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“Nature doesn’t kill people with avalanches. People kill people with avalanches” (Julavits, 2020, p. 26).


Heidi Julavits tells us that in avalanche school she learned about six psychological concepts* that can cause back-country winter enthusiasts to make poor decisions—and then she went on to discuss how these very same factors led her, her classmates, and her avalanche instructors to make some poor decisions when they went out to the slopes (Julavits, 2020).


Julavits makes it clear that knowing how psychological concepts can have a negative impact on our decisions doesn’t necessarily mean that we’ll make different decisions in the moment. This article reminds me—once again—that knowledge is necessary but not sufficient to change behavior. For example, I know what healthy eating and healthy exercise look like, and I know their benefits. That doesn’t mean that I always make the best decisions regarding healthy eating and healthy exercise. Knowledge is good. It’s just not enough.


The Intro Psych thinking chapter or social psych chapter are good places to discuss these psychological concepts—and then help students think through ways of countering them so they don’t get sucked in when needing to make decisions that may indeed be life and death decisions. While the context here happens to be avalanches—and the avoidance thereof—these psychological concepts can be applied to almost any context where a decision needs to be made.


Ian McCammon, a mechanical engineer, started thinking a lot about avalanches following the death of a friend. While his focus has been on the mechanics of avalanches, after researching 715 such accidents, he wrote about six psychological concepts that people may use out on the slopes that can lead to disaster (McCammon, 2004). These are the psychological concepts Julavits introduced to us in her avalanche school article (Julavits, 2020). McCammon (2004) begins with this premise:


As sad as this accident was [the one that led to the death of his friend], the real tragedy is that similar stories unfold in accident after accident, year after year. An experienced party, often with avalanche training, makes a crucial decision to descend, cross, or highmark a slope they believe is safe. And then they trigger an avalanche that buries one or more of them. In hindsight, the danger was often obvious before these accidents happened, and so people struggle to explain how intelligent people with avalanche training could have seen the hazard, looked straight at it, and behaved as if it wasn’t there. (p.1)

The Psychological Concepts


When we are in familiar surroundings, we are more likely to act just as we have acted in the past. That’s fine as long as the conditions are exactly the same. If they have changed, behaving the same way may not be the best course of action. In McCammon’s archival research, he found that people did indeed take more risks when they were in an area familiar to them.


Once we’ve made a decision, it’s easiest to keep making decisions that are consistent with that first decision. Again, this is fine as long as the conditions stay the same. As conditions change, staying consistent with our first decision may lead to trouble. McCammon found that the groups most committed to being out on the slope took the most risks.


We want to be accepted by others, so we do things that we believe will lead to their acceptance. Straight men may make poor decisions in order to increase their chances of being accepted by women. McCammon found that groups that included both men and women made riskier decisions, and this seemed to be driven primarily by men making poor decisions, not the women.

Expert halo

An “informal leader” may spontaneously emerge in the group. This person may have experience or skill, may be older, or may just be more assertive. The group may give this person an “expert halo” and assume the person has expertise they don’t actually possess. McCammon found that groups that had someone that could be identified as a leader took greater risks.

Social facilitation

When people are confident in their abilities, the more people that are present, the more confident people become. McCammon found that groups that had avalanche training took greater risks if their group had met up with another group prior to the avalanche. Those who had not had avalanche training were less affected by the presence of another group.  


We value more that which is scarce. New, unblemished snow is scarce and, thus, is highly valued. Indeed, McCammon found that skiers heading to untracked snow took greater risks than those headed to previously-skied snow.

Other examples

If you live where your students ski or snowboard, this avalanche safety example may resonate with your students. In any case, ask your students to consider other situations where a group has to make a decision about whether or not it is safe to proceed. Boating on a body of water with choppy waves? Rafting on a river with unusually high water? Driving in an area where there is a tornado watch or warning? Weighing whether to stay or move inland with an approaching hurricane. Whatever situation is most likely for your student population, ask your students to identify how each of the factors discussed above may lead to a decision that may result in disaster.

