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Posts Tagged ‘Peter Ditto’

Preference, Principle, & Casuistry

Posted by The Situationist Staff on April 2, 2011

From our sister blog, Law & Mind, here is an excellent post by Harvard Law LL.M. candidate David Simon. Simon summarizes a fascinating chapter by Situationist Contributors Eric Knowles and Peter Ditto (forthcoming in “Ideology, Psychology, and Law” (Jon Hanson, ed., 2011).

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[T]he attribution of principle or its absence is more than an evaluative stance; it is also a lay-psychological hypothesis concerning the causes of another’s behavior.

Eric D. Knowles & Peter H. DittoPreference , Principle, & Casuistry

We often value people who act on their principles  more than those who act solely on their preferences. In other words, we value behavior that is justified by reasons rather than emotions. This shouldn’t be much of a surprise to anyone. It’s ostensibly why people don’t like politicians who “flip-flop,” whether they be “liberal” or “conservative.” So, when people make decisions based on emotion, rather than reason, we think they are “biased” or “irrational.” (Knowles and Ditto call this the principle-preference dichotomy.) What’s strange, though, is that we often view our political opponents as emotional decision-makers, while we view people of our own political leanings as principled decision-makers.

The question Knowles & Ditto want to answer is, why?

They offer two reasons. First, they  argue that this results from the “actor-observer bias”: the tendency to see one’s own actions as based on beliefs and others’ as based on desire. Imagine, for example, Political Candidate is running for office. Her platform is to “make government smaller by cutting taxes and entitlement programs.” When Margo decides to support Political Candidate, Margo thinks she does so because of her beliefs about small government. Jim, on the other hand, views Margo’s behavior as merely reflecting her desires. Jim might say that Margo supported Political Candidate merely because she will receive more money in tax breaks while Margo might claim she dislikes lots of government regulation. The reason for the discrepancy, according to the authors, is one’s access to mental states: Margo has access to her own mental states (sort of), and Jim does not. Margo’s view of her own behavior is therefore privileged; Jim’s is epistemologically impoverished. As a result, she views her own choice as one of principle while Jim views it as one of desire.

Further reinforcing this view is individuals’ desire to see themselves and members of their group positively. As the authors note:

[T]he preference-principle dichotomy is powerfully reinforced by individuals’ desire to hold a positive view of themselves, as well as of others who share their attitudes and group memberships.

To achieve this end, people become “naive realists,” perceiving themselves as  “reasoned and free from bias.” In other words, individuals view their own attitudes as “reasoned,” “objective,” and, therefore, principled. That provides them with a much more flattering picture of themselves than one in which they make decisions based (solely) on preferences. Forget the somewhat false dichotomy for a moment and just ask yourself: Do you see yourself as someone who makes reasoned, as opposed to emotional, judgments? Do you see those who disagree with you differently?

There’s still a problem, though. Individuals often seem to be seeking self-interested goals while offering principled reasons. This

should, at least in principle (no pun intended), destroy the “objectiveness” people purport to adhere to when making decisions. Put another way, one must at least appear to be objective to gain credibility (with themselves or others). Preserving this appearance happens in two ways. First, we approach judgments “without an explicit sense that we are trying to construct a justification for one conclusion over another.” Instead, our “preferences” are part of cognitive structures: satisfying them produces greater coherence than not satisfying them. So, many times our interpretation of information produces preference-satisfying conclusions.

Second, our cognitive structures can lead us to preference-satisfaction in another, sometimes unconscious way: “‘shifting the standards’ by which a preferred conclusion is defined.” Because we do this somewhat intuitively and seemingly without pretense, Knowles & Ditto call it implicit casuistry.  By this they mean there are “circumstances in which individuals unwittingly select principles that happen to provide intellectual justification for preferred conclusions.” We are not good at being conscious reaonsers, always assessing problems objectively. Our brains select principles that cohere with our preferences. The principles–by way of implicit casuistry–serve in some ways to mask our preference-seeking behavior.

