The Assimilation Bias

Take a look at the video. Of course, it is just for fun!

As we categorize everything when we try to understand the world, we develop a kind of mental framework. This mental organization of the things we believe about the world is often referred to as a schema. Schemas (or schemata) form our general expectations about the world. In the video above, the Japanese waitress seems to have a strong preconception that Western-looking people will not be able to speak Japanese. Obviously this is exaggerated for comic effect! However, people’s beliefs do play an important part in the way they understand the world. We can think of stereotypes as group schemas, ideas that are shared by members of a group.

Perhaps more interesting is the reaction of young Japanese people, who do in fact seem to be struggling to notice that there might be anything funny about the waitress’s reaction in the above video. They do seem to genuinely think that it is the fact that foreigners are speaking Japanese that is amusing. In other words, they appear to be completely missing the “joke.”

How does one explain this kind of thing? Is it rooted in history, one wonders. After all, Japan had a long and fairly recent history of isolation.

Of course, there are two things we can do when we come across information that goes against our general understanding of the world. We can either change our beliefs or we can somehow make the new information fit in with our beliefs. In the video above, the waitress strongly rejects the idea that the Western-looking people are really speaking Japanese. By rejecting new information, she can keep her pre-existing ideas about the world.

Accommodation is when we change our mental schemas in order to understand the world. Assimilation is when we keep our basic mental schema and misunderstand or reject new information. The process of assimilation works to perpetuate stereotyping. The assimilation bias is the human tendency to ignore new information and rely on old ways to thinking. This bias can be a real obstacle to clear thinking and problem-solving.

It goes without saying that this is likely to play a part in failure to communicate.

Assimilation Bias Quiz

This quiz is based on the video, the text, and the sound file below.

Featured image: Utagawa Hiroshige (歌川広重) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons