Is Teaching Psychology a Waste of Time?

Is Teaching Psychology a Waste of Time?
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Daniel Kahneman is perhaps the world's leading psychologist. A Nobel Prize winner and a professor emeritus at Princeton University, he may also be the field's foremost educator. His book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, has either been on a bestseller list, or not strayed far from one, since it was first published three years ago. And yet, despite his professorial standing, Kahneman has openly considered that teaching psychology may be a total waste of time.

What feeds this realization is not doubt or depression, but data. For Kahneman, it's one classic experiment in particular. In 1975, social psychologists Richard Nisbett and Eugene Borgida of the University of Michigan told students about the famous (and slightly unethical) "helping experiment." In that study, multiple subjects were led into individual opaque booths in close proximity to each other and told to talk to the other subjects about their lives and problems via an intercom. Each participant took a two-minute turn to share. Simple enough. Except the point of the experiment wasn't just to give participants a forum to discuss their feelings, it was actually to see how people would react if they thought someone amongst them was dying. At one point, an actor who was involved in the experiment and stationed in one of the booths, faked having a seizure while speaking over the intercom, cried out for help, then apparently collapsed.

Seeing as how one of their compatriots seemed to be in mortal danger, you'd think the subjects in the other booths would have leapt to lend aid. Most of them didn't.

"Only four of the fifteen participants responded immediately to the appeal for help. Six never got out of their booth, and five others came out only well after the 'seizure victim' apparently choked," Kahneman described.

After detailing the procedure of the "helping experiment" to students, Nisbett and Borgida had them watch videos of two people who had allegedly taken part. The videos painted a benign, genial picture of the supposed participants. After viewing the videos, students were asked to guess whether or not the depicted individuals rushed to the aid of the seizure victim. Half the students were informed of the results of the "helping experiment" and half were not.

Now, you might think that the students who were apprised of the experiment's gloomy results would have been more likely to guess that the individuals in the video didn't rush to the aid of the seizure victim. But they weren't. In defiance of the facts, both groups maintained their rosy outlook of human nature.

"For teachers of psychology, the implications of this study are disheartening," Kahneman wrote. "When we teach our students about the behavior of people in the helping experiment, we expect them to learn something they had not known before; we wish to change how they think about people's behavior in a particular situation. This goal was not accomplished in the Nisbett-Borgida study, and there is no reason to believe that the results would have been different if they had chosen another surprising psychological experiment."

Psychology professor Michael Hobbiss at the Bolton School in the United Kingdom has turned up similar results when teaching his students about Milgram's infamous shock experiment, in which 65% of participants obediently shocked other people from 15 up to 450 volts in 15-volt increments. (Unbeknownst to the participants, the electric shocks were actually fake, and the people getting shocked were actors.) Before Hobbiss apprises his students of the study's results, he estimates that roughly 10% think they would have completed the experiment all the way up to 450 volts. After fully learning about the study, that proportion rises to between 20% and 30%. That's a decent improvement, but still far less than the 65% level seen in the experiment.

Interestingly, Nisbett and Borgida did find a way to get their students to absorb the take-home message from the "helping experiment": Feed them convincing anecdotes. They told a third group of students the procedure of the "helping experiment," showed them the videos, then said that the two people in the videos had not come to the aid of the seizure victim. With this information, the participants accurately predicted the low proportion of people who aided the seizure victim.

So it may not be that psychology is a waste of time, just that general facts and veritable statistics will never trump powerful anecdotes. In many ways, that's even more depressing.

Primary Source: Daniel Kahneman (25 October 2011). Thinking, Fast and Slow. Macmillan. ISBN 978-1-4299-6935-2.

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