For my small group communication course, I show the classic film “12 Angry Men,” which spends the entire 90-minute running time observing the jury of a fictional murder trial as they contend with whether the accused young man killed his father. At first vote, 11 of the 12 men find the boy guilty. Henry Fonda’s character stands up to the rest of the group as the sole person who wants to actually discuss the case, the holes he saw, and consider alternatives to the prosecution’s arguments, as opposed to going along with the group’s consensus. The others argue the solution is obvious and berate him for wasting their time. However, over the course of an evening, he gets them to question their assumptions (mostly based on racist biases and a general disinterest in the case), eventually helping all the men realize there is too much reasonable doubt to convict.
What a great lesson in the dangers of groupthink, and how to be self aware about how implicit bias might impact our perceptions of others. Or so I thought.
In our discussion of the film, one of my students said, “I’ve been on a jury, and that’s exactly what it’s like! It’s so frustrating!”
Thinking the student was referring to the issues with groupthink, I asked her to expand.
“One guy just kept arguing that maybe the person wasn’t guilty. But I knew they were in my heart; I could feel it. I could tell when he walked into the courtroom.”
Me: “That’s the most horrifying story I’ve ever heard.”
Student: “Right! The guy ended up going free!”
Me: “No, you. You horrify me.”
In the following semesters, I would continue to hear similar stories from students who knew the person was guilty, or not, solely based on how they looked. What an excellent justice system we’ve set up in this country.
I’ve also argued with many students in my interpersonal courses about their “gut feelings” associated with knowing danger is lurking. Specifically, these stories are about when they “just know” they should cross the street based on who is coming toward them. I told them their safety is more important than the other person’s feelings, but to stop calling it some magical gut feeling. They are completing a fast, surface-level nonverbal scan and interpreting danger based on the schema they’ve already developed about the stimuli they observe. That’s it. It’s not magic, it’s bias. I’m not saying they are always wrong, but I am saying they are pretending to not have sexist, racist biases that lack actual evidence.
The same has held true with arguments I’ve had in the past regarding anything requiring a fact check. “I think this” isn’t the same as knowing. A quick Google search will tell us pretty much anything we need to know (obviously without any kind of depth to the material), yet as information becomes more easily available, I see more and more people become increasingly rigid in their thoughts and beliefs.
Last year, the Brainstuff podcast discussed how confidence is correlated to actual knowledge or skills on topics, which can shed some light on these phenomena. They describe a study in which students were tested and also rated themselves on several things, including the ability to think logically and write grammatically correctly. The people scoring below average on these tests didn’t know they were incompetent — the lower their competence the better they thought they were! It makes sense though, right? The less you know about something, the less you realize how vast the knowledge about it is, which is why the opposite is true: the more you know about something, the less competent you probably feel you are at it, because you know how little you know. It’s not about IQ level. You can be very smart and still way over-assume your competence in an area.
Ignorance truly is bliss.
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