Clark McCauley (1998) The bet on Bias is Cockeyed Optimism. Psycoloquy: 9(71) Social Bias (9)

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PSYCOLOQUY (ISSN 1055-0143) is sponsored by the American Psychological Association (APA).
Psycoloquy 9(71): The bet on Bias is Cockeyed Optimism

Commentary on Krueger on Social-Bias

Clark McCauley
Psychology Department
Bryn Mawr College,
Bryn Mawr, PA 19010
phone (610)526-5017
fax (610)526-7476


Bayesian statistics have drawbacks beyond subjectivity of prior probabilities, and attribution research probably suffers more from ignoring man the lawyer than from ignoring subjects' beliefs about the power of situational causes. More importantly, the root of social psychology's focus on errors and biases is an unwarranted optimism that human conflict will diminish if we can see one another more accurately.


Bayes' rule, bias, hypothesis testing, individual differences probability, rationality, significance testing, social cognition, statistical inference
1. I agree with the general thrust of Krueger's (1998) concerns. Social psychology has become a litany of errors and biases, most of them borrowed from the literature on judgment and decision making. As once Freud saw man as steam kettle, so now we tend to see man as computer -- with a very weak central processor that needs short-cuts and approximations to deal with an overload of information processing.

2. Still, I would like to take issue with two details in Krueger's target article. First, I do not agree that "Bayesian analyses have not been popular in social psychology because the assignment of priors smacks of subjectivity." Rather, Bayesian analyses are not popular because they are seldom taught except as an arcane addition to a mind already set with NHST as the foundation of psychological research. After paying our initiation to one fraternity, we are little interested in committing resources of time and effort to join another. Another downside to the Bayesian approach is that it does not lend itself easily to the partitioning of variance that is at the bottom of psychometrics. Still another is that the Bayesian appraisal of evidence has more difficulties and complexities than is generally recognized (Shafer, 1976).

3. Second, I think that attribution research goes awry in a way more fundamental than assuming what subjects think about the sufficiency of situational causes. Attribution theory begins with the model of man as scientist, trying to figure out the causes of behavior. As Sabini (1995, p. 174) notes, a more realistic model might be man as lawyer or moralist, trying to figure out responsibility for behavior and whom to praise and whom to blame.

4. Beyond these caveats of detail, I want to suggest that Krueger has not dug deep enough into the roots of social psychology's bet on bias. He has pointed to the mechanics by which this bias has been raised, but not the motivation behind the mechanics. Why have social psychologists been so eager to see man as fallible information processor?

5. One possibility is that social psychologists participate in the self-enhancement bias to the extent that they particularly appreciate research that lets them look smarter than their students. There may be something to this, but it cannot be a strong explanation. There are other ways to look smart without creating a discipline that makes students wonder why evolution has left us with social perception so much less accurate than visual perception and audition.

6. I favor instead the possibility that social psychologists are just cockeyed optimists. We want an easy answer to the very bad times we live in. The twentieth century is the easy winner as the century with the greatest ferocity of man against man: 39 million killed in war and civil war, 169 million killed by state power exercised in mass murder, famine, and disease engineered for groups seen as threatening to the state (Rummel, 1994). In the midst of this holocaust we take the upbeat view that the problem is only a matter of information processing. Get rid of errors of social perception and we get rid of inhumanity. The same optimism supports the contact hypothesis, social psychology's longest-running answer to intergroup conflict. Get members of the two groups together under the right circumstances and negative stereotypes and negative attitudes will fall away. The contact hypothesis continues to inform interventions to improve intergroup relations, even as the list of conditions required for contact to have positive effects has begun to approximate random assignment of group identity (McCauley and Wright, 1998).

7. We need to get beyond error and bias to create a social psychology that has something to say in a world of cultural diversity and ethnic conflict, to groups who have real differences that they are not wrong to care about.


Krueger, J. (1998). The bet on bias: A foregone conclusion? PSYCOLOQUY 9(46)

McCauley, C., & Wright, M. (1998 unpublished paper). Diversity training workshops on campus: A review of recent models and relevant research.

Rummel, R. J. (1994). Murder by government. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers.

Sabini, J. (1995). Social psychology, second edition. New York: Norton.

Shafer, G. (1976). A mathematical theory of evidence. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

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