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One aspect of it, anyway…

August 21, 2010

I want to try and get at this problem using an example that is non-religious and somewhat less political than what’s been in the news lately, so I’ll use bicycle accidents.

Now that newspapers have comment threads in their online sections, we can find out what a broader section of their readers really think, as opposed to just the narrow slice that made it into their editorial section back in the dead-tree days.  And being a cyclist, (my in-group) I read stories about bicycle accidents.  They are all too predictable.

It usually goes like this: some cyclist is hit by a car and killed.  He isn’t around to tell his story, so the motorist reports what happened from his perspective.  The Economist portrays the American motorist’s perspective like this:

LIVING in California mainly means driving, or sitting in traffic in hope thereof. This is boring. So what is one to do? For a start, there are billboards everywhere, many of them digital and flashing, lest drivers get distracted by traffic signs, pedestrians or other cars. Most drivers, however, focus on texting, e-mailing and talking on their mobile phones.

Anyway, there’s the story in the newspaper’s website, waiting for readers to dispense their common wisdom.  And it doesn’t take long before you realize that many motorists don’t just dislike cyclists, don’t limit themselves to finding cyclists a distraction from all the texting and cell-phone and such… they actively HATE bicyclists, as a class.

I’m not using hyperbole here; the vitriol is stunning, and only begins with generalizations.  The first cyclist who leaves a comment will be physically (and illogically) threatened by motorists: “If you tangle with me, you will be street pizza”, and then it starts to get kind of nasty.  There’s clearly more going on than just well-considered commentary on traffic safety.

Of course, some cyclists are jerks, and so are some motorists.  But the commenters spewing their hatred on the two-wheeled set don’t hate other motorists as a class.  They yell at individual motorists who cut them off, while a bicyclist who does the same thing seems to represent the whole class of those who brave the traffic under muscle power.

That’s a cognitive filter at work.  Essentially a cognitive filter excludes contrary information, and it doesn’t take long for the resulting body of mental evidence to prove incontrovertibly that the original assumption was right.

See, that’s not a prejudice at all; it’s a conclusion drawn from evidence!  And we’ve just arrived at the reason that bigots almost never admit to being prejudiced.  As they understand the issue, they aren’t, and why do you keep insisting that they are?

Take the hypothetical cyclist-hating motorist, Ralph.  He never notices the cyclist who is attentive, careful and courteous on the road; he notices the one who cut him off at a stopsign.  It begins to bother him that cyclists have more freedom of movement than he does.  (Cyclist can see and hear better than he can too, but he doesn’t know that).

Ralph doesn’t hate motorists; he is one.  He isn’t inclined to remember the times he has made some other driver slam on the brakes and when another motorist does it to him, he doesn’t ascribe the behavior to his whole group.

Some of this filtering is done for him.  Newspapers don’t run articles that say; “Man rides bicycle as carefully as possible” because that would be a boring article.  Even if they do occasionally run an article like that, Ralphie won’t read it.

Of course the newspaper runs countless articles about terrible accidents between car drivers, but he won’t make a case against car drivers as a class from those articles.  Drivers are in the majority, and so is he, and that’s that.

Similar filtering is done for him by office chatter: the self-reinforcing conversation of in-groups does not encourage the telling of stories that contradict the accepted narrative.

How long before Ralph makes an account with the newspaper website and starts typing angry, hateful comments about cyclists?

OK, forget about cyclists now, if you can.  Substitute other minority groups: gays, Latinos, blacks, motorcyclists, Catholics, skateboarders, Socialists, Cubs fans, Muslims, Greens, Segway riders, Mormons…  Did you feel your Personal Irritation meter needle twitching up and down as you read through that list?  That’s your brain activating its cognitive filters.

Here’s the bad news: nobody is without cognitive filters.  There are external filters that we can’t get rid of, and internal filters that are deeply ingrained by our culture.  About the best we can hope to do is be aware of them and make course corrections.  It isn’t an exact process, but we should damn well try.  The alternative is for our personal contributions to society to be more injustice, prejudice, and violence or support for violence.


  • Bicycles are hardly non-political, just like cars or trains or streets.  But curiously as more cyclists are on the road, cyclist deaths are dropping.  It’s a very good sign!

  • My apologies if your name is Ralph…
  • The bigger the offensive act, the more powerfully it generalizes to the whole group.
  • We Americans aren’t famous for our global perspective, but the fact is, we’re a cultural minority… just a very powerful (because we’re rich) minority.  People in other countries run this filter on us, triggered by Ugly American behavior.
Categories: Uncategorized
  1. jhon
    September 3, 2010 at 00:36 | #1

    Super post there! Comprehensive and well collated material. Thanks for sharing.
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