Duane T. Wegener
Federal Judicial Center
The Flexible Correction Model: Phenomenology and the Use of Naive Theories in Avoiding or Removing Bias
In the spring of 1998, President Bill Clinton was embroiled in a variety of controversies. Congressional inquiries probed for evidence of misdeeds in Democratic National Committee financing of the 1996 presidential/ vice-presidential campaign. Reports abounded regarding President Clinton's alleged extra-marital affairs with, among others, a White House aid—Monica Lewinsky. President Clinton was also sued for sexual harassment by Paula Jones. Yet throughout these allegations, grand juries, and hearings, President Clinton's job approval ratings soared to their highest point during his presidency. Some analysts scratched their heads. Others bemoaned a lack of interest in political matters on the part of the populace. Others simply claimed that people responded to job performance questions about the president by considering their own financial situation (which tended to be rather positive, given the healthy, growing economy and rising stock market).
There is at least one other possibility. That is, because many people believed that the marital (and sexual) life of the president should be irrelevant to his job performance, poll respondents might have been attempting to correct their assessments of his job performance by making sure that they were not influenced by the negative press surrounding the yet unproven misdeeds in the past campaign or the allegations of marital unfaithfulness. If people engaged in this correction by consulting their own perceptions of how the various stories might negatively influence perceptions of the president (Wegener & Petty, 1997), rises in job approval might actually have been due to increases in perceived negative impact of reports about the president's personal life.
There are many settings in which people might go out of their way to avoid bias. In some settings, people are explicitly warned of the inappropriateness of certain information and are instructed to disregard it (e.g., when judges instruct juries to disregard inadmissible evidence; see Fleming, Wegener, & Petty, 1999; Wegener, Kerr, Fleming, & Petty, in press). In other settings, people might be wary of bias and attempt on their own to avoid or remove its influence (e.g., in hiring or graduate admissions settings, where vigilant committee members might strive on their own to avoid negative biases toward stigmatized groups or positive biases toward familiar candidates). In the current chapter we discuss the flexible correction model (FCM; Wegener & Petty, 1997; Wegener, Petty, & Dunn, 1998) as a way to organize many attempts to avoid or remove bias. The FCM relies on people's use of their own perceptions of the bias at work in a given judgment setting. The theory can be considered phenomenological insofar as social perceivers sometimes use their reactions to the target or setting in helping to assess the bias that is likely at work. Later in this chapter, we discuss some ways in which a person's reactions to the target might play a role in theory-based corrections. Before doing so, however, we discuss the social psychological backdrop for theory-based corrections as well as the FCM and the existing evidence in support of theory-based corrections.
Research in the social cognition tradition has long addressed biases in people's perceptions, both of self and others (see Fiske & Taylor, 1991; Kahneman, Tversky, & Slovic, 1982; Nisbett & Ross, 1980, for reviews). Such work has investigated biases in diverse areas such as attribution (e.g., Bradley, 1978; Jones & Harris, 1967; Ross, 1977), memory (e.g., Fischhoff & Beyth, 1975; Ross, 1989; Stangor & McMillan, 1992), prediction of the future (e.g., Perloff & Fetzer, 1986; Weinstein, 1980), impression formation (e.g., Higgins, Rholes, & Jones, 1977; Srull & Wyer, 1980; Swann, Giuliano, & Wegner, 1982), and decision making (e.g., Kahneman & Tversky, 1973). In many of these settings, the source of