How Your Judgment Can Be Skewed About The Michael Jackson Documentary
Know about your potential cognitive biases when you evaluate anything
I had real trouble submitting this perspective to other prominent news outlets. Although some were interested in the content, they wanted to ensure that this did not come across as “victim blaming.” The amount of padding necessary just strengthened my point of view. If news outlets are afraid of the backlash against an opinion, then only “politically correct” opinions are publishable. That just increases the likelihood of biases I’d like to point out, especially if you are evaluating a distinctly one-sided documentary.
Let me first point out: I don’t know what Michael Jackson actually did. And I am not blaming the alleged victims. That’s for a court of law to decide. That’s why they have them. When one friend opined, “Come on! It’s just a creepy situation and my gut feeling is that he probably did it”, I responded by explaining that these supposed strong gut feelings may indicate the truth. Or they may indicate a prejudice, since that is exactly what prejudice is. “Strong gut feelings” do not prove validity.
I am against child abuse. And I am also against people ignoring their own prejudices. When you watch the Michael Jackson documentary, you might be tempted to weigh in based on your “gut reaction.” But before you do, recognize that this is exactly what prejudice is.
The bias against blacks: If you think that Michael Jackson being black has nothing to do with your opinion, think again. There is considerable evidence of racism in the criminal justice system. And in 2016, sociology professor Calvin John Smiley and doctoral candidate David Fakunle explained that Americans falsely and widely associate criminality with Black people. In fact, this is especially true of “posthumous demonization and criminalization”, where black men are at increased risk of racial bias against them, especially after they die.
For those looking for overt examples of racism, you might notice that the white alleged victims are the only people with a voice or perspective in the documentary. The alleged black perpetrator not only has no voice, but is dead. In an eloquent piece in The Hill, Harvard Law professor Alan Dershowitz described the legal injustice behind posthumous defamation. But it’s not just the overt racism I caution you against. It’s our hidden racism that we cannot see, yet implement in our decisions.
Those of you who work with children or who have children may feel especially moved by the horrific depictions of Jackson’s allegations. That’s understandable. Whether these stories are true or not, it’s worth noting that , in 2018, social research professor Naomi Priest and her colleagues indicated that these negative biases against black people can specifically occur in people who work with children. So, people who work with children, and perhaps those who have children, will understandably also be subjected to this subtle mental manipulation and bias.
The bias against creativity: Did you know that we are also two-faced about creativity? As much as we think we love creativity, in 2010, social psychologist Jennifer Mueller and her colleagues found that we actually unconsciously associate creativity with words like “vomit”, “agony” and “poison.” Many would substantiate their views by associating Jackson’s creativity with “being sick”. We should probably be aware of this notable addition to our list of biases.
As much as we might want to believe that we are not prejudiced, we are. And some other more disturbing prejudices might also pertain to Michael Jackson.
The bias against successful people: For instance, did you know that we are all wired to want to see people of status fall from grace? And this propensity, called schadenfreude, is higher in real life situations than in hypothetical scenarios. In 2014, psychologist Simone G. Shamay-Tsoory and her colleagues reported that even children as young as 24-months old display schadenfreude. Michael Jackson was a superstar. We need to examine these prejudices within ourselves as well.
The memory bias: Then there is the question of whether you can believe or blame the alleged victims. In reality, both are quite difficult. Memory is notoriously unreliable, or at least debatable. On the one hand, they are certified perjurers, so you may be inclined to believe that they are staging a show. On the other hand, many studies have demonstrated that when people are traumatized, they produce more false memories unintentionally.
This collection of biases is a quadruple threat to our judgment. Racial, creativity, fame, and memory biases are real in all of us. Nobody can say what truly happened in the Michael Jackson case, not only because we don’t actually know. But because these biases add to the dilemma of how to make a judgment from afar.
Should our sympathies be for the alleged victims or alleged perpetrators? Or should they be for our somewhat dubious human selves prone to biases as we are, and unable to discern the truth?