Skip navigation
All Places > The Psychology Community > Blog > 2016 > October

Thanks to Feedspot for selecting Talk Psych with David Myers as one of the  Top 100 Psychology Blogs on the web!


Originally posted on October 28, 2016. 

It's a hard scene to imagine: immigrant-despising Donald Trump supporters greeting women’s rights-supporting Hillary Clinton supporters with high fives.

But it’s happening, virtually over Facebook and in Chicago, as folks from opposite political poles discover their common ground—rooting for their beloved Cubs. As social psychologist Jon Mueller—producer of great social psychology teaching resources—explains in this sports essay, shared threats and superordinate goals can turn enemies into friends. The shelf life for their new ingroup identity as mutual Cubs fans may be short. But for this weekend, at least, the closed fists of political animosities have become the open arms of a shared identity. Go Cubs go!

Originally posted on October 27, 2016.


Sometimes adversities become blessings. A defeat sparks a new resolve that produces a champion. A setback seeds a success. An adversity awakens a passion and purpose. (For me, the silver lining of hearing loss has been an avocational purpose as hearing advocate.)


Such, writ large, is the life story of prisoner-turned-prisoner-advocate Dirk Van Velzen, whom I encountered a decade ago when he wrote from a California prison. I receive occasional letters from prisoners requesting copies of one of my books, or asking questions about them. But no prison correspondent impressed me more than Van Velzen, who asked perceptive questions from his reading of my Social Psychology textbook. Our ensuing exchanges enabled me to track his progress as a distance learning student, leading to his 2010 Pennsylvania State University graduation—while still behind prison walls—with a 3.99 GPA.


This heartwarming journey, from “America’s Most Wanted” (for repeated burglaries) to honors graduate, is but the prelude to the rest of his story. Van Velzen was keenly aware that the educational opportunity he received, thanks to his father’s support, was unavailable to other able and motivated inmates. (Although prisoners can benefit from some forms of education, Congress in 1994 banned postsecondary Pell Grants to prisoners.) Undeterred by the magnitude of the challenge, Van Velzen created the Prison Scholar Fund to support other U.S. prisoners desiring higher education. With support from a handful of donors, including small grants from the Annenberg Foundation and our family foundation, and through the sale of calendars featuring prisoners’ art, the Fund has awarded 190 scholarships to 110 prisoners.

 Seattle Fast Pitch Presentation (courtesy Dirk Van Velzen)

Seattle Fast Pitch Presentation (courtesy Dirk Van Velzen)


In recognition of his determined efforts, Van Velzen received a White House award for volunteer service—while still behind bars. (His good deeds notwithstanding, Van Velzen served his full 15 year term, without clemency or early release.) In the 17 months since his 2015 release, he has established a Prison Scholar Fund start-up office, housed at a Seattle Methodist church, and completed programs in nonprofit management and social entrepreneurship at the University of Washington and Stanford. When he pitched his vision in Seattle’s Social Venture Partners “Fast Pitch” competition, he finished first—and received $20,000 to help seed his program.


On my recent visit to Seattle and to his office, Van Velzen showed me the bulging files of applications from prisoners seeking higher education support, and told me of the support he receives from his new board members, from University of Washington volunteers, and from Microsoft executives. The latter are assisting him in planning—if funding becomes available—a social experiment that will assess the long-term impact of enabling prisoners to do college work.





By painstaking sleuthing, Van Velzen and his volunteers found that, among the 74 scholarship awardees released from prison with the benefit of added education, only three spent time back behind bars. But does this remarkably low recidivism rate merely reflect a selection effect—the high quality of capable, motivated prisoners who would seek higher education? Answering that question requires—as any psychology student would appreciate—an experiment that randomly assigns matched eligible inmates to either a scholarship or no-scholarship condition, and then follows their lives through time. Should the impact prove positive, it would validate both his program and a fledgling government effort to restart prisoner higher education.


Sometimes, observed Walt Disney, “A kick in the pants may be the best thing in the world for you.” Dirk Van Velzen kicked society. Society kicked him back. In response, he has become an example of how, in those blessed with gritty determination, adversity can ignite passion and purpose.

