“Preemptive constructs” are mental structures that favor a particular explanation over others. Used by lay person and scientist alike, they can be self-serving, or biased in other ways. A sports fan might believe a game was won entirely by their favorite player, without crediting the rest of the team; a scientist might hold their own theory as the only good explanation for a particular finding, when other explanations are equally plausible.

Preemptive constructs can be valid, but when incorrect or incomplete, they can create interpretive bias. They puff up the preferred interpretation, and more subtly, bias the thinking even of those who disagree, who may focus solely on rejecting the original proposition, rather than seeking alternatives.

Heuristics are another source of Interpretive bias: mental shortcuts or rules of thumb that can be efficient in promoting judgments that come quickly but are not necessarily correct. One example, the availability heuristic, occurs when something that happens is interpreted in terms of its apparent similarity to another event to which it may bear only a superficial resemblance. This may be especially likely when the earlier event was recent and vivid.

To illustrate, in a Health Psychology textbook, Shelly Taylor described something that happened shortly after Jim Henson, the creator of the Muppets, died, apparently after delaying medical treament for a respiratory infection, an event that received considerable media coverage. She, like many other mothers, took her child to a doctor for what were only symptoms of the common cold. The doctor referred to them as “Jim Henson mothers”.

Heuristic thinking is common, can have non-obvious influences, and may influence the interpretation of research findings. It may provide an explanation for some of the discourse that has followed the publication of well-known psychology studies.

True or False: Milgram’s Famous Studies Were About Obedience To Authority

For some time, discussion around the Milgram studies, in which ordinary people were convinced to administer seemingly severe electric shocks to their fellow humans, centered on certain questions to the exclusion of others, for example: Did “Teachers” really deliver what they thought were electric shocks to “Learners” simply out of obedience to authority? Much of it involved opinions of “Yea” or “Nay” to this proposition. The experiments are referred to as “Obedience Studies” even by those who dispute the conclusion that obedience was involved.

Griffin Wooldridge/Pexels

Source: Griffin Wooldridge/Pexels

But Nisanni (1990) offered an interpretation in which “Teachers” persisted, sometimes even in the face of “Learners’” apparent pain, because of the difficult cognitive restructuring that was required to overcome the strong, pre-existing belief that scientific researchers would not ask them to do something harmful.

This is not a final answer and does not rule out a role for obedience to authority. But it is plausible, and suggests the operation of heuristic thinking. Milgram and others had drawn parallels between his studies and the atrocities perpertrated during World War II. The iconic “Experimenter-Teacher-Learner” scenario may have acquired a strong mental association with thoughts and images of soldiers “just following orders” to perform brutal acts.

This connection channeled debate about Milgrams’s studies to focus on whether or not they reflected obedience to authority to the exclusion of other factors, such as that suggested by Nisanni, a double-whammy involving two instances of belief persistence.

We Are Prisoners of Our Own (Mental) Devices.

Academic Problems and Skills Essential Reads

The famous Stanford Prison Study similarly may have been subject to a prematurely narrowed set of construals. For some, the results supported the researchers’ thesis that mere assignment of participants to the role of prison guards would lead them to abuse those in the role of prisoners. For others, this conclusion was dismissed in light of methodological criticisms.

RODNAE Productions/Pexels

Source: RODNAE Productions/Pexels

Here again, there has emerged an interesting alternative perspective: Beyond the effects of role assignments, Haslam et al. (2019) discuss how the experimenters may have played a more active role than had previously been thought. They describe a complex set of processes involving persuasion, group identification, guards coming to share experimenter goals, and some pushback from the guards against brutality.

Why might the original interpretation have been resistant to alternatives? Well, life in prison actually can be quite harsh, and this is often emphasized and exaggerated in fictional depictions that feature cruel prison guards. Learning about the study may activate this thinking, and it provides a suitable explanation that may eclipse other possibilities.

If You Can Make It There…

A third example comes from efforts to elucidate the Kitty Genovese Murder, which was characterized in the news as an instance in which 38 bystanders witnessed a woman being attacked but did not intervene, even just by calling the police. Research inspired by this event examined potential explanations in terms of a “Bystander Effect,” hypothesized to result from a diminished sense of individual responsibility and leading to failure to intervene in emergencies, that can stem from the knowledge that there are other witnesses.

Zachary DeBottis/Pexels

Source: Zachary DeBottis/Pexels

As documented by Manning et al. (2007), the initial news account of the Kitty Genovese incident was flawed. Evidently, there were fewer than 38 witnesses, they had not watched the attack in its entirety, and some attempted to intervene. There is now reason to believe that, depending on circumstances, bystanders to such events may, in fact, take action. Regarding research on the Bystander Effect, it has yielded replicable effects identifying many variables that can influence bystander behavior, and should not be conflated with the Kitty Genovese incident, as it has been in textbooks. Nor should her murder be viewed solely as a parable regarding the failure of bystanders to intervene (Manning et al., 2007).

How might heuristic thinking have shaped discussion of the Kittly Genovese incident and bystander effect? The Manning et al. (2007) analysis incorporates many factors in accounting for the persistence of the original news story in individual minds, textbooks, and the larger culture. For present purposes, I wish to highlight the points they make about crowds and other collectives having the capacity to promote inactivity, which they link to the psychology of urban settings. Perhaps the availability heuristic has played a role, in part, because the incident occurred in New York City, where residents are sometimes viewed stereotyically as cold and indifferent to the plight of others.

Implications for Research Consumption

Being aware of the possible operation of heuristics in one’s own thinking, as well as in the author’s, can help us to keep an open mind about research. It is an aspect of scientific literacy, as is wariness regarding the use of preemptive construals of findings. In the common observation that a particular scientific explanation “is intuitive,” this is typically seen as a good thing, but that’s not always be the case. Intuition should be questioned; not necessarily discarded, but maybe not swallowed whole without further consideration.

Another implication concerns perceived generalizability, which also is often touted as a good thing. In addition to the commonly expressed caution that generalizabiiltiy must be demonstrated empirically, there is another: Take notice of your (and what seem to be the author’s) mental associations and generalizations regarding research findings, especially to widely-known, real-world events and conditions. And be sure that their mental availability, recency, and vividness are not having undue influence on your thinking.

Copyright 2022 Richard J. Contrada


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