Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Politics, Cognition and "Pepper" Spray

Dan Kahan

Does “pepper spray” really hurt? The answer probably depends on the relationship between the ideology of the person who was sprayed and the ideology of the person asking/answering the question.

There is an internet buzz emerging over the suggestion by Fox news commentators & equivalent that “pepper” spray (it’s orders of magnitude more irritating than habanero) isn't all that painful. The debate is politically polarized along predictable lines.

If the demonstrators who were sprayed had been protesting abortion rights outside an abortion clinic, would there be an ideological inversion of the perceptions of how much the spray stings?

The answer is that we are unlikely even to get to that point in the discussion before we are already tied in knots over other facts relating to the behavior of the protesters and the police.

My colleagues at the Cultural Cognition Project and I did a study in which we instructed subjects to view a videotape of a protest (one we said was broken up by the police) to determine if the protestors had crossed the line between “speech” & intimidation. Our subjects said "yes" or "no" -- said they saw shoving, blocking or only exhorting, persuading -- depending on the subjects' own values & what we told them the protest was about & where it was taking place: an anti-abortion demonstration outside an abortion clinic; or an anti- don't/ask/don't/tell protest outside a college recruitment center.

This is an example of “cultural cognition,” the tendency of people to conform their view of legally relevant facts to their group values. It’s a big problem for law — not just because these dynamics could affect juries & judges but also because they generate divisive conflict over the political neutrality of the law. I wrote a long law review article about this problem recently but I admit (as I did there) that I don’t think there is any easy solution to it.

But here is one thing concerned citizens might do to try to counteract this dynamic. When they see something unjust like UC Davis incident, try to look & find out if the same injustice has been perpetrated against others whose political views are different from one's own -- & complain about both.

I looked for stories on abortion protesters being "pepper" sprayed. Found some, but not many. Either anti-abortion protesters don't get sprayed as often (in absolute terms) as Occupy Wall Street & anti-war protesters or the spraying doesn't get reported as often, perhaps because of the impact of cultural cognition in reporting of news (the facts that get reported are the ones we are predisposed to believe) . . . .

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