The reason implicit casuistry seems to work so well is because all ideologies seems equally susceptible to it. Indeed, small changes in factual situations can influence the way people use different standards. The authors give examples where subjects use either deontological (or rights-based) standards and consequentialist standards to justify certain behavior or conclusions. They show that people, regardless of their political preferences, will employ these reasoning strategies depending on the outcome that best accords with their political preferences.

Moving into the legal realm, Knowles & Ditto note that people’s views of judicial decisions often correlate with the extent to which the decision satisfies their preferences. They also note that judges may manipulate canons of constitutional interpretation to server various preferences. That, of course, is in line with a mature body of scholarship on judicial behavior. Scholars like Lee Epstein, Thomas Walker, Michael Giles, Ryan Owens, Ryan Black, et al. have shown that judges often seek policy preferences when deciding how to resolve a particular case.

Of course, casuistic reasoning occurs in other domains as well. Knowles & Ditto show how casuistic reasoning occurs in the context of race. Political preferences influence how people react to and justify their decisions when race becomes an issue. They note that frequently scholars disagree about why people hold particular racial attitudes. Some scholars claim disagreements of principle cause rifts; others claim that the disagreement results from claims to competing claims for finite goods (e.g., wealth, education). Knowles & Ditto argue it’s both:

The illusion of contraction may fade if one adopts a casuistic-reasoning model in which principles are frequently brought to bear dynamically in support of preferences.

In other words, people may use principles to justify their racial preferences. “Colorblindness,” for example, may serve as the principle that justifies an opposition to affirmative action.

In concluding, the authors note that casuistic judgments may have temporal effects. That is, using one principle may increase the probability of using that principle in the future. In lawyer speak, we might say people have a built-in stare decisis mechanism; it’s just not clear how strongly it operates in various situations or across time. Knowles & Ditto also are careful to explain that casuistic judgments are not per se illegitimate. (Here they venture into philosophy, essentially taking an hedged intuitionist stance.) Their claim is that attitudes are likely based on some form of intuition, and that intuition isn’t–in and of itself–a reason to reject a claim. For this reason, they argue that casuistic judgments may be legitimate.

Posted in Book, Choice Myth, Legal Theory, Situationist Contributors | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

The Maverickiness Paradox

Posted by The Situationist Staff on November 7, 2008

istock_000000316199xsmallLaura Rico wrote a nice piece, “‘Mavericks’ Win on Character, Not Policy, Study Shows,” summarizing Situationist contributor Peter Ditto’s latest research on the public’s complicated view of politicians who cross party lines.

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Republican Sen. John McCain has staked his bid for the U.S. presidency on his reputation as a “political maverick,” a politician who is unafraid to cross party lines to “vote his conscience” on important policy issues. By doing so, he places the electorate in a complicated emotional tug-of-war, according to a new study by UC Irvine psychology professor Peter Ditto and graduate student Andrew Mastronarde.

Political mavericks inspire conflicting feelings among voters, a finding Ditto said could change the way politicians conduct campaigns and cultivate public images. The study appears online in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.

“People have been hard-wired through evolution to care about trustworthiness,” Ditto said. “We are social animals who have always had to rely on cooperation with others to survive. When a person acts contrary to his own self-interest, such as challenging his own group when towing the party line would be to his advantage, it is a powerful signal of trustworthiness. We respond viscerally to that person as someone who has integrity and is honorable – traits we find very attractive in political leaders.”

At the same time, people also are hard-wired to like others who agree with them, and the defining feature of maverick politicians is the tendency to disagree with their own group on important issues. Thus, while maverick politicians often gain respect from those who hold opposing views, they can expect to experience significant backlash from members of their own political party.

“Basically, when people evaluate a maverick politician they are stuck in a kind of “affective cross fire” Ditto said. “This is particularly true when mavericks are members of our own political party. We like them because they show a key sign of trustworthiness but we dislike them because they disagree with us.”

