Social Psych in the Philosophy Classroom

Normally, self-affirmation is reserved for instances in which identity is threatened in direct ways: race, gender, age, weight, and the like. Here, Nyhan decided to apply it in an unrelated context: Could recalling a time when you felt good about yourself make you more broad-minded about highly politicized issues, like the Iraq surge or global warming? As it turns out, it would. On all issues, attitudes became more accurate with self-affirmation, and remained just as inaccurate without. That effect held even when no additional information was presented—that is, when people were simply asked the same questions twice, before and after the self-affirmation.

The question of why people persistently hold onto false beliefs has long been of interest to philosophers, and has received increased attention in the social sciences. An article in the New Yorker summarizes some recent experimental work on correcting false beliefs. As it turns out, providing correct information to the false believers doesn’t work all that well. What does? According to the work of political scientist Brendan Nyhan (Dartmouth), which is summarized in the article, this: getting people to feel good about themselves.

The philosophy classroom is a challenging place. The methods are unfamiliar, the readings difficult, and, most directly, it is often the goal of philosophy professors to problematize the ordinary, that is, to get people to see that the beliefs they take for granted may be unjustified or rooted in mistakes or in need of clarification and defense. Many students are resistant to this and are turned off by philosophy.

Does Nyhan’s work provide a lesson for philosophy professors? Will our students be more receptive to criticism and correction, more “broad-minded”, if we first make sure they feel good about themselves? How could we do that?

And what other findings should philosophy professors tailor their teaching techniques in light of? If students are more responsive if they are fonder of their professors, perhaps we should offer them warm drinks. Or maybe we should adjust the colors of our handouts, or presentation slides, or classroom walls, depending on the kind of assignments we are asking the students to do. Or perhaps to come off as more authoritative and competent, we should stand up straight, lecture on a raised platform, and do other things to make ourselves seem taller.

It would be interesting to learn if philosophy teachers have had pedagogical success by paying attention to their students’ cognitive biases and heuristics, taking advantage of their automatic responses to certain stimuli, or otherwise nudging them.

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10 years ago


Nick Byrd
10 years ago

I am not sure how I feel about using social psych results to inform pedagogy, especially non-replicated results, but I think being more socially aware and intentionally positive (as in “positive” psychology) could go a long way to improve the dynamic of philosophy classrooms and departments in general.

Anecdote: as a grad student, when I took classes in psychology and cognitive science, I was often floored by the extra care and attention that was dedicated to being socially warm and encouraging in each conversation and lecture (compared to what I experience at philosophy conferences)–I hear other students report similar experiences about the courses they take in education departments. I recall that my undergraduate philosophy department was rather positive and warm in this way. Perhaps this warmness and encouragement was part of the reason that, as an undergraduate, I felt more at home in the philosophy department than in my home department: biblical studies (where my skepticism and agnosticism were not welcome). I would not be surprised if social warmth was among the things that influenced my decision to change my major to philosophy.

Some might worry that being so positive might result in a false hope in one’s abilities or graduate school prospects. I would lend some credence to this worry since I was overconfident after finishing my undergraduate experience.