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Salience and Cognitive Accessibility

21 September, 2015 - 12:47

Still another potential for bias in memory occurs because we are more likely to attend to, and thus make use of and remember, some information more than other information. For one, we tend to attend to and remember things that are highly salient, meaning that theyattract our attention. Things that are unique, colorful, bright, moving, and unexpected are more salient (McArthur & Post, 1977; Taylor & Fiske, 1978). 1 In one relevant study, Loftus, Loftus, and Messo (1987) 2 showed people images of a customer walking up to a bank teller and pulling out either a pistol or a checkbook. By tracking eye movements, the researchers determined that people were more likely to look at the gun than at the checkbook, and that this reduced their ability to accurately identify the criminal in a lineup that was given later. The salience of the gun drew people’s attention away from the face of the criminal.

The salience of the stimuli in our social worlds has a big influence on our judgment, and in some cases may lead us to behave in ways that we might better not have. Imagine, for instance, that you wanted to buy a new music player for yourself. You’ve been trying to decide whether to get the iPod or the Zune. You checked Consumer Reports online a nd found that, although the players differed on many dimensions, including price, battery life, ability to share music, and so forth, the Zune was nevertheless rated significantly higher by owners than was the iPod. As a result, you decide to purchase the Zune the next day. That night, however, you go to a party, and a friend shows you her iPod. You check it out, and it seems really cool. You tell her that you were thinking of buying a Zune, and she tells you that you are crazy. She says she knows someone who had one and it had a lot of problems—it didn’t download music correctly, the battery died right after the warranty expired, and so forth—and that she would never buy one. Would you still buy the Zune, or would you switch your plans?

If you think about this question logically, the information that you just got from your friend isn’t really all that important. You now know the opinion of one more person, but that can’t change the overall rating of the two machines very much. On the other hand, the information your friend gives you, and the chance to use her iPod, are highly salient. The information is right there in front of you, in your hand, whereas the statistical information from Consumer Reports is only in the form of a table that you saw on your computer. The outcome in cases such as this is that people frequently ignore the less salient but more important information, such as the likelihood that events occur across a large population (these statistics are known as baserates), in favor of the less important but nevertheless more salient information.

People also vary in the schemas that they find important to use when judging others and when thinking about themselves. Cognitive accessibility refers tothe extent to which knowledgeis activated in memory, andthus likelyto beused incognition and behavior. For instance, you probably know a person who is a golf nut (or fanatic of another sport). All he can talk about is golf. For him, we would say that golf is a highly accessible construct. Because he loves golf, it is important to his self-concept, he sets many of his goals in terms of the sport, and he tends to think about things and people in terms of it (“if he plays golf, he must be a good person!”). Other people have highly accessible schemas about environmental issues, eating healthy food, or drinking really g ood coffee. When schemas are highly accessible, we are likely to use them to make judgments of ourselves and others, and this overuse may inappropriately color our judgments.