The whole of Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible is about cognitive bias, in that the hysteria surrounding allegations of sorcery or witchcraft are predicated upon false assumptions, misread situations, and prejudices regarding actions or comments that do not fit in to the normal pattern or discourse. The play opens in the home of Reverend Parris, specifically, in the bedroom of his ten-year-old daughter Betty. Betty is unconscious, the apparent result of her, her cousin Abigail, and the family’s slave, Tituba, who is from the Caribbean island of Barbados, having been caught engaging in activities the nature of which resembled witchcraft. The girls had been dancing naked in the woods while Tituba engaged in some harmless form of sorcery. The shock of discovery, and the suggestion that the girls had been engaging in witchcraft, is sufficient to instill enormous fear in the reverend during a time when allegations of witchcraft could prove fatal. Miller suggests the role of cognitive bias in the adults’ interpretation of the childrens’ activity in his prologue establishing the setting for the play:
“He [Reverend Parris] was a widower with no interest in children, or talent with them. He regarded them as young adults, and until this strange crisis he, like the rest of Salem, never conceived that the children were anything but thankful for being permitted to walk straight, eyes slightly lowered, arms at the sides, and mouths shut until bidden to speak.”
That Parris should spy the girls acting in a manner very much in contravention to his predisposition regarding the proper role of children in society helps set the stage for the mass hysteria that follows. For Parris, however, the issue goes further than concerns about witchcraft; he is equally concerned about his status in the community, having been, again, according to Miller’s background information, unwelcome in previous stops (“In history he cut a villainous path, and there is very little good to be said for him. He believed he was being persecuted wherever he went, despite his best efforts to win people and God to his side”). As Parris, panicky under the circumstances, exclaims his fear of the girls’ actions threatening his position as town clergy:
“Then why can she not move herself since midnight? This child is desperate! It must come out - my enemies will bring it out. Let me know what you done there. Abigail, do you understand that I have many enemies?”
Examples of cognitive bias abound in The Crucible. An allegory for the McCarthyite “witch-hunt” of the early 1950s – the period in which Miller wrote his play – irrational fears of alien concepts dominates the environment Miller depicts, which was based on the real-life Salem witch trials of 1692. During the trial in Miller’s play, Judge Hathorn is preparing to render judgment upon Martha Corey, who stands accused of witchcraft:
“Now, Martha Corey, there is abundant evidence in our hands to show that you have given yourself to the reading of fortunes, Do you deny it?”
The judge’s preconceptions regarding witchcraft have colored his perceptions regarding townsfolk innocently caught up in the hysteria that has swept the community. Of course, Martha Corey was not a witch, any more than any of the other victims of the scare, twenty of whom would be executed. The psychological construct in which the townsfolk were functioning, however, lent itself to misperceptions, with terrifying consequences.