One bad apple doesn’t spoil the barrel, does it

I need to tell you about a cognitive bias that keeps cropping up. It’s a very human thing. And – as a species – we keep tripping over it.

Wright_StonesWhat I’m on about is a form of attribution bias, as applied to groups: the supposition that the behaviour or attitudes of a few reflects the behaviour and attitudes of the whole group to which those individuals belong.

I first ran into it – and discovered what it was – back in 1981 at university when the student community was raging about the ‘Springbok tour’, a controversial rugby tour by a South African team that the government refused to forbid, despite it contravening the Gleneagles Agreement.

Feelings ran very high at Victoria University, and students were prominent in the public street protests that followed through Wellington. One outcome was that the Prime Minister of the day, Robert Muldoon, treated all students as dangerous radicals.

All students? Actually, no. The protests were whipped up by a very small, very zealous and very noisy minority who validated themselves by their beliefs and were using the anti-tour protests as a device to gain status in their own small social groups. A lot of others went along in a general sense, if only to avoid being made pariahs for failing to join in.

It was a case of the whole image being spoiled by the radical conduct of a handful who did not, in fact, represent the attitudes of every student.

One of the outcomes was a rather blatant cut-back of government financial support for students the following year, which I remain convinced was deliberately engineered. And so all students were punished for the image created by a tiny handful.

The thing is, I keep seeing this kind of cognitive mega-fail cropping up, time and again, all around the place. It’s driven, I think, by the way we identify with groups. We define ‘our’ group as best and seek to demonise ‘their’ group; and if some of ‘them’ behave badly – well, it creates justification to condemn all of ‘them’, doesn’t it.

Except it isn’t either fair, just or reasonable to do that. Not when people end up being categorised with others whose views and behaviours they don’t actually share, but who are identified as being of the same ‘group’. As always, the innocent end up being the losers.

I haven’t cited specific examples because it happens a lot, on small and large scales. I’m sure you can think of some instances, though.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2016