Skip navigation
All Places > The Psychology Community > Blog > 2015 > November

When I took Intro Psych in my first semester of college, I knew I wanted to be a psychology major. But I didn’t have any plans beyond that. Early in the course, my professor said that not all psychologists are therapists. That made me very happy – and that’s how I knew I didn’t want to be a therapist. What did I want to be? I still didn’t know, but knowing what I didn’t want to be helped narrow down the career choices.


Would I have chosen being an NFL linebacker coach had I known that was an option? Maybe.


Jen Welter (MS in sport psychology and PhD in psychology from Capella University) spent the summer of 2015 coaching the inside linebackers of the NFL Arizona Cardinals. She also comes with player credentials having spent 13 years in professional women’s league football.


Think, pair, share. Near the end the Intro Psych course (or whatever course you think appropriate, capstone perhaps) while reflecting back on what they have learned about psychology, ask students to jot down what knowledge or skills someone with a psychology background could bring to a coaching job. Students then share with one or two students near them. Finally, ask students to share the list of knowledge and skills they generated with the class.

“So, what do you make of this?,” asked the woman in the airplane seat next to me this week, as she pointed to an article about corporations cancelling meetings in Paris in response to last week’s terrorist attacks.



Eight guys with guns commit horrific evil and capture the world’s attention—leading to calls for revenge, proposals to ban Syrian refugees from the U.S., and fears of European travel. When terrorists kill people in bunches, they create readily available—and memorable—images that hijack our rational thinking.



Meanwhile, I replied, even more people—some 200—die of homicidal gun violence in the U.S. each week. But they mostly die one by one, eliciting little or no national outrage or resolve. Is this (without discounting the likelihood of future terrorist acts) yet another example of our human tendency to fear the wrong things (as I’ve explained here, here, and here)?



The shared threat of terrorism further hijacks rationality, by triggering us/them thinking, inflaming stereotypes of the “other” among us, and creating scapegoats. Thus, although refugees have reportedly committed no terrorist acts—either in Paris or, since 2001, in the USA—more than half of U.S. governors are seeking to block Syrian refugees, and reported threats against Muslims and Mosques have increased. “We don’t know who [the Syrian refugees] are,” declared Donald Trump. “They could be ISIS. It could be the great Trojan Horse.”



Museum of History and Industry,

Seattle Post Intelligencer Collection.

A personal note: U.S. politicians’ calls to effectively shut out Syrian refugees, and even (a la Donald Trump) to register all Muslims in a database, evoke a déjà vu. In 1942, while I was in my mother’s womb, a fear-filled American government gave the Japanese-Americans living on my Bainbridge Island, Washington, home six days to pack a suitcase and be


Sixty-two years later ground was broken for a national memorial at the historic site, with former internee and Bainbridge Island Japanese American Community president, Frank Kitamoto, declaring that “this memorial is also for Walt and Millie Woodward, for Ken Myers, for Genevive Williams . . . and the many others who supported us” and who challenged the forced removal at the risk of being called unpatriotic. The motto of the beautiful
memorial, which I visit on nearly every trip home to Bainbridge: Nidoto Nai Yoni—Let It Not Happen the ferry dock for that March 20th day that began the internment of 120,000 of our fellow Americans. Among their tearful friends and neighbors at the dock was my father (who for many of them was their insurance agent, and who maintained their insurance over objections from insurance companies who viewed the internees properties as at-risk).



As a Bainbridge resident, Washington’s current governor, Jay Inslee, knows that story well, and recalled it when standing apart from other governors wanting to exclude Syrian refugees:



We are a nation that has always taken the path of enforcing our freedom, our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our humanity, our relationship with the rest of the world. And we've hewed to those values, even in troubled times. And when we haven't, we've regretted it. I'll give you an example. I live on Bainbridge Island, this little island just west of Seattle. And it was the first place where we succumbed to fear in 1941 after Pearl Harbor. And we locked up Washington and American citizens, and we sent them to camps—Japanese-Americans. . . . So my neighbors were locked up by the federal government and sent to camps for years while their sons fought in the Army in Italy and were decorated fighting for democracy. We regret that. We regret that we succumbed to fear. We regret that we lost moorage for who we were as a country. We shouldn't do that right now.





- Originally posted by David Myers on the Talk Psych blog on November 21st, 2015.

This Between Friends comic from July 5, 2015 provides a nice example of the spotlight effect. The protagonist is convinced that the fast-food restaurant employee is noticing everything that she doesn’t like about her appearance, everything from her hair color to the stain on her shirt. In the comic, the employee’s expression doesn’t change leading the reader to conclude that the employee notices nothing.


Ask students to think about a recent spotlight effect experience they had. Was there something about their appearance that they were certain everyone would notice but likely no one or very few did? After students share their experiences with one or two people near them, ask for volunteers to share a few examples with the class.


