Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Tell Me More, Mr. Science

My degree is in Psychology, and psychology was my chosen course of study for a number of reasons. Yes, easy class schedules, liberal professors and access to free thinking girls were factors, but I was also legitimately interested in some of the research surrounding human behavior.  Why do people do what they do?  I was genuinely curious, and I thought the research studies were interesting and fun.  I know, weird.

One of my favorite concepts from my Freshman year studies was cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance describes the mental conflict that occurs when beliefs or assumptions are contradicted by new information. Psychologist Leon Festinger and later researchers showed that, when confronted with challenging new information, most people seek to preserve their current understanding of the world by rejecting, explaining away, or avoiding the new information or by convincing themselves that no conflict really exists.  We make the world match our preconceived ideas of what it is in order to remove the uncomfortable dissonance.  This happens most often when far right Republicans are confronted with scientific information or reality in general.

As I moved from college into the working world, I became enamored with the Hawthorne Effect, named after a researcher named...Hawthorne (not really).  The Hawthorne Effect is the psychological theory that the behavior of an individual or a group will change to meet the expectations of the observer if they are aware their behavior is being observed.  This behavior was documented by a research team led by Elton Mayo in the 1920s at the Western Electric Company Hawthorne plant. In studying the effect of lighting on productivity, the researchers found that, regardless of the lighting conditions introduced, productivity improved.  We will supply what we are expected to supply.  This is useful in the workplace, and also when raising children.

As I grew into the role of parent, I started my fascination with the Stockholm Syndrome.  The Stockholm Syndrome refers to a group of psychological symptoms that occur in some persons in a captive or hostage situation. This helps explain behaviors in everyday family life. The term takes its name from a bank robbery in Stockholm, Sweden, in August 1973. The robber took four employees of the bank (three women and one man) into the vault with him and kept them hostage for 131 hours. After the employees were finally released, they appeared to have formed a paradoxical emotional bond with their captor; they told reporters that they saw the police as their enemy rather than the bank robber, and that they had positive feelings toward the criminal. We don't know more about this syndrome because it would be unethical to test theories about the syndrome by experimenting on human beings, but we know it happens.  The contestants on Survivor seem to like Jeff Probst, the host, so that supports the theory.

I love this stuff, I really do, and now I have a new favorite psychological concept to share: the Dunning-Kruger Effect. This theory states that the less you know, the more you think you know.  Charles Darwin once said, "Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge".  Man, that guy was evolved.  In sum, Kruger and Dunning found during their 1999 research study that incompetent people overestimate their own skill level, fail to recognize the skill of others, and fail to recognize their own inadequacy.  Of course, if you don't believe any of this, or think you are the exception, perhaps the theory has just been proven.  Not a sermon, just a thought.

So next time someone expresses too much certainty about their position on anything, think about the Dunning-Kruger Effect, and silently pity the person. Chances are they know nothing at high volume, and it's better than 50-50 that they have their own show on cable.

Trust, but verify.

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