Key Findings: The Development of Social Reasoning Biases, Decision Making, and Stereotypes

Social reasoning biases and stereotypes.  Few would deny that our social behaviors, including patterns of family interactions, self-regulation in classrooms, discussions and activities with peers, and voting tendencies, are strongly affected by our expectations and beliefs.  Belief-biased reasoning has two components.  Most obviously, biases occur when individuals consider belief-supportive “evidence” (e.g., from hypothetical arguments and conversations) superior to evidence that contravenes strongly-held beliefs (e.g., religious).  More central to and indicative of biased reasoning, however, is the use of experientially-activated “non-logical” heuristics and personal memories to “justify” the acceptance of belief-supportive and, by contrast, the use of analytic competencies to construct sophisticated arguments to justify the rejection or reinterpretation of  belief-threatening evidence.  Unlike similar research in social psychology, my students and I have studied these biases using within-subjects designs.  Although this may seem like a modest methodological difference, had our research been based on between-subjects designs, some of the discoveries listed below would not have been possible.  For instance, our methods allowed us to examine one of the most astounding characteristics of social reasoning biases: Moment-to-moment fluctuations in the quality and type of children’s and adolescents’ arguments. 

Our basic findings can be illustrated if low scores are assigned to the arguments typically given when belief-supportive evidence is confronted and high scores are assigned to the arguments with belief-threatening evidence.  On randomly-ordered series of equally flawed everyday arguments (in other cases” scientific” evidence), social “reasoning” is characterized by high peaks and low valleys. These vacillations not only suggest that back-and-forth shifts from predominantly experiential and predominantly analytic processing are commonplace, but also provide evidence that this biased pattern of processing information is an important means by which stereotypes and erroneous beliefs are maintained (Klaczynski, 2000).   Our developmental studies of children and adults (ages 4.5-22 years) indicate that age and the strength of reasoning biased are unrelated (Klaczynski, 1997; Klaczynski & Fauth, 1997; Klaczynski & Narasimham, 1998b; Schuneman & Klaczynski, 2005).  These surprising findings falsify hypotheses derived from traditional developmental theories, but are consistent with our research on reasoning biases and intelligence.  Like age, scores on intelligence tests are unrelated to reasoning biases (total N, children, adolescents, and adults > 600; see Klaczynski, 2005; Klaczynski & Gordon, 1996a, 1996b).  Better predictors of relatively unbiased reasoning are indicators that children have acquired various dispositions to engage in metacognitive intercession (e.g., self-regulated thinking values; motivations to construct—v. accepting externally prescribed—one’s beliefs) and interest in self-exploration (Klaczynski & Lavallee, 2005).  By and large, however, reasoning biases, and the beliefs and stereotypes that support and are supported by those biases, resist change.   This resilience is illustrated by our efforts (Klaczynski & Gordon, 1996b; Klaczynski & Narasimham, 1998b) to reduce reasoning biases.  Specifically, regardless of age and intellectual ability, strong extrinsic motivations to de-bias reasoning (e.g., “if you do not reason objectively, you will be [for example] required to write an essay and give an oral presentation to camp counselors”) do improve the overall quality of children’s and adolescents’ reasoning but do so without diminishing to extent to which beliefs biased reasoning—suggesting that biases of this sort are typically outside the realm of conscious control. 

Decision making.  In part because it is based on the same theoretical position and in part because decisions are often biased by stereotypes and beliefs, my work on decision making is difficult to decouple from the previously-described research.  Here, I will describe only one example of my decision making research: Developments in decisions to avoid establishing negative precedents (Klaczynski, under review).  I’ve selected this example because it can be used to illustrate bridges from my work on stereotypes, conditional inferences, and reasoning biases to (a) social developmental phenomena and (b) my ongoing, and plans for future, research on the psychosocial atmosphere of childhood obesity.

More specifically, my research on precedent setting decisions can be used to establish connections from conditional reasoning to social development, family functions, and self-regulation.  Rules are simple “if-then” conditionals of the form (for example), “You can go outside and play only after you’ve complete your homework” (i.e., if you do not do your homework, you cannot go outside) and “If you don’t eat your vegetables, you can’t have dessert.” When rules are established, some individual(s) (e.g., a parent, teacher, coach, judge) is charged with monitoring rule violations and enforcing the sanctions associated with violations.  Negative precedents are established when those individuals allows violations in the absence of “mitigating circumstances.”   Such allowances can have numerous deleterious consequences.  For example, the subject—and siblings or peers for whom the rule is also intended—can justifiably question (on the charge of unfairness) future attempts to enforce the rule; the rule enforcer establishes an internal precedent that can occasion such thinking as, “I let it go last time, so why not this time?”

My research on children’s understanding of negative precedents indicates age-related developments in the ability of children to distinguish between, and make rule enforcement/non-enforcement decisions consistent with, rule violations that under in the presence and absence of extenuating circumstances.  More importantly, as early as 9 years, children exposed to arguments for the importance of avoiding negative precedents understand these arguments and can apply them to novel situations.  However, even 16-year-old adolescents (and college students) can be persuaded to accept non-normative arguments to permit rule violations—despite the absence of mitigating conditions.   This latter finding implies that adolescents are less able to resist appeals to conform and, depending on the “argument” source, adolescents are more easily influenced  by appeals to purchase a variety of products (e.g., clothing that exceeds rules for monetary expenditures; foods that violate internal rules demanding self-regulation) than many contemporary scholars assume.  This set of findings also illustrates that, as Jacobs and Klaczynski (2002) noted, “variability, and not consistency, is the hallmark of everyday reasoning and decision making.”  This variability has been most often by discussed by cognitive developmentalists; however, the implications of “predictable variability” for our understanding of social developmental phenomena may be quite profound and call for concerted research efforts.