Originally posted on October 18, 2016. 


For both graduate students and instructors alike, there are many reasons to teach a research methods course. From demand for professors to the ability to harbor student skills, these pragmatic approaches to teaching an engaging course are beneficial for students and instructors.


Read more about my approach to teaching research methods on TeachPsych:

You just had another one of those conversations. You know, the one where a colleague casually drops “learning styles” into the conversation assuming that we’re all on board with this commonly known fact of learning. Did you respond with “well, actually…” or did you try to extract yourself from the situation as quickly and gracefully as possible? Or did you just glance at your phone and say, “Oh! I have to go! I’m late for a meeting.”


If you’re looking for a comprehensive treatment of the topic, then the Pashler, (2008) paper is the place to start. The authors provide a nice overview, some history on how we got to here, the kind of research evidence needed to “validate interventions based on learning styles,” and then a review of the literature itself. The punch line? “We conclude therefore, that at present, there is no adequate evidence base to justify incorporating learning styles assessments into general educational practice.”


After reading about the dearth of experimental testing regarding learning styles Rogowsky and colleagues (2014) matched students’ “learning style preference” with “instructional mode.” The results? No impact. Interestingly, those who preferred to read – “visual word” – to learn performed the best overall as compared to those with an “auditory word” preference. The authors write, “It is important to keep in mind that most testing, from state standardized education assessments to college admission tests, is presented in a written word format only. Thus, it is important to give students as much experience with written material as possible to help them build these skills, regardless of their preferred learning style.”


If you’re looking for a Q & A approach, Daniel Willingham has a nice “Learning Styles FAQ.” Twelve questions, twelve answers. The first question: “How can you not believe that that people learn differently?  Isn’t it obvious?” The first sentence of the first answer: “People do learn differently, but I think it is very important to say exactly how they learn differently, and focus our attention on those differences that really matter.”


Twelve questions are too many? How about five questions and a statement (Jarrett, 2015)?


Or maybe you want some guidance on how to gauge the utility of learning styles articles. Megan Smith of the Learning Scientists blog suggests four criteria to look for: 1. Explanation of why we can’t shake this myth; 2. Description of the kind of data what would be helpful; 3. Explanation of the harm that meshing teaching to learning styles can cause; and 4. Description of better approaches to teaching. Smith uses these criteria to walk us through a few learning style articles.


 What are the alternative approaches to teaching?


Stephen Chew brings us the “Cognitive Principles of Effective Teaching” 5-part video series. The first video addresses common beliefs about teaching. Videos two, three, and four, address “cognitive challenges of teaching,” such as mindset, ineffective learning strategies, and the constraints of working memory.


Samuel Moulton (2014) provides a more extensive review of the literature of learning. He addresses areas such as “effective and active learning” (e.g., spaced practice, deep processing), “mental architecture” (e.g., cognitive load, dual coding), and “motivation and persistence” (e.g., achievement motivation, social learning).


Would you prefer a free ebook on the topic? Benassi, (2014) edited a wonderful 24-chapter book published by the Society for the Teaching of Psychology, Applying Science of Learning in Education: Infusing Psychological Science into the Curriculum.




Now that you are up to speed on the learning styles literature and other – better – ways of teaching, you will be ready for that next hallway conversation.


Special thanks to Kristie Morris who raised this topic on the Society for the Teaching of Psychology’s PsychTeacher listserv and to Molly Metz, Bill Goffe, Kristina Dandy, Xiaomeng Xu, and Karen Huxtable-Jester for providing their favorite resources on the topic.




