Skip navigation
All Places > The Psychology Community > Blog > 2017 > January

Ready to add a current and relevant example of group polarization to your social psych lecture?


At NITOP I had a lobby conversation where Victoria Cross was showing Jane Halonen and myself an online course she had created to help students get up to speed before taking a stats class. In one of her modules, she has a wonderful Pew Research Center animated gif showing the polarization of American politics between 1994 and 2014 (Suh, 2014).


After discussing group polarization, show students the animated gif on this page (click on the "Animate data" button).


National surveys show that over a 20-year span, Americans have become more polarized in their political beliefs (as have members of Congress). 


Here is a still shot from 1994 showing the difference between people who identified as Democrat and people who identified as Republican. Not only are the medians close, but there is a lot of overlap in the political leanings of the members of the parties.



In this still shot from 2014, you can see that the Democrats have moved more to the left and the Republicans have moved more to the right, and the overlap between the parties has shrunk. In Congress, the division is even greater. "[T]here is now no overlap between the two parties; in the last full session of Congress (the 112th Congress, which ran from 2011-12), every Republican senator and representative was more conservative than the most conservative Democrat (or, putting it another way, every Democrat was more liberal than the most liberal Republican) (Suh, 2014).



Invite students to take a couple minutes to think about what they just learned about group polarization. How might the factors that are known to contribute to group polarization apply in this example. Give students an opportunity to share with one or two students near them. After discussion dies down, ask a couple volunteers to share their explanations.


Next, ask students to consider ways to counter this group polarization. What can we do as individuals to reverse this political group polarization? After small group discussion, ask volunteers to share their suggestions.



Suh, M. (2014, June 12). Section 1: Growing Ideological Consistency. Retrieved from 

Have you expanded the amount of positive psychology you cover in Intro Psych? Here’s an in-class activity to get students to consider their happiness and the happiness of others around the world.


Ask students, “What is the happiness country in the world?” Before they answer, ask students to consider how such a thing could be measured. Give students a minute or two to jot down some ideas, then ask students to turn to one or two nearby students to share ideas. After a couple minutes of sharing ask for a few volunteers to share their ideas.


Researchers (Helliwell, Layard, & Sachs, 2016) looked at Gross Domestic Product (GDP) per capita (World Bank data), “healthy life expectancy” (World Health Organization data), social support, freedom of choice, generosity, perceptions of corruption, and self-report on yesterday’s positive and negative affect (all from Gallup World Poll data). From these data, researchers calculated scores for 157 countries. Ask students to guess which country is the happiest.


The answer: Denmark. Switzerland, Iceland, Norway, and Finland round out the top 5. Canada is number 6. The United States? Number 13.


Why is Denmark so happy? The Danes and Dana Dunn (2017) will tell you it is (at least partially) because of the concept of hygge (HOO-gah) -- cozy. “Danes burn 13 pounds of [unscented] candle wax a person a year, doing so even in classrooms and office buildings” (Green, 2016).


“How to get hygge? Go home and stay there, preferably in your hyggekrog – a.k.a. ‘cozy nook’ – wrapped in a blanket, drinking a cup of coffee and watching a Danish police procedural about a serial killer with your friends” (Green, 2016).


Ask your students to take a couple minutes to think about whether they have hygge in their own lives. If so, what does it look like? If not, what might it look like? Then give students a couple minutes to share their hygge experiences with one or two other students. Following this short discussion, ask for volunteers to share with the class.




Dunn, D. (2017, January). Quotidian positive psychology: Helping students seek strengths and apply what they learn. Paper presented at the National Institute on the Teaching of Psychology, St. Petersburg Beach, FL.


Green, P. (2016, December 24). Move over, Marie Kondo: Make room for the hygge hordes. Retrieved from


Helliwell, J., Layard, R., & Sachs, J. (2016). World Happiness Report 2016, Update (Vol. I). New York: Sustainable Development Solutions Network.

You have likely heard of the classroom demonstration where the students condition the instructor or a student volunteer to do some behavior by clapping (positive reinforcement) whenever the person gets closer to the behavior. Jon Skalski, Joel Lynch, and Amy Martin (2017) from Rockford University take this demo up a notch by modifying it to help students understand not only shaping, but also positive/negative reinforcement/punishment.  

Skalski (personal communication, January 19, 2017) explains:


I have a student volunteer step outside the classroom. The class selects a behavior that they would like to shape in his/her absence (like standing the corner and/or scratching the head).  The volunteer returns to the room. I place a backpack loaded with textbooks on his/her shoulders. Then, I remove a couple books when the student starts doing something that approximates what the class has selected for the volunteer to do (as a form of negative reinforcement).  I add books (as a form of positive punishment) when the student is not doing what I am trying to shape. I add skittles to a cup (positive reinforcement) and also take skittles away from the cup (negative punishment) to shape approximations of the desired outcome. Thus, the demonstration involves rewarding (both positively and negatively) and punishing (both positively and negatively) at the same time, at least in shaping a single behavior, and it is quite vivid and memorable. I then help students to process and think about the demonstration in order to make distinctions about positive and negative forms of reinforcement and punishment.


