Friday, October 22, 2021

The importance of recognizing and discussing cognitive biases.

By Kasia Uzieblo, PhD, David S. Prescott, LICSW, & Kieran McCartan, PhD.

In recent years, we have seen a worldwide increase in lawsuits involving well-known media figures (e.g., Bill Cosby, Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, R. Kelly, and Josh Duggar, to name a few). The reaction of the public to these cases suggests double standards regarding (alleged) perpetrators of (sexually) violent behaviour. This week, we would like to illustrate this with a case that caused a stir in Belgium last week.

On October 13, the trial against Flemish television producer, actor, and presenter Bart De Pauw started. He was being accused of stalking and being an “electronic nuisance”. De Pauw has allegedly harassed 13 women (actresses, employees, and interns of his production company) via text messages, among other means. Numerous messages conveyed through the media were of a sexual nature; messages that far exceed the bounds of flirting, according to the lawyer of the women. Some women received dozens or even hundreds of those messages within a short time. According to the chief of the Flemish Radio and Television Broadcasting Organization, (the public broadcaster for radio and television in Flanders, Belgium), it often started as innocent amorous advances, but these escalated into stalking behaviour. The nine women who have declared themselves civil parties say that they are asking for a symbolic compensation and that they are looking for recognition, not money. The trial lasted for two days. The judge will deliver a verdict on November 25.

The case has caused quite a stir in Flanders. After all, De Pauw was a very popular TV figure who had worked on many successful TV programs since the 1980’s. The Flemish population is clearly very divided on this matter, with numerous people supporting the alleged victims, and a very large group of supporters of De Pauw who believe in his innocence, no matter what evidence is presented in the media. Of course, there is also the group in the middle, but that is the group you do not hear very often on social media.

It is not our intention here to pass judgment on the matter; that is the job of the courts. What we want to address here are the various cognitive distortions that very often prevail in our thinking if we are not careful. People tend to judge quickly and often based on very little information, and/or incomplete information.

Firstly, many of us cling tenaciously to the idea that the world is just. One component of this idea is  that people get what they deserve. In the case of criminal acts, this usually implies an assumption that the victim helped to bring the abuse upon themselves and therefore the perpetrator should not be punished, or at least not too severely.

A second frequently occurring thought pattern is the defensive attribution. Here, the degree of similarity and identification plays an important role. The more one can identify with the victim, the less inclined they are to accuse the victim. The converse also applies: the more one can identify with the perpetrator, the more one is inclined to accuse the victim.

A third important distortion that is clearly of importance in this case, is the halo effect. This distortion refers to the tendency to judge a person positively, based on one positive aspect. In other words, the presence of a certain positive quality (in this case, De Pauw’s likeability, generally well-groomed and articulate appearance, and sense of humour) suggests to the observer that other positive qualities will also be present.

These (and many more) cognitive biases may partially explain why we tend to condone transgressions by famous individuals or figures of some standing in our society more readily than when similar behaviour is exhibited by ‘regular’, unknown individuals, what our clients usually are (At the risk of enraging their admirers, Donald Trump and Bill Clinton are other examples from recent history). The fact that De Pauw was, and for many still is, a very popular TV personality clearly plays into the hands of the alleged victims. For decades, De Pauw was a regular on TV, making people laugh and coming across as very approachable and recognizable. He was often described as “one of us.” Many people have expressed their disbelief in reactions on social media. They cannot believe that someone they “know” so well and for so long would be capable of such behaviour. This is an all to common reaction, we have seen this with Jimmy Saville, Harvey Weinstein, and Jerry Sandusky (to name a few). It is such a common reaction that we often have biopics and documentaries titled, or at least prefaced, with phase “hiding in plain sight”.

Interesting to note is that our more familiar clients are often confronted with the opposite pattern: based on their criminal behaviour, their appearance, and/or their often lack of eloquence, deviant – even psychopathic – personality traits and profound perversions are often assumed. Where we ignore or minimize antisocial behaviours and personality traits of a well-known figure, it is precisely these characteristics that become magnified in our clients, making us fail to see the good sides and strengths of these individuals. In the UK there is a reality TV show called Murder Island where members of the public act as detectives to solve a crime written by a leading detective novelist and over seen by former detectives, and in this week’s episode this is exactly what happened. One of the “actors” criminal histories was revealed and suddenly they became the person of interest in mist people’s investigations overnight based, although they often did not acknowledge it, on his criminal history alone.

Why is it relevant to discuss cognitive distortions in the public? For one thing, it is important to realize that the struggles of our clients and their families may differ depending on variables such as their social status. While some people with status can still count on some support and sympathy and, above all, a certain goodwill to recognize the positive aspects of these people, many of our clients cannot. Second, we must continue to emphasize that professionals (clinicians, judges, supervising agents) can also fall into these cognitive traps. After all, nobody is completely immune to these biases. Thirdly, it is important to recognize that this is “labelling” and by labelling people we are less likely to see them as individuals, less likely to view them as being able to change and integrate; therefore, questioning the potential success of treatment.

The problem is that we tend to acknowledge these biases in others, and much less, if at all, in ourselves. Hence, knowledge of these biases raises important questions. Can we, for instance, guarantee that we treat all our clients and patients in the same way, regardless of their socio-economic status, gender, age, and other factors? Is our assessment of their personality, sexual functioning, and risk factors completely free of bias? Third, these biases can also be seen as an important mechanism that drives us to (partially) accuse victims of (sexual) violence.

Referring once again to the De Pauw case, one could see the reactions on social media pouring in, saying that the alleged victims should not have accepted his advances, should not have sent back messages, and that they should have been clearer in drawing the line. These reactions completely ignore the complex dynamics between people who have allegedly abused or been victimized. This is especially the case when there is a power relationship, as well as when victims each (try to) cope with transgressive behaviour in their own way. These reactions will also have an impact on the (alleged) victim’s well-being as well as on their help-seeking behaviour.

Most readers know about the existence of cognitive biases. Of course, knowing about them is one thing, but effectively countering these – certainly in our own thinking – is another, more difficult matter. Cases like de Pauw’s illustrate that we must continue to recognize their existence and impact on the judgment and decision making of all those involved, including professionals.


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