Tabloid stereotypes – typifying classes by worst-cases
Sept 19, 2014 –Today’s Daily Express headline is a particularly nasty example of an irresponsible tabloid practice. Most people would probably (and rightly) think of it as demonisation of a class of people – by constant publication of nightmare cases whose attributes are in no way typical of the class (“migrants”, “benefit claimants”, etc) assigned by the newspaper.
Apologists for the Express might argue that the headline is factually correct (assuming the details have been reported correctly). But the point is how “facts” and “news” about sensational single cases can be framed in a way that distorts probability judgments, warps logic and incites hatred/fear regarding the class of people referred to.
Prototype Theory: distorting our judgments
Prototype Theory, in cognitive science, looks at the internal structure of categories/classes, and how single class members can stand for the class itself. It offers a useful explanation of what’s going on here (ie how the Express is fucking with our heads, precisely).
Our minds create various kinds of prototype for a given category/class. For example, a typical case, an ideal case and a nightmare case. We tend to use the “typical case” prototype in our inferences about what we consider “normal” (eg statistically, probabilistically) for a category, or class, of people.
Problems arise with something called a “salient exemplar” (a well-known case that stands out for us, for various reasons – including sensationalist media coverage. The tabloids are full of them). The salient exemplar tends to distort our probability judgments about a given class of people if it’s conflated with, or affects our perceptions of, the “typical case”. This can happen quickly, and without much conscious awareness – eg as a result of the repeated media coverage (of the salient exemplar), we have “reflex” associations and responses to the “migrant” frame.
The Express (and it’s not just the Express) knows it would get into trouble with a “KILLER BLACK”, “KILLER GAY” or “KILLER JEW” headline. But it knows it can get away with “KILLER MIGRANT”, just as it knows that it can get away with portraying the class of “welfare recipients” in terms of the “vile” “cheat” salient exemplar. The examples are endless – see my Curious repeating headlines in the Daily Express for a selection).
It isn’t new, of course. Lakoff (in The Political Mind) discusses the uproar that started in 1976, when Ronald Reagan referred to a “Welfare Queen” who had supposedly received $150,000 in government handouts and was driving a “Welfare Cadillac”. As it turned out, nobody could find this person – it appeared to be a made-up stereotype. As Lakoff puts it, “Reagan made the invented Welfare Queen into a salient exemplar, and used the example in discourse as if it were the typical case.” (The Political Mind, p160)
Misleading Vividness fallacy
I mentioned, above, how sensationalist tabloid framing warps logic regarding classes of people. There’s a fallacy in logic known as “Misleading Vividness“, eg the belief that the occurrence of a particularly vivid event (eg a terrorist bombing) makes such events more likely, despite statistical evidence indicating otherwise. Misleading Vividness has strong psychological effects because of a cognitive heuristic called the availability heuristic. There’s a lot of material already available on cognitive heuristics (as a result of the popularity of the work of Daniel Kahneman and others). I think it would be a fruitful area of research to combine this field with that studied by Lakoff et al, particularly with emphasis on media coverage and its effects. In the words of Nassim Taleb (quoted by New Scientist some time ago), media coverage is “destroying our probabilistic mapping of the world”.