Benassi, V. A., Overson, C. E., & Hakala, C. M. (2014). Applying science of learning in education: Infusing psychological science into the curriculum. Retrieved from the Society for the Teaching of Psychology web site:  


Chew, S. (n.d.). Cognitive principles of effective teaching. Retrieved October 25, 2016, from


Jarrett, C. (2015, January 5). All you need to know about the ‘learning styles’ myth, in two minutes. Retrieved from


Moulton, S. T. (2014). Applying psychological science to higher education: Key findings and open questions. Retrieved October 25, 2016, from


Pashler, H., Mcdaniel, M., Rohrer, D., & Bjork, R. (2008). Learning styles: Concepts and evidencePsychological Science in the Public Interest, 9(3), 105-119. doi:10.1111/j.1539-6053.2009.01038.x


Rogowsky, B. A., Calhoun, B. M., & Tallal, P. (2015). Matching learning style to instructional method: Effects on comprehensionJournal of Educational Psychology, 107(1), 64-78. doi:10.1037/a0037478


Smith, M. (n.d.). Weekly digest #9: How to talk about learning styles. Retrieved October 25, 2016, from 


Willingham, D. (n.d.). Daniel Willingham's Learning Styles FAQ. Retrieved October 25, 2016, from

Doing science takes humility—an awareness of our vulnerability to error and an openness to new perspectives. If nature, in response to our questioning, doesn’t behave as our ideas predict, then so much the worse for our ideas. As we say in psychology, “The rat is always right.”

Indeed, every once in a blue moon, a major new finding overturns what many of us have long believed and taught or read in our textbooks. And so it was when I read in the September Clinical Psychological Science the results of a huge new study of supposed seasonal variations in depression. Auburn University at Montgomery researchers Megan Traffanstedt, Sheila Mehta, and Steven LoBello harvested U.S. data from 34,294 participants in a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention annual health behavior study. The researchers asked: Was depression, as reflected in people’s interview answers, more common in the days surrounding the December 21st winter solstice? Was wintertime depression greater for those living in higher latitudes? Was depression greater for those living in cloudy rather than sunny communities? For those not experiencing sunlight on the day of the interview?

Photo credit: inakilarrea/RooM/Getty Images

The stunning answers were no, no, no, and no.

Moreover, they report, other research confirms that seasonal affective disorder, though “strongly rooted in folk psychology . . . is not supported by objective data.” In northern Norway, for example, the two-month-long “dark period” is accompanied by “no increase in depression.”

Science is a self-correcting, ongoing process that often confirms what we have supposed. But occasionally our long-held ideas crash against a wall of fact. That is one reason why, despite the many lessons that have survived scrutiny, our textbooks are always in the process of revision. Doing, teaching, and writing science requires humility.

That said, given a) the demonstrated effectiveness of light therapy, and b) the widespread acceptance of what DSM 5 calls depressive disorder “with seasonal pattern,” I suspect we have not heard the last word on this.

Originally posted on October 13, 2016.


Amid the uproar over leaked audio of Donald Trump’s boasting about his sexual predation, there was a secondary story—the complicity of interviewer Billy Bush, who appears to snicker approvingly at Trump’s reprehensible comments. “Obviously I’m embarrassed and ashamed,” Bush tweeted after his enabling behavior was revealed.


Surely, we can each reassure ourselves: Had we been in a small group situation in which someone injected blatant sexist or racist remarks, we would not play along. But do we underestimate the power of the situation, especially if we have motives to impress a famous or powerful person?


Social psychologists Janet Swim and Laurie Hyers put this question to an experimental test. They asked Pennsylvania State University women students to imagine themselves in a small group deciding whom to select for survival on a desert island. If one of the others injected three sexist comments, such as “I think we need more women on the island to keep the men satisfied” or to do the cooking, how would they react?


Only 5 percent predicted they would ignore the comments. But when the women actually experienced this very situation, 55 percent said nothing.


Other researchers have found people similarly docile—despite predictions of being courageous—when hearing someone utter a racial slur.


As Billy Bush now understands, it’s so easy to become complicit—to “get along by going along.” As Marian Wright Edelman observed in The Measure of Our Success (1992), “Have you ever noticed how one example—good or bad—can prompt others to follow? How one illegally parked car can give permission for others to do likewise? How one racial joke can fuel another?”