Overcoming these factors

Now the hard part. Ask students what they could do to recognize these factors at play in the moment and, just importantly, how they could counteract them. As a take-home assignment, ask students to investigate strategies that help keep people from falling into these traps. During the next class session, ask students to share what they learned.


A lot of what we cover in the Intro Psych course has the potential to change a student’s life. This topic has the potential to save a student’s life.





Julavits, H. (2020, January). Calamity lesson. New York Times Magazine, 24–31, 48.


McCammon, I. (2004). Heuristic traps in recreational avalanche accidents: Evidence and implications. Avalanche Review, 22(68). Retrieved from



*Julavits and McCammon refer to these concepts as heuristics. In Intro Psych, some of these are considered simply principles or concepts, so I’ve replaced the term heuristics with “psychological concepts.”  

Jenel Cavazos

Mummy Voices?

Posted by Jenel Cavazos Jan 28, 2020

Ever wonder what a mummy would sound like? No? Well here's your chance to find out anyway! 3-D Printing Gives Voice to a 3,000-Year-Old Mummy - Scientific American psychstudentrss

More new research on the questionable link between electronic use and social problems in children. What do you think? Panicking About Your Kids’ Phones? New Research Says Don’t - The New York Times psychstudentrss

I read with interest a recent journal article on the benefits of having students share some good news from their lives. This study was done in a face-to-face class, but I’m wondering about the implications for online students.


Courtney Gosnell at Pace University randomly assigned her students to share good news with their classmates eight to ten times over the course of a term. Those who felt like they got the most support from their classmates reported “a greater sense of class belonging,” a “stronger belief that their classmates wanted them to succeed,” “greater college identification,” and “greater satisfaction with college life.” And, interestingly, they “also approached the class with more of a challenge mindset” (Gosnell, 2019).


Given that the students who got the most benefit from sharing their good news were the ones who felt the most supported, the question is how to help students feel more supported. Gosnell (2019) suggested giving students a little training on what an “active constructive response” is, such as that described by this Woods and colleagues article (2015). These researchers presented pairs of people who shared a close relationship—romantic or platonic—with a 20-minute training on how better to give and respond to, well, good news, “including verbal (e.g., energetic voice, positive feedback, and ask specific questions) and nonverbal (e.g., smile, raise eyebrows, nod, and face body toward partner) examples of active–constructive responding.”  


This term I am asking my face-to-face students to share some good news with their groups during our first class session of the week. But these aren’t the students I’m concerned about.


It’s my online students that I would like to feel more connected to each other, to me, and to the college.


Since my online students have a weekly discussion board (one initial post and two responses) that is pretty prescriptive in its requirements, it wasn’t hard for me to wedge in a good news requirement. Here are the instructions for the first part of their initial post.


Part A: Good news from the last week

What's the most positive experience you’ve had in the last week. Only share if you feel comfortable, otherwise tell us about your second most positive experience. It could be big (“I got an A on an assignment!”, “I got a car!”) or it could be small (“I have a new favorite dessert,” "My grocery bag broke, and someone helped me pick everything up."). Tell as much as you want about your event.

For the response, everything in the nonverbal section that Woods and colleagues (2015) identified I could safely exclude from this online forum. For the verbal, I went with a reaction (presumably positive since the person is sharing good news) and a question. Here are the response instructions for this section of the discussion.


Part A: Good news from the last week

Share your reaction to their good news, e.g., "I am so happy for you!", "It sounds like you had a lot of fun!", then ask at least one follow up question, "What kind of car did you get?", "What was in your new favorite dessert?". 

We’re only a few weeks into the term, so my sample is small, but I’ve been having a lot of fun reading their good news and their responses to the good news of other students. Through sharing good news, we’re getting to know each other better. I already know who likes football, who plays soccer, who enjoys shopping for dresses, who has struggles with transportation, who likes cheesecake, and who has a new job. Whatever someone shares, the responses to their good news feel genuine. While the questions are required, (most of) the questions come across as legitimate interest. Many students provide a follow-up in response to the questions asked, which I’m grateful for, because I often have the same questions.

While I don’t participate in the group discussion, I do score the discussions. In my comments, I offer my own reaction to their good news, ask a question, and then give my good news for the week.


