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What I Hope My Students Learned

June 2, 2017



       During my last psychology class this year I asked my students one final question: “what insights have you gotten from psychology that can help make life better for: 1. you personally 2. people in your life  3. society?”  As a teacher, I hoped it was clear that the class was not just about learning principles, theories and research but also about coming to a deeper understanding of themselves, others and society.  I was inspired and reassured by their thoughtful responses; they already connected the curriculum to their own lives.   When it came to improving their own lives, students mostly discussed how they could synthesize happiness by expressing gratitude, prioritizing close relationships, doing what they love and helping others.  When it came to improving the lives of others in their lives and society, students emphasized the importance of empathy.  By using psychological research as a lens, we can gain deeper insight into our own tendencies as humans, thereby revealing the underlying universality that unites the infinitely diverse manifestations of humanity and increasing our own compassion for all.

        If we realize that people are shaped by factors beyond their control, such as their cultures, gender roles, and experiences we become less judgmental and resist blaming them for whatever character flaws irk us.  One student astutely pointed out that because each individual has a unique genetic make-up and is shaped by different experiences, there is no absolute objective truth anyways; everyone has their own biased perspective.  The more we are mindful of this, the more we can accept and embrace differences.  Another student mentioned that awareness of the fundamental attribution error, which is the tendency to overestimate the influence of dispositional factors and underestimate the influence of situational factors on others (for example, assuming someone is unemployed because they're lazy rather than going through difficult circumstances) can help us be more compassionate.

        Perhaps the most basic difference of all, biological sex, can account for communication differences and hence miscommunications.  For example, women tend to self-disclose more and be more empathetic while men tend to interrupt and give advice more (Tannon 1990).   These communication differences could be due to a myriad of social factors, but these are distinct patterns that psychologists, and likely most of you, have observed.   If we are aware of these patterns, we can improve our relationships with others of the opposite sex.   

        Culture is also a major difference that shapes our lives.  It is not just about food and holidays, but about values and beliefs.  The culture we are raised in shapes how we think and even behave.  In more collectivist cultures, such as China, the well-being of the whole is prioritized over that of the individual, and people tend to conform at a greater rate; however, in more individualistic cultures, such as the United States, people are more comfortable with breaking away from the group (Hofstede 1973).  This doesn't make one society more caring and the other more independent; they are simply just different ways of being.              

         Awareness of the role of environmental factors on others behavior can also help us understand why people may behave violently.   Children learn by observation so if they watch their parents or others behave aggressively, they will learn to imitate them.  Bandura showed that when children simply watched an adult pummel a blow-up clown, they later would engage in more aggressive play, not just against the doll itself, but also choosing to pick up toy guns and other violent toys (Bandura 1961).

        Research by Stanley Milgram and Phillip Zimbardo shows that adults without aggressive tendencies, when placed in the right circumstances, will also behave violently.  His notorious 1963 “shock” experiment which claimed to test the effect of punishment on learning but actually tested obedience to authority revealed that 65% of participants would deliver the maximum level of 450 shocks, which was labeled as “danger severe shock” when commanded to do so by someone in authority.  Furthermore, not a single participant stopped before 300 volts, which was labeled as “intense shock”.  Everyone, despite their reluctance and concern, ultimately was willing to obey authority and harm another person.

            Likewise, Zimbardo’s Stanford prison experiment (1971) showed that when college students were assigned the role of “guard” in the makeshift “prison” created in a basement at Stanford University, they often became bullies, verbally abusing and humiliating the “prisoners”.  It had to be shut down after a few days because of how out of control it became.

     Both of these studies show that under the right circumstances, particularly when people are deindividualized and given a role, such as “guard” with a uniform that masks their own personal self, and when command by someone in authority to obey, most people will go against their conscience and harm others.   This may be disturbing and distressing, but actually it can help us have empathy for the “bad” guys too, not just the victims.  The Germans during World War Two were not born particularly evil, the circumstances made it possible.  Zimbardo talks about how the case of American soldiers torturing Iraqi prisoner in the Abu Ghraib prison can also be explained by similar factors in his TED Talk on the “Psychology of Evil”: This is not an excuse or justification, but by understanding what makes “good” people do horrific things, we are better able to prevent it.  