If we attribute Billy Bush’s behavior only to a Trump-like sexist disposition then we can distance ourselves from it. Not us. Never. But in doing so we forget one of the big lessons of social psychology—the corrupting power of evil situations. In horror movies and suspense novels, evil is the product of the depraved bad apple. In real life (as in Stanley Milgram’s obedience experiments), evil more often results from toxic situations that make the whole barrel go bad. The drift towards evil can therefore occur without any conscious intent to do evil. As Mister Rogers used to say, “Good people sometimes do bad things.” Or as James Waller, a social psychologist who has studied evil, has written, “When we understand the ordinariness of extraordinary evil, we will be less surprised by evil, less likely to be unwitting contributors to evil, and perhaps better equipped to forestall evil.”


Mindful of the power of the situation, my occasional advice to my teen children when heading out on a Friday night—and to myself when wishing for others’ approval—has been: “Remember who you are.” Perhaps Billy Bush can help us remember how easy it is to forget who we are and what we stand for.

Here’s a quick (seven minutes!) and engaging way to start your brain lecture. Annette Jordan Nielsen (Woods Cross High School in Bountiful, UT) harnesses her students’ connections to gather a little data.


Students pull out their phones or other web-enabled devices and using whatever means they prefer to connect to others (group text, Facebook, Twitter, etc.), students ask “What percent of their potential brain power do you think most people use?”

On the board, she draws a horizontal line. Under the line she writes 10%, 20%, 30%, etc.


Then she shows this 4-minute video from the SciShow that debunks the 10% brain myth.


As students watch the video, they keep an eye on their devices for the responses to their question. Students come to the board to mark the first three responses they get, doing this as the video plays. 


Annette reports that “the charts always end up looking like this [see below] and it really helps open the door to how widespread this myth is. The kids usually walk out the door ready to teach the people who responded what they learn and why they are wrong. I also like to joke that the 100% markings are all my former students.”

Photo credit: Annette Jordan Nielsen

Help students understand the symptoms of dementia by experiencing some of those                     symptoms themselves through the free “A Walk Through Dementia” Android app created by Alzheimer’s Research UK in cooperation with Google UK volunteers.


There are four videos: a short introduction to dementia, visiting the supermarket, walking home, and making tea. The videos illustrate a number of dementia symptoms which are presented as a bulleted list at the end of each video.

While the videos can be experienced in both the Android app and (3 out of 4 videos) on YouTube (see below), the more powerful experience is the interactive virtual reality (VR) version.


For the VR experience, students will need an Android phone, the free “A Walk Through Dementia” app available through Google Play, headphones (which students likely already have), and VR goggles. Affordable VR goggles can be purchased here. And by affordable, I mean KnoxLabs is running a fall 2016 sale where their cardboard goggles are $5 each. There are several other goggles available for around $15 each.


 A quick note of caution. Running any VR app on my Galaxy S6 phone heats it up pretty quickly. I can watch just a few minutes of VR before my app is shut down for overheating. My phone cools down rapidly, and in short order I can watch another video. Your mileage may vary.


As an in-class VR activity, divide students into groups of three to six. The number of groups you have will depend on how many VR googles you have. Make sure there is at least one Android phone owner in each group. Ask the Android phone owners to search for and download from Google Play the “A Walk Through Dementia” app. Groups are to plug in the headphones, run the app, and put the phone in the goggles. Have each group member go through a different scenario, i.e. one group member experiences the grocery store, another experiences the walk home, and another experiences making tea. (If there are six students per group, each video is watched by two students.)


While experiencing VR, students can sit or stand, but they absolutely should not walk. It’s too disorienting – falling would be expected.


At the end of each video, the student who watched it notes the symptoms depicted. Once everyone has watched a video, each student explains to the others in the group what they experienced, being sure to outline the symptoms.

Give students an opportunity to share their experience in the VR world with the class. Ask what was most surprising about what they learned.




Walking home


Making tea

Originally posted on September 28, 2016. 


