral Sciences and Darwinian Consumption, and advisory fellow at the Center for Inquiry. He has published 65+ scientific articles in numerous disciplines including in marketing, consumer behavior, advertising, medicine, economics, and bibliometrics. He has authored two books, The Evolutionary Bases of Consumption (Lawrence Erlbaum, 2007), and The Consuming Instinct: What Juicy Burgers, Ferraris, Pornography, and Gift Giving Reveal About Human Nature (Prometheus Books, 2011), as well as edited a third book, Evolutionary Psychology in the Business Sciences (Springer, 2011). His Psychology Today blog, Homo Consumericus, has thus far garnered 2.3-million+ total views.
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Copyright ©2013. Gad Saad. All Rights Reserved. This post was originally published in Psychology Today on August 11, 2013. It is republished here with the author’s permission.

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