       Psychology helps us understand why there is violence in our society, which helps us be more compassionate towards everyone, but more importantly what we can do to prevent it.  When it came to what is the most important psychological insight for making society better, students again and again said understanding how stereotypes and prejudice are formed, because when unchecked, those can lead to discrimination.  Stereotypes can also easier morph into prejudice when people are thought to be inferior or even discrimination when people act on that prejudice.  Jane Elliot's 1968 Blue eyes / brown eyes experiment in her 3rd grade classroom showed that children who were told blue-eyed children were better than brown-eyed children, and then vice-versa the following day, quickly developed discriminatory feelings towards their peers. The pervasive prejudice against Jewish people in Europe paved the path to the Holocaust.  Yes anyone can be coerced to obey authority to harm another, but if that other person is seen as less human than you, perpetuating cruelty becomes more palatable.                      

      Psychologists argue that it's in our nature to stereotype; we are information processors and it makes it a lot easier to process information if we break it down into categories or schemas. (This was also discussed in another Happy Friday article titled, 'Unpacking Prejudice'.) We put people in boxes based on certain features - race, gender, religion etc. and then add characteristics to each category.  We learn what those characteristics are by the social gatekeepers - the media and our elders - teachers, parents etc.  We ignore information that contradicts the stereotypes and seek out what confirms it because we filter all information through those preexisting schemas.    Although stereotypes may have a grain of truth and some may even be positive, they do actually harm others.  Stereotype threat is the phenomenon when knowing which stereotypes are associated with your identity actually hinders performance.  Research shows that when minorities, who are expected to do worse on standardized tests, mark down their race before the exam do worse than if they don't label their race until afterwards.   Awareness of our own susceptibility to form stereotypes and prejudice is key to preventing discrimination; furthermore, it helps us realize that people who discriminate are not necessarily bad people, but products of their environment and cognitive processes.

        Beyond awareness, we can take action to help protect and advocate for others, which in turn will inspire others to do the same.  Ironically, typically the more people that are around during a crisis, the less likely people are to intervene.   A prime example of this phenomenon, known as “the bystander effect” is the murder of Kitty Genovese in 1964 when 38 witnesses heard her scream for help yet did nothing, not even call the police since everyone assumed someone else would do something.  Experiments by Darley & Latane show that the more people were in the room, the less likely they were to go down the hall to help someone supposedly having a stroke, shows that not only is the responsibility diffused, but we conform to the group. Studies on conformity show however that if just one person breaks from the group, others are more likely to follow (Asch, 1956).  Several students wrote that the way they could use what they learned from psychology to help make society better is to speak up when something is wrong and stand up for what they think is right.  This could be from calling out a friend who's bullying another to speaking up if they think their government is violating the rights of others.  

       Fortunately, psychology also shows that we are hardwired to be altruistic.  There are debating theories as to why we would help others even if it could harm us, but there are incredible cases of bravery such as during the Holocaust when people risked their lives to shelter Jews and other vulnerable people.  One theory says that we help because it's in our own evolutionary best interest to help our species survive, which is why we're more likely to be altruistic towards our own families.  Others argue it's because we benefit from it much as some animals have symbiotic relationships like the crocodile and the bird that cleans its teeth; we help others in the hope others will help us someday.  Others say it's to reduce the discomfort we feel when we see others suffer.  Whatever the reason, we all have that capacity and the more we can be aware of our own proclivity towards both violence and altruism, the more we can push ourselves in the right direction.  

       Psychology is the scientific study of thought processes and behavior and we certainly are complex beings with the capacity for great good and evil.  I hope that as my students remember that simply by becoming more aware of their own thoughts and tendencies, they have more power to create their own happiness and to be more empathetic towards others.  Ultimately, psychology teaches compassion.    Carrying that compassion for ourselves and others certainly should help make our lIves, and the lives of others a little better.

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