We social psychologists have reeled on a couple recent occasions over news reports of unreplicated studies, including one of my favorites—the pencil-in-the-teeth versus mouth of how manipulated facial expression affects mood. But then we also revel in the visible discussions of one of our bigger ideas: implicit bias, which Hillary Clinton obviously understands:


Debate moderator Lester Holt: Secretary Clinton, last week, you said we’ve got to do everything possible to improve policing, to go right at implicit bias. Do you believe that police are implicitly biased against black people?


Hillary Clinton: Lester, I think implicit bias is a problem for everyone, not just police. I think, unfortunately, too many of us in our great country jump to conclusions about each other. And therefore, I think we need all of us to be asking hard questions about, you know, why am I feeling this way?


In some of the many experiments that reveal implicit bias, people are challenged to do as police sometimes must—to make a split-second decision whether to fire a gun, depending on whether a pictured person is holding a gun or, say, a phone. In these experiments, Blacks more than Whites are misperceived to be gun-holding. Vice presidential candidate Mike Pence apparently is unconvinced (if aware) of these experiments: “Donald Trump and I believe there's been far too much of this talk of institutional bias or racism within law enforcement.”

Originally posted on September 23, 2016.


As the current U.S. presidential campaign richly illustrates, “motivated reasoning” powerfully sways how we view reality.


Researchers have long known that people’s gut-level liking or disliking of a candidate channels their perceptions and beliefs. When a Democrat is President, Democrats have said presidents can’t do anything about high gas prices. Republicans have said the same when a Republican is president. But when the president is from the opposing party, both believe presidents can affect gas prices.


In the late 1980s, most Democrats believed inflation had risen under Republican president Ronald Reagan (it had dropped). In 2016, reports Public Policy Polling “Republicans claim by a 64/27 spread that [under Obama] unemployment has increased and by a 57/27 spread that the stock market has gone down.” Actually, the stock market has nearly tripled and unemployment (shown below) has plummeted. Alas, politics trumps facts. Big time. As an old Chinese proverb says, “Two-thirds of what we see is behind our eyes.”


Originally posted on September 15, 2016.


With thanks to Christopher Platt (NIDCD Director of Hearing and Balance programs), here’s a simple demonstration of our super-speedy vestibular system. As you have surely noticed, if you slip, your vestibular sensors automatically, in a microsecond, direct your skeletal response—well before you have consciously decided how to right yourself.


Our vestibular sense is even faster than our visual sense. Try this, suggests Platt: Hold one of your thumbs in front of your face, then move it rapidly right to left and back. Notice how your thumb blurs. (Your vision isn’t fast enough to track it.)


Now hold your thumb still and swivel your head from left to right. Voila! Your thumb stays in focus, because your vestibular system, which is monitoring your head position, speedily moves the eyes. Head moves right, eyes move left. Vision is fast, but the vestibular sense is faster.

Originally posted on September 8, 2016.


San Bernadino. Paris. Nice. Orlando. Munich. Dallas. The recent cluster of horrific events make us wonder: Is such violence socially contagious?


Or do killings come in clusters merely for the reason that streaks pervade hospital births and deaths, or basketball shots and baseball hits—because random data are streakier, with more clusters, than the human mind expects? World War II Londoners noticed seeming patterns to where German bombs hit. Were the East Enders receiving more than their share because the Germans were trying to alienate the poor from the rich? After the war, a statistical analysis revealed that the bomb dispersion was actually random.


But some social happenings are contagious. Airplane hijackings and suicides occur in nonrandom bunches. After Marilyn Monroe committed suicide in 1962, 303 more people than average took their lives that month. When the suicide is well-publicized (if it’s a celebrity and is reported on television), copycat suicides become especially likely.


Media experiments, from the Bandura Bobo Doll experiments to the present, indicate that violence-viewing also evokes imitation. So, in some cases, have real-life murders and mass killings, as happened with the rash of school shootings during the eight days following the 1999 Columbine High School shooting rampage. Every U.S. state except Vermont experienced threats of copycat attacks. Some mass killers also are known to have been obsessed with previous mass killings.


Albert Bandura


We can hope that mass killings, like school shootings, may subside over time. But given a possible terrorist motive—to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election, by driving support toward an authoritarian law-and-order candidate—I am apprehensive.

