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Expert: Your brain might predispose you against certain speech

The maxim that most people support free speech until it’s speech they dislike or disagree with is one we at FIRE see borne out in case after case. Now, emerging research in the fields of psychology and neuroscience is giving credence to that old adage, shedding light on how our unconscious biases inform our individual worldviews, right down to our opinions on the merits of a given viewpoint. Helpfully, the science also suggests that simply acknowledging that our brains are hardwired towards not-so-impartial judgments can provide some clarity.

In “The Law’s Emotion Problem,” which ran in Sunday’s edition of The New York Times, psychology professor and author Lisa Feldman Barrett explains how these phenomena impact the legal system.

“Our legal system is one of the most impressive feats of Western civilization,” she writes. “But psychology and neuroscience in recent years have shown many of its tacit assumptions to be out of sync with our best understanding of how our brains and minds work.”

She provides some striking examples.

For example, judges and jurors assume they can detect a defendant’s emotions and their intentions reliably “just by looking and listening,” but the data suggests instead that humans are actually quite bad at this task without context to help them along. And where might we unconsciously reach to fill in our cognitive blanks? You guessed it: our own prejudices and biases.

Particularly illuminating for our purposes was research published in the Stanford Law Review on how witnesses process and store what they see and hear, which had major implications for how people view controversial speech.

Experimenters played a video of protesters being dispersed by police and asked viewers whether the protesters were peaceful or violent. Even though everyone watched the identical action onscreen, viewers’ perceptions varied with their political beliefs. When the experimenters described the protesters as anti-abortion activists, viewers with liberal leanings saw the protesters’ actions as violent, whereas the more conservative subjects saw them as peaceful.

Conversely, when the experimenters said the protesters were gay rights proponents, the liberals saw a peaceful protest and the conservatives saw a violent one.

“Every perception, no matter how objective it seems to the witness,” she concludes, “is infused with personal beliefs.”

Feldman Barrett’s take on this fascinating research is worth a full read, as is considering her appeal to educate others about these predispositions and to be honest with ourselves about our own. Only then can we see the world as it really is.

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