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Biases in Social Perception Arise from Rational Inference

  • Author(s): Hoffman, Drew E.
  • Advisor(s): Vul, Edward
  • et al.

The social information available to us at any given moment is, at best, ambiguous. Yet, remarkably, we are able to efficiently resolve this ambiguity and successfully navigate the social world. In this dissertation I use a rational inference framework to understand how we form rich, and largely accurate, social perceptions given this uncertain and underconstrained information. Our perceptions, of course, do not always perfectly align with reality, but – contrary to the classic perspective in social psychology – this is not evidence that we are irrational. In this dissertation I show how social biases can arise not as a failure of rationality, but as a consequence of making optimal use of statistical structure in the world. In Chapter 1, I demonstrate that our visual system’s strategy to circumvent resource limitations by capitalizing on redundancy in visual scenes can result in a bias to perceive faces in a crowd as more attractive. In Chapters 2 and 3, I show that two of the most well-known social biases – The Fundamental Attribution Error and Role-conferred Advantage – are not actually evidence of irrational reasoning. Although in these paradigms observers seem “bias” to systematically make attributions that are in a direction consistent with observed behavior, these judgments fall naturally out of optimal probabilistic inference.

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