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All Places > The Psychology Community > Blog > 2016 > February

Check out this Op-Ed from Psychology Today by Albert Bandura, author of Moral Disengagement: How People Do Harm and Live With Themselves. Dr. Bandura draws on his agentic theory to examine the mechanisms by which individuals in all walks of life commit inhumanities that violate their moral standards and still retain a positive self-regard and live in peace with themselves.


Read the Op-Ed:


Learn more about Dr. Bandura's text, Moral Disengagement: How People Do Harm and Live With Themselves:

Those who write/draw comic strips are often astute observers of human behavior. That makes the funny pages a gold mine for psychology examples. (Here’s another blog post I wrote about a comic strip illustrating the spotlight effect.)


Last week (February 16, 2016), Scott Adams of Dilbert fame gave us a wonderful example of the door-in-the-face technique. When a coworker’s babysitter cancels, she asks Dilbert if he likes kids. He assures her that he is not interested in watching her kids. She replies, “I was going to ask you to adopt them.” There’s the door-in-the face. Dilbert’s replies, “Absolutely not. The best I can is watch them tonight.”


One of my favorites comes from Mark Tatulli’s Lio (November 14, 2009). Lio is known for having a different group of friends than most kids. Including in his group are ghouls, goblins, and, yes, even death. In this particular comic strip, Lio loudly rips open a bag of “Monsta Treats.” In the next panel we see a monster towering over Lio, soaking him with dripping saliva. Ask students, in pairs or small groups, to identify the unconditioned stimulus, unconditioned responses, conditioned stimulus, and conditioned response. Circulate around the room clarifying as needed. Bring the class back together and identify each. Next ask what generalization would look like. And then ask what would need to happen to bring about extinction.


Hilary Price in her Rhymes with Orange comic (August 21, 2013) gave a nice side-by-side comparison of positive and negative reinforcement. In the first panel a middle schooler is working on homework, and an off-panel parent says “If you finish this homework, I will let you watch a show.” In the second panel an adult is typing on a computer, and the adult’s thought bubble reads “If I finish this paragraph, I will let myself pee.” Ask students, again in pairs or small groups, to identify the behaviors being reinforced, and then to identify which is positive reinforcement (first panel) and which is negative reinforcement (adult) and explain why.


If you have a favorite comic strip that illustrates some psychological comment, please leave a link to it in the comments!

How cool would it be if a couple cognitive psychologists decided to write a blog for students on how to study? Megan Smith (Rhode Island College) and Yana Weinstein (University of Massachusetts Lowell) have created Their “[m]ission is to make scientific research more accessible to students and educators in order to increase the use of evidence-based study strategies among students.”


Launched on Februrary 5, 2016, their first blog post, “Communication Breakdown Between Science and Practice in Education,” nicely explains why they decided to create this blog. In short, there needs to be a more direct pipeline between cognitive science and the people who use it, such as students and teachers. Those of us who teach psychology are professional interpreters and translators of psychological science, and as such, we have a responsibility to share what we know. Kudos to Drs. Smith and Weinstein for taking psychology to the streets.


More recent blog posts include information on the testing effect and its benefits, the danger of relying on intuition, how confirmation bias can steer us wrong, and tips on how to study from a textbook by applying self-testing and spacing.


Since their content is directed at students, I just added this blog as a feed to my course announcements. That means that every time a new blog post goes up, it will automatically be sent out to my students as a course announcement. While my college uses the Canvas learning management system (LMS), this ability should reside in whatever LMS your institution uses. To the people who run your LMS write, “I have an RSS feed ( I want to automatically push out to my students through our LMS, say, as an announcement. How can I do that?”


While I love what Smith and Weinstein are doing, I’m not expecting huge changes in my students studying behavior. We know there is a (BIG) difference between knowing what we’re supposed to do and actually doing it. (Do you get as much exercise as you know you should? Do you eat as well as you know you should?) Of course we have to know what we should be doing – thus praise for their efforts – before we can start feeling guilty about not doing what we should be doing. Stephen Chew tackled the how-to-study problem in his 6-part How to Get the Most Out of Studying video series, and I know a number of faculty, in and out of psychology, who use at least parts of his series with their students. A couple years ago I did an hour-long session at my college titled The Science of Being a Student. It was recorded, so I have my Intro Psych students watch it and answer a few questions as an assignment. Students always report getting a lot out of it. But for most students, it has no discernible impact on exam grades. Perhaps for some students, they are looking for a magic bullet where none exists. Learning is hard work, and there is no way around that.


But for those students who are ready to make a change in how they study, let’s make sure they know the best evidence-based techniques. And is a great place for our students to start.

