February 11, 2011

The war on knowledge

A reader writes:
In regards to your post on Types, I would note that in cognitive psychology they found we remember people by a caricature (an exaggeration of their unique features).  That's why it's so easy to recognize a friend or a celebrity based on a caricature.  I think this theory holds that different entities are remembered most by their divergence from the norm rather than their average characteristics.

This probably relates to humor, which is based on caricatures.  We laugh because the caricature while not an accurate representation sounds more true than truth.

Thus, once you see Malvina Hoffman's sculpture of a 6'-8" Nuer tribesman, it's easier to remember what Nuers look like when you read about the recent plebiscite in the Sudan. Of course, many contemporary academic trends, such as changing the names of ethnic groups every few years, is intended to do the opposite: lessen knowledge.


agnostic said...

There was a personality psych study around 2005 that asked people in different countries to rate people from other countries for the Big Five personality traits (Extraversion, Neuroticism, Agreeableness, Conscientiousness, Openness). Terracciano et al 200X.

People had no clue when the Other was far off socially and so who they had little experience with.

But when they were close socially (including geographically far people, like Americans rating Germans), they were better than chance in the right direction.

They over-estimated the size of the effect of being German on personality, but they were mostly right. Another instance of better memory through caricature.

That's also why people make more sweeping statements when writing for an audience -- we know they're exaggerating for effect, and don't just swallow what the writer is saying at face value. But it helps us remember the point better.

Simon in London said...

At the Horniman Museum in SE London, there is an exhibit on racial diversity which displays dog heads of different breeds, and nearby some photos of different human ethnies.
They still have some beautifully carved idealised racial-phenotype busts, but these are removed to the "Hundred Years of the Horniman" meta-exhibit and, appallingly, the names of the races have been *removed* from the busts, apparently in a deliberate attempt to lessen knowledge.

AMac said...

Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, responding to a recent Paul Krugman column --

"...I focused my appeal to my colleagues one one point: that when conservatives are entirely absent (as opposed to simply underrepresented), then there is NOBODY to speak up, nobody to challenge predominant ideas, and our science suffers. I gave examples of several scientific mistakes that my fellow social psychologists make because our shared values make it difficult for us to entertain alternative hypotheses. People who think of such alternatives dare not speak up.

"My research, like so much research in social psychology, demonstrates that we humans are experts at using reasoning to find evidence for whatever conclusions we want to reach. We are terrible at searching for contradictory evidence. Science works because our peers are so darn good at finding that contradictory evidence for us. Social science — at least my corner of it — is broken because there is nobody to look for contradictory evidence regarding sacralized issues, particularly those related to race, gender, and class. I urged my colleagues to increase our ideological diversity not for any moral reason, but because it will make us better scientists."

Anonymous said...

Caricature would seem to be cousin to sterotypes. When employed toward other not-too-unfamiliar groups, caricatures and steretypes come off as useful, if somewhat flawed, approximations.