Originally posted on August 24, 2016.


In an earlier post, I mentioned a report that says “that narcissists make good first impressions, but over time, their arrogance, bragging, and aggressiveness gets old.” This finding replicated an earlier study showing that, in the laboratory, people’s initially positive impressions of narcissists eventually turn negative.


People’s general dislike of narcissistic, egotistical people is also explored in a 1997 chapter by Wake Forest University social psychologist Mark Leary and three others—one of whom (fun fact) was Leary’s student collaborator, Tim Duncan . . . who just retired after an acclaimed 19-year National Basketball Association career with the San Antonio Spurs.

I earlier wondered: “Will this [narcissists don’t wear well] phenomenon hold true for Trump and eventually deflate his popularity during this U.S. presidential campaign season?”


The presidential horse race isn’t over until it’s over. The New York Times projects that Hillary Clinton’s current chance of losing equals an NFL field goal kicker’s chance of missing a 20-yard-line attempt (which happens). But so far in polls, betting markets, and statistical projections (below), Trump’s inferred narcissism seems to be playing out much as the research would predict.



Originally posted on August 16, 2016.


In Psychology, 11th Edition, Nathan DeWall and I illustrate brain plasticity with a 6-year-old girl who had most of her right hemisphere removed to end life-threatening seizures. In one of the most astonishing neuroscience findings, her remaining hemisphere compensated by putting other areas to work, enabling her to function well.


One medical team, reflecting on other child hemispherectomies, reported being “awed” by how well the children had retained their memory, personality, and humor. The younger the child, the greater the chance that the remaining hemisphere can take over the missing hemisphere’s functions.


Only recently did I become aware—thanks to a delightful new article by Scott Lilienfeld and Steven Jay Lynn—of a review of 52 hemispherectomy cases by Benjamin S. Carson and six of his Johns Hopkins colleagues. Nearly half of the 52, the Carson team reported, were living successful independent lives—at their age level in school or working productively.


And, yes, for the rest of the story, “Carson” is that Benjamin Carson . . . or as he later became known to millions of Americans, 2016 Republican presidential hopeful, Ben Carson.

Originally posted on August 2, 2016.


News flash . . . from the current New Yorker (July 24, 2016), Wall Street Journal (July 25, 2016), and Time (August 8, 2016) . . . “In the most rigorous study to date, researchers pitted different types of cognitive training head-to-head and concluded that one strategy in particular—a kind of computerized brain training that helps the mind to process information more quickly—can significantly lower rates of cognitive decline and dementia.”


So impressed is Time (from which those words come) that it promotes, at the article’s conclusion, a smartphone app available for $96 annually that the researcher recommends “for everyone over 50. . . . There’s now evidence that this type of training has multiple benefits, the risk is minimal, and it’s not even expensive.”


Money can’t buy advertising that credible-seeming. And the study is, indeed, impressive-sounding. It reportedly trained nearly 3000 people for five weeks and then followed them for 10 years.


But is this a case of premature hyping of research (via a University of South Florida press release)? Other prominent researchers with whom I have corresponded raise two caution flags.


First, a 2014 scientific consensus statement found “no compelling scientific evidence” that brain games can reduce or reverse cognitive decline and warned against “exaggerated and misleading claims.” Researcher Zach Hambrick summarizes: “Play a video game and you’ll get better at that video game, and maybe at very similar video games,” but not at driving a car or filling out your tax return. What is more, new research reviews—here and forthcoming in Psychological Science in the Public Interest (“Do ‘Brain Training’ Programs Work?”)—confirm that brain training appears not to produce any lasting, meaningful change apart from the training task.


Second, the newly reported findings, though presented at a convention, have not yet been published. As the New Yorker writer acknowledged, the “findings may not stand up to peer review, or they may turn out to be a fluke that cannot be replicated by others. Perhaps her central conclusion—that a dozen hours of training cuts the risk of dementia nearly in half, ten years later—will have to be walked back.”