I admit it. Development is not my favorite Intro Psych chapter. That makes me extra thankful to Intro Psych textbook authors who put one of my favorite cognitive psych concepts in this chapter. Understanding schemas can help students get inside their own heads and realize that how they think the world works may not actually be how the world works. Also, and I have no evidence for this, understanding schemas may help students be more patient with others. “Oh! I can see what schema you’re working from. It’s wrong, but I can see it.”


The website Not Always Right gives those working in customer service an opportunity to share some of their more frustrating or baffling interactions with customers. Not Always Learning does the same for education with both those working in education and students sharing their experiences.


We have schemas for social interactions. We carry a set of assumptions for how different social interactions will go. Probably every barista has greeted a customer with “Good morning. How are you?” only to have the customer respond with “I’ll have a tall coffee” (I’m Feeling Pretty Coffee Myself Too). The customer’s schema for barista-interaction has the barista asking, “What can I get you?” (or, more  and more frequently, what Starbucks has brought us, “What can I get started for you?”), so that is the question that is answered. In a noisy coffee shop with a sleep-deprived and not-yet-caffeinated customer, the actual question, “How are you?” may not have even been heard, and if it was, not processed. The customer relies on his or her schema to drive the interaction.


We have schemas for how technology works. When a customer purchased a portable gaming system, the customer assumed that the system came with its own ability to connect to the Internet (Wireless, Clueless, Hopeless, Part 24). Through the interaction with the salesperson at the video game store, it becomes clear that the customer doesn’t have an accurate e schema for how the Internet works. While we’re not privy to the customer’s Internet experience, it’s reasonable to assume that the customer has a smartphone that doesn’t require anything special to connect to the Internet. It just does it. The customer’s schema for “connecting to the Internet” may include the idea that small electronics all come with an automatic ability to access the Internet.


We have schemas for something as simple as how to make copies. A library patron has something in print, perhaps pages from a book, and wants a physical copy of it (Sloppy Copy). For those of us who spent too much of our time in college and grad school in front of copiers, our schemas for how to get a physical copy of book pages includes taking the book to the copier and, well, copying it. For those who grew up in a digital age, they are very familiar with printing, but probably not so much with copying. This patron was trying to figure out how to scan the book and then print it, not recognizing that photocopying directly was a possibility. And then try explaining mimeographs.


As an out-of-class assignment or an in-class small group activity, send students to these websites, and ask them to find other examples of schemas gone awry.

I was looking at how my students did on my Intro Psych exam questions this past fall. One item on split-brain jumped out at me. I have such a question on the first exam and another on the final. Both questions posit that something is briefly shown in the left visual field and another something is briefly shown in the right visual field of someone who has had split brain surgery. The answer choices ask the student to identify what the person can do, e.g., use their right hand to point at the first something, say what the other something was.


Last fall, how did my students do on the split brain questions? Not so well. On the module exam, about 50% of my students got the question right. On the final exam, about 20% did.


I know this is a tricky concept. Initially I was thinking I could do some sort of in-class demo to help students see the difference. I had some ideas that involved student volunteers, but then when it came time to do it in class, I thought, "There is no way this is going to work. They're going to leave being more confused." So I didn't do it.


At my next department meeting, I said that I was trying to find a way to help students grasp split brain and was wondering if anyone had ideas. Rod Fowers said that he had created a worksheet [download here] that helps students think it through. He acknowledged that a 2-page worksheet for this concept may feel like overkill, but he was also trying to model to students how to break something that is complex into smaller chunks to make it more digestible. That makes sense.


I sent the worksheet to my students as a 5-point extra credit opportunity (over 600 points in the course) via our course management system on Friday. The instructions were to print it out (or manipulate it digitally), follow the instructions (which includes drawing), and get it to me by the beginning of class on Monday (day of their first exam, an exam that included a split brain question).


About half of my students completed the worksheet correctly. (Only one student who turned it in didn't earn credit for it.) How did they do on that first exam split brain question? Of the 26 who successfully completed the worksheet, 69% answered the question correctly. Of the 28 who didn't do the worksheet, 25% answered the question correctly. I can see that difference even without a statistical test.


Now, I know what you're thinking. "But Sue, it's the students who tend to do better on tests who do the extra credit." I removed the split brain question from my students' total exam scores. Was there a difference in their adjusted exam scores? Nope.


Next up is the final exam. Will I see an increase in performance on that split brain question as well? I'll let you know in a couple months.


I have data at this point to include this split brain worksheet in my classes next term as a required assignment. I may even make it part of an in-class small group activity like my colleague Ruth Frickle did yesterday. Although I will probably modify the worksheet, removing the questions about how each eye is halved since that's a bit more than I really want my students to know.


If you try this worksheet, I'd love to hear how it works for you!