During the demonstration, Skalski changes which technique he is using from moment to moment. In doing so, students can see the impact each change has on the volunteer’s behavior.


After successfully training the volunteer to do the selected behavior. Skalski recaps what the students just saw.


Shout out to Jon Skalski for this clever demonstration!




Skalski, J., Lynch, J, & Martin, A. (2017, January). Teaching negative reinforcement; it’s not punishment. Poster session presented at the National Institute on the Teaching of Psychology, St. Petersburg Beach, FL.

“Hundreds of studies” have found an association between religiosity and health or well-being, observes Harvard biostatistician and epidemiologist, Tyler VanderWeele in a forthcoming chapter. But “only a very small number” have rigorously examined causality. If people who worship regularly are healthier or less depressed (which they tend to be), is that because religious engagement promotes health and well-being, or because healthy, buoyant people more often leave their homes to worship?


group prayer faith holding hands

Cecilie_Arcurs/E+/Getty Images


To discern causality, new studies are assessing people’s health, their religiosity, and other health predictors, and then following them through time—for 20 years among 74,534 women in one Nurses Health Study. When controlling for various health risk factors, those who attended services more than weekly were a third less likely to have died than were non-attenders. In another analysis, the same comparison yielded a “5-fold lower rate of suicide.”


These and other such findings lead VanderWeele to conclude that “religious participation . . . is a powerful social determinant of health.”


But why? Unpacking the religiosity variable, VanderWeele and his colleagues, in the mortality study, report that social support explained 23 percent of the religiosity effect, not smoking explained 22 percent, less depressive symptoms explained 11 percent, and optimism 9 percent. People who are active in faith communities experience more social support, smoke less, are less depressed, and  are more optimistic than are those not active in such communities.

It’s the new year transition, the line between our last year’s self and our hoped-for healthier, happier, and more productive self. To become that new self, we know what to do. We know that a full night’s sleep boosts our alertness, energy, and mood. We know that exercise lessens depression and anxiety, sculpts our bodies, and strengthens our hearts and minds. We know that what we put into our bodies—junk food or balanced nutrition, addictive substances or clean air—affects our health and longevity.


Alas, as T. S. Eliot foresaw, “Between the idea and the reality . . . Falls the Shadow.” So how, this year, can we move from knowing the needed behaviors to doing them?

Rocky89/iStock/Getty Images

Psychological science offers six strategies.


First, do make that New Year’s resolution. Research by Gary Latham, Edwin Locke, and others confirms that challenging goals motivate achievement. Specific, measurable, realistic goals—such as “finish the business plan by the month’s end”—direct attention, promote effort, motivate persistence, and stimulate creativity.


Second, announce the goal to friends or family. We’re more likely to follow through after making a public commitment.


Third, develop an implementation plan—an action strategy that specifies when, where, and how you will march toward achieving your goal. Research shows that people who flesh out goals with detailed plans become more focused in their work, and more likely to complete it on time.


Through the ups and downs of goal-striving, we best sustain our motivation when we focus on immediate subgoals. Better to have our nose to the grindstone than our eye on the ultimate prize. Better to attend to daily study than the course grade. Better to center on small steps—the day’s running target—than to fantasize the marathon.


Fourth, monitor and record progress, perhaps aided by a tracker such as a Fitbit. It’s all the better when that progress is displayed publicly rather than kept secret.


Fifth, create a supportive environment. When trying to eat healthy, keep junk food out of the cupboards. Use small plates and bowls. When focusing on a project, hole up in the library. When sleeping, stash the smartphone. Choose the right friends. Such “situational self-control strategies” prevent tempting impulses, Angela Duckworth and her colleagues have found.


Sixth, transform the hard-to-do behavior into a must-do habit. Habits form when we repeat behaviors in a given context—sleeping in the same comfy position, walking the same route to work, eating the same breakfast oatmeal. As our behavior becomes linked with the context, our next experience of that context evokes our habitual response. Studies find that when our willpower is depleted, as when we’re mentally fatigued, we fall back on our habits—good or bad. To increase our self-control, to connect our resolutions with positive outcomes, the key is forming “beneficial habits.”


“If you would make anything a habit, do it,” said the stoic philosopher Epictetus. But how long does it take to form a beneficial habit? A University College London research team led by Phillippa Lally asked 96 university students to choose some healthy behavior, such as eating fruit with lunch or running before dinner, and to perform it daily for 84 days. The students also logged whether the behavior felt automatic (something they did without thinking and would find it hard not to do). When did the behaviors turn into habits? On average, after about 66 days.


Gwyneth Paltrow recalls that when she first started working with a personal trainer, “finding motivation was hard. She advised me to think of exercise as an automatic routine, no different from brushing your teeth, to avoid getting distracted. Now it is part of my life—I exercise Monday to Friday at 10 a.m. and always stick with it.”


So, is there something you’d like to make a routine or essential part of your life? Make it a New Year’s resolution. Announce it. Plan the needed specific steps. Then do it every day for two months, or a bit longer for exercise. You likely will find yourself with a new habit, and perhaps a healthier, happier, and more productive life.


(For David Myers' other essays on psychological science and everyday life visit