Conclude this exercise by inviting students to yell out ideas about what the fast food employee is thinking about what she is certain others are noticing about her.

Before talking about conformity, show students this 24-second video.  Five little boys, one-by-one, are exiting a tent. The first four all trip and fall on their way out. Boys two, three, and four even manage cringe-worthy face plants. Boy number five is the only one to successfully navigate the tent opening, but rather than bask in the glory of his success, he falls to the ground, landing nicely between boys three and four.



Ask students to take a minute to jot down why they think boy number five chose to fall. Next, ask students to share their ideas with one or two students around them.


Ask the class, “Why do you think he chose to fall?” Many will say he did it to be liked or to fit in (conformity). Some may say that if it were his first time in a tent, his choice to fall may be due to observational learning. “That’s just how you exit a tent,” he may have concluded. Or perhaps he didn’t want the other boys to feel bad for falling. “See? It’s not easy to get out. All of us fell!”


Ask students to take a minute to think on their own how they could test whether such behavior is likely due to conformity or, say, observational learning. In his particular case, we could ask Boy Five to exit a tent with no one present. If he purposefully falls on his way out, the evidence leans toward an observational learning explanation for his intentional fall.


Working with the assumption that his behavior was due to conformity, ask students to take a minute to write down what factors may have contributed to his choice. To help students think about this question, ask what could have been different so that boy number five may have made the choice to remain upright. After thinking quietly on their own, give students a couple minutes to share their factors with one or two other students. Gather responses by going around the room asking each group in turn to name one factor that has not already been mentioned that may have contributed to his decision to fall. Possible responses include the presence of others, particularly boys his age, his behavior was observable, and the group was unanimous (they all fell).


With that as an introduction to conformity, your students are prepped to hear about Solomon Asch’s classic conformity studies.

After covering operant conditioning, ask students to silently identify a specific behavior they would like to change. Help students understand the difference between an outcome, e.g., lose 10 pounds, get an A in this course, and a behavior, e.g., walk 30 minutes a day five days a week, study psychology one hour a day six days a week.


Ask students to raise their hands if they’ve tried to change a behavior only to have the effort peter out. All or almost all hands will go up.


“If I were to pay you each week for engaging in your behavioral change, how much money would it take for you to stick with it?” By a show of hands, “At least $25?” With their hands still up, ask “At least $50?”  With their hands still up, “At least $75?” Keep going until all hands are up.


In a recent experiment (Halpern,, 2015), researchers randomly assigned participants to an incentive-based smoking cessation program. There were a few different ways they structured the incentive, but for all of them participants could earn up to $800 for being smoke-free after six months. How many were smoke-free after six months? The four incentive programs resulted in a 10% to 15% success rate. That may not sound like much, but the authors reports that “usual care” results in 6% smoke-free at six months.


Don’t be surprised if students express dismay at such an incentive program. Providing positive reinforcement for doing things that we should do anyway makes some people uncomfortable. What’s the alternative? We know that healthcare costs will be lower, overall, for people who do not smoke. The higher someone else’s healthcare costs, the higher the cost of health insurance for all of us. Framed in that light, $800 per person seems like a reasonable investment.


I don’t have someone else paying me, but I do have my own personal incentive program. When my pedometer tells me that I have reached 90,000 steps, I put $25 into a special account. It is out of this account that I pay for my Starbucks coffee, most restaurant meals, and anything else that’s considered a non-essential expense. Not only am I encouraged to walk more, but I have also reduced my spending.


Health, however, is much broader than not smoking and walking. It also includes not shooting people.


In Richmond, VA, the city council created a program designed to reduce violence. When they learned that 17 people, mostly young men, were responsible for 70% of the shootings, they knew who they needed to contact. They sent “street-savvy staff members” into the community to build relationships with these folks. With some trust established, the program coordinators invited the men to a meeting and made them an incredible offer. To paraphrase, if you stay out of trouble and attend meetings with the program’s mentors, we’ll pay you up to $1,000 per month for up to nine months. Is it working? Homicides and firearms assaults dropped by about half in just the first year of the program. Drug use among the program participants is down, employment is up, school enrollment is up. It took cash to get them started down a more productive path, but once they got going, the reinforcement came from other places. Historically we have relied on fines and jail time to try to change bad behavior. We know punishment, on the whole, is not as effective as reinforcement, so to change bad behavior why not reinforce good behavior?


Ask students to think of behaviors that are typically punished, and then in pairs or small groups, ask students to generate some ways that alternative, good behaviors could be reinforced.


Halpern, S. D., French, B., Small, D. S., Saulsgiver, K., Harhay, M. O., Audrain-Mcgovern, J., . . . Volpp, K. G. (2015). Randomized trial of four financial-incentive programs for smoking cessation. New England Journal of Medicine N Engl J Med, 372(22), 2108-2117. doi:10.1056/nejmoa1414293