With this level of publicity (including other outlets) there’s no easy walking back the public message. Will this big new study point us toward a brain-training program that does work? Stay tuned. And until such evidence is published and replicated, I’d suggest that we psychological educators not over promise.

Originally posted on July 25, 2016.


We’ve heard the name-calling over and again: “Low energy Jeb.” “Lyin’ Ted.” “Crooked Hillary.” If repeated often enough, do such smears, independent of facts, shape public opinion?


In his 60 Minutes interview with Hillary Clinton and Tim Kaine (July 24, 2016), Scott Pelley recalled talking with a man who said he would vote Clinton, “‘except for that corruption problem.’ As I talked to him further, he didn't quite know what he meant by that. But that was his impression and concern.”


Clinton’s reply: “There's been a concerted effort to convince people like that young man of something, nobody's quite sure what, but of something.”


Persuasion researchers understand how mantras such as “Lyin’ Ted” or “Crooked Hillary” might come to be believed based on repetition alone. In experiments, mere repetition tends to make things believable. Repeated statements—“The Cadillac Seville has the best repair record”—become easy to process and remember, and thus to seem more true.


Social psychologists have found such findings “scary.” And for good reason. The mere repetition effect is well understood by political manipulators. Easy-to-remember lies can overwhelm hard truths. Even repeatedly saying that a consumer claim is false can backfire. When the discounting is presented amid other true and false claims, it may lead older adults later to misremember it as true. As they forget the discounting, their lingering familiarity with the claim can make it seem believable.


In the political realm, correct information may similarly fail to discount implanted misinformation. Thus, in the 2012 U.S. presidential election, false rumors—that Obama was Kenyan born, that Mitt Romney didn’t pay taxes for 10 years—resisted efforts at disconfirmation, which sometimes helped make the falsehood seem familiar and thus true.


George Orwell’s world of Nineteen Eighty-Four harnessed the controlling power of mere repetition. “Freedom is slavery.” “Ignorance is strength.” “War is peace.” Is the mind-shaping world of Nineteen Eighty-Four akin to the world of 2016? What say you?

David Myers

Three Guys with Guns

Posted by David Myers Expert Oct 4, 2016

Originally posted on July 13, 2016.


“America is not as divided as some have suggested,” observed President Obama in the aftermath of recent shootings by and of police officers.


The President, who has previously displayed a deft understanding of behavioral science concepts, perhaps had in mind the availability heuristic—our tendency to estimate the likelihood of events based on their mental availability. Dramatic, vivid events—often those we can picture from news reports—come to mind more readily than statistical facts. Thus risks that easily pop into mind we exaggerate.


Some examples: Seeing Jaws caused many folks to fear shark attacks (despite being vastly more at risk from a car accident when driving to the beach). With images of air disasters in mind, many people fear one of the safest modes of travel—commercial flying. And with graphic videos of the seemingly senseless shootings by two police officers (among the more than 900,000 U.S. law enforcement officers), it is understandable that some people are now feeling heightened fears of all police, and that the ensuing slaughter of five police officers has further heightened our sense of racial division.


Post-Dallas, some folks also are worried about police officers increasingly being killed, allegedly due to President Obama’s rhetoric feeding a “war on cops” . . . although, actually, assault-caused police fatalities have declined under Obama (compared to his four predecessors).


These horrific incidents—committed by but three guys with guns—are likely, as the President implies, being overgeneralized. Yet there is real evidence that racial bias and injustice are, indeed, a continuing social toxin. In a case reminiscent of Philando Castile, Amadou Diallo in 1999 was riddled with 19 bullets while pulling out his wallet, which police misperceived as a gun. Not content to stop with this anecdote, social psychologists have repeatedly asked research participants to press buttons quickly to “shoot” or not shoot men who suddenly appeared on screen, while holding either a gun or a harmless flashlight or bottle. Compared to White men holding a harmless object, Black men were "shot" more frequently (by all viewers, regardless of race).