The study showed that candidates could best use their maverick reputation as a political asset by shifting public focus away from specific policy issues to general issues of character.

“When people focus on issues of character, they like mavericks. But when they are focused more on issues, the influence is negative,” Ditto said. He cited the case of McCain campaign manager Rick Davis, who recently stated that the 2008 presidential election was “not about issues” but “about a composite view of what people take away from these candidates.”

From the other perspective, the campaign of Democratic contender Barack Obama should be trying to focus on issues as a way of neutralizing McCain’s maverick appeal – a strategy they have been sticking to rigidly with apparent success, Ditto says.

The research is a composite of three separate studies conducted by Ditto and [graduate student Andrew] Mastronarde to gauge public attitudes about political mavericks. In the first study, participants expressed more positive views of political mavericks described generally than when prompted to consider a maverick from their own political party. The second study found that political mavericks described in character terms were evaluated more favorably than party-line politicians, even when the maverick was of the participant’s own party. The final study found that when participants were provided with specific policy stances, opposing party mavericks were evaluated more positively and same party mavericks were evaluated more negatively, than were their party-line counterparts.

The studies examined a wide range of individuals including undergraduates from UCI, shoppers at a local outdoor mall, and several thousand adult U.S. citizens who visited the Web site to complete various questionnaires concerning political decisions and attitudes.

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To access the Ditto and Mastronarde article, “The Paradox of the Political Maverick,” click here. For other Situationist posts on the 2008 Presidential Election, click here.

Posted in Politics, Social Psychology | Tagged: , | 1 Comment »

New Situationists

Posted by The Situationist Staff on June 25, 2008

We are delighted to introduce a new Situationist Contributor and Situationist Fellow.

Our newest contributor, Peter Ditto, is a Professor of Social Psychology at the University of California-Irvine. His research interests include “hot cognition” — the interface between passion and reason. His research examines the role of motivation and emotion in social, political, moral, medical, and legal judgment. Most generally, his work has sought to explain the phenomenon of “motivated reasoning,” or how the desire to reach a particular conclusion biases the processing of information related to that conclusion. Ditto’s early work in this area examined the role such biases play in how people respond to threatening medical information (e.g., denial).

More recently, Ditto’s work has been focused on motivated moral reasoning, particularly how people selectively recruit general moral principles to support desired moral conclusions. Another key focus of his current research is on partisan political bias. This work examines the multiple ways that political ideology biases our political judgments and behavior. Finally, he is interested in a variety of psychological issues involved in end-of-life medical decision making. This work amounts to a psychological critique of policy encouraging the use of “living wills” in end-of-life medical decision making.

Ditto will publish his first post, “A Convenient Fiction,” on Monday.

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Our most recent Situationist Fellow is Elizabeth Johnston. Elizabeth Johnston graduated cum laude from Middlebury College in 2006 with a BA in Psychology. She also minored in U.S. History and Spanish. While in college, Elizabeth interned at a law firm, at two legal service centers, and for a Federal Judge. Additionally, she volunteered for, among others, the Hurricane Relief Committee, WomenSafe, Relay for Life, various local schools, and represented her class in Student Government. In 2005, she was selected as the recipient for the Baldwin Prize, which is “Awarded to a woman in the junior class who best exemplifies the ideal type of Middlebury College student based on character, scholarship, and personality.” Since graduating, Elizabeth has worked at a law firm, been a teaching fellow at Harvard for an undergraduate psychology class, and is now in the process of finishing her Master’s in Applied Psychology from the University of Pennsylvania, where she currently has GPA of 4.0. Elizabeth plans to attend law school in the fall. In her free time, Elizabeth enjoys playing sports, traveling, and cooking.

Elizabeth has already put together two terrific staff posts for blog: “Jonathan Haidt on the Situation of Moral Reasoning” and “The Situation of Lawyers and Practicing Law.” You can look forward to more.

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