Two more items on bias interventions

I have a couple quick items to post that relate to my last Atlantic post on embedding bias-correcting interventions in our media. One of them is quite belated; the other I just came across. First, here’s the gist of my initial post:

Photo: wellohorld And via Freakonomics

Context can affect bias, and on the Web — if I can riff on Lessig — code is context. So why not design media that accounts for the user’s biases and helps him or her overcome them?

There is some evidence, for instance, that “self-affirmation” exercises can limit our susceptibility to motivated reasoning. Our political beliefs reflect our conception of who we are and what we stand for. Therefore, information that runs counter to those beliefs threatens our perceived self-worth. Multiple studies have shown that having participants reaffirm their self-worth outside of politics reduces their vulnerability to motivated reasoning. (The exercises took the form of writing about a personal value unrelated to politics.)

How might I react if the pop-up at my friend’s site prompted me to write a few sentences reaffirming my value outside of politics?

(I did a follow-up post here on my blog clarifying some things and offering other examples.)

Shortly after the initial post went up I heard from Scott Clifford, a political science grad student, via Twitter. He pointed out that self-affirmation exercises are less effective if participants are aware of what’s going on. He pointed me to this paper, the abstract of which I’ve copied below:

Three studies investigated whether self-affirmation can proceed without awareness, whether people areaware of the influence of experimental self-affirmations, and whether such awareness facilitates orundermines the self-affirmation process. The authors found that self-affirmation effects could proceedwithout awareness, as implicit self-affirming primes (utilizing sentence-unscrambling procedures) produced standard self-affirmation effects (Studies 1 and 3). People were generally unaware of selfaffirmation’s influence, and self-reported awareness was associated with decreased impact of theaffirmation (Studies 1 and 2). Finally, affirmation effects were attenuated when people learned thatself-affirmation was designed to boost self-esteem (Study 2) or told of a potential link betweenself-affirmation and evaluations of threatening information (Study 3). Together, these studies suggest notonly that affirmation processes can proceed without awareness but also that increased awareness of theaffirmation may diminish its impact.

I don’t have anything novel to add here, but Scott is right that this is a critical issue for what I’m proposing. So that’s the long overdue item.

The next item is via Freakonomics. It’s a rather amusing example of the general point that interventions can predictably alter political beliefs:

As if we needed more evidence that people often fail to practice rational, thoughtful analysis in making a decision: a new study by Travis Carter at the Center for Decision Research at the University of Chicago’s Booth School finds that people who are briefly exposed to the American flag shift toward Republican beliefs.

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