So Minnesota’s governor was probably right to suggest that, had Castile been White, he would be alive today. Acknowledging implicit, ingrained racial bias, FBI Director James Comey, in his 2015 report on “Hard Truths: Law Enforcement and Race,” said this “is why we work to design systems and processes that overcome that very human part of us all.”


Moreover, while Castile’s being pulled over last week by police is merely a single data point—no basis for generalizing about law enforcement disproportionately targeting Black drivers—the FBI-reported fact is that Black drivers in the U.S. are about 30 percent more likely than White drivers to be stopped by police. And they are three times more likely to be searched. For Philando Castile, who had reportedly been stopped 52 times by police since 2002, this statistic was a lived experience.


So, yes, horrific events that kill people dramatically do distort our fears. And we are, as the President suggested, prone to overgeneralize from such. Three guys with guns are not the best basis for drawing wholesale conclusions about race in America.


Yet, as studies of implicit bias in the laboratory and the real world remind us, the pursuit of racial justice and reconciliation is unfinished business. And if it takes shocking events to make White folks see this, my race-expert colleague Charles Green (who blogs here) wonders: is it because of an unavailability heuristic? For those living in a nearly all-White world, are the everyday economic and social stresses of Black American life largely invisible? And is Green right to conclude that “White Americans are UNDER-concerned about racism” because, apart from dramatic happenings, there are so few memorable examples of racism available in their minds?

Originally posted on July 7, 2016.


In authoring textbooks (and this blog) I seek to steer clear of overtly partisan politics. That’s out of respect for my readers’ diverse views, and also because my calling is to report on psychological science and its application to everyday life.


But sometimes psychology speaks to politics. Recently, more than 750 psychotherapists have signed “A Public Manifesto: Citizen Therapists Against Trumpism.” Its author, University of Minnesota professor William Doherty, emphasizes that the manifesto does not seek to diagnose Trump, the person. Rather it assesses Trumpist ideology, which it sees as “an emerging form of American facism” marked by fear, scapegoating, and exaggerated masculinity.


An alternative statement, drafted by public intellectual David Blankenhorn of the bipartisan “Better Angels” initiative (and signed by 22 of us), offers “A Letter to Trump Supporters”—some arguments for rethinking support of Donald Trump. Social psychologists will recognize this as an effort at “central route” persuasion (offering reasons for rethinking one’s position). But in this presidential season, are rational arguments or emotional appeals more likely to sway voters—or some combination of both? What do you think?

You and your spouse are in a grocery store. You see a man in his mid-40s walking with a 5-year-old girl. He has the girl’s hair wrapped around the handle of the grocery cart. The girl is “crying: ‘Please stop! I won’t do it again’” (Mele, 2016).


Before covering the bystander effect, describe that scenario to your students. Ask your students to jot down what they would do, and then share their responses with one or two students near them.


Ask for volunteers to share their responses (or collect anonymous responses by paper or using a classroom response system). Note the responses. Do they fall into the bystander intervention decision tree?

  1. We first have to notice that something is happening. Since the scenario is presented, students have no choice but to notice. But do some students respond by saying that they would act like they hadn’t noticed?
  2. After noticing, we have to interpret what we are seeing as something that needs our attention. Did some of your students decide that it was okay for this man to treat this child this way? Do your students differ on what appropriate parenting looks like?
  3. Lastly, we have to decide that we have a responsibility to help. That help can take many forms, from confronting the man to contacting store security to calling the police. The type of help given may depend on how threatened the students believe they would be by the man.

Introduce this decision tree to students using their responses.


This incident took place in Cleveland, Texas in mid-September, 2016. A woman, Erika Burch, who was shopping with her husband did respond. She confronted the man. He did not let the girl go. The woman called 911. A police officer who happened to be in the store quickly appeared, and at that point, the man – the girl’s father – let go of the child’s hair.


If time allows, ask students who chose not to intervene in the hypothetical situation how the scenario would have needed to be different for them to intervene. For students who chose to intervene, ask what kinds of parenting discipline would be okay enough for them not to intervene.




Mele, C. (2016, September 28). Should you intervene when a parent harshly disciplines a child in public? Retrieved from