Near the end of the course I’ll ask my students about how connected they felt to the others in their groups and to me. I’m especially interested in seeing if more students persist in the course than has been true in my previous online courses.


What’s your good news?





Gosnell, C. L. (2019). Receiving quality positive event support from peers may enhance student connection and the learning environment. Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in Psychology.


Woods, S., Lambert, N., Brown, P., Fincham, F., & May, R. (2015). “I’m so excited for you!” How an enthusiastic responding intervention enhances close relationships. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 32(1), 24–40.

Excellent (and timely!) review of note-taking strategies at the start of a new semester: Note Taking: A Research Roundup  psychstudentrss

Caring parents understandably want to protect their children from physical harm and emotional hurt. We do this, we presume, for their sakes. And, if the truth be told, we do it for our own as well. Many of us knowingly nodded when Michelle Obama shared the common parental experience: “You are as happy as your least happy child.”


But as my friend and fellow social psychologist, Jonathan Haidt, recently explained to a large West Michigan audience, sometimes parental good intentions prepare kids for failure.


Haidt began by documenting what I’ve previously described—the stunning recent increase in teens’ (especially teen girls’) depression, anxiety, suicidal thinking, and self-harm (as documented in ER visits). This tsunami of mental health problems has now also reached college campuses, as evident in collegians’ increased depression rates and visits to campus mental health services.


What gives? What accounts for this greater fragility of today’s youth? Teen biology hasn’t changed. They’re not drinking more (indeed, they’re drinking less). They’re not working more (they’re less often employed).


What has changed, Haidt observed, is, first, technology—the spread of smart phones, the explosion of social media, and the addition of social comparison-promoting social media features, such as visible likes and retweets of one’s posts. Haidt offered correlational studies that associate teens’ social media use with their mental health, and experiments that reveal the emotional benefits of a restrained social media diet. (For more, see this prior blog essay, and Haidt’s recent Atlantic essay, with Tobias Rose-Stockwell: “The Dark Psychology of Social Networks.” See also this new response by his collaborator, Jean Twenge, to skeptics of the social media explanation.)


As an antidote to social media’s emotional toxicity (and diminished sleep and face-to-face relationships), Haidt offered three practical family guidelines for healthy media use:


He also attributes the increase youth mental health issues to a second cultural change: Today’s parents often fail to appreciate the “antifragility” principle—that children’s emotions, like their bones and immune systems, gain strength from being challenged. Bones and muscles gain strength from exercise. Immune systems develop protective antibodies from challenges (soaring peanut allergies are a sorry result of routinely protecting infants from peanut exposure). And children’s emotional health and resilience likewise builds through their unpleasant experiences. There is truth to Nietzsche’s aphorism, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”


Alas, as Haidt demonstrated by surveying his audience, members of Generation Z (people born since 1996) have grown up more protected—with parents restraining their roaming free until later childhood. Their grandparents, by contrast, and to some extent their parents, were experienced a less restricted “free range childhood.” (And no, today’s world is not more dangerous—it’s actually much safer than the 1970s.)


Moreover, he argued (also in The Coddling of the American Mind with Greg Lukianoff, and in a new essay with Pamela Paresky), schools are ill-serving students by protecting them from uncomfortable speech. Colleges ill-prepare students for life outside the campus when they suppress unpopular perspectives and offer “safe spaces” and “trigger warnings” that insulate students from “micro-aggressions.”


As an alternative approach, Haidt welcomes viewpoint diversity—the thrust of the Heterodox Academy. He and his colleagues also offer resources for open-minded engagement at the new


Haidt’s case for viewpoint diversity and open dialogue remind me of the long-ago wisdom of social psychologist William McGuire, whose experiments taught us an important lesson:  Unchallenged beliefs existing in “germ-free ideological environments” are the most vulnerable to later being overturned. To form one’s beliefs amid diverse views is to become more discerning, and ultimately more deeply grounded in less fragile convictions.


Ergo, concludes Haidt, to support teen mental health be intentional about screen time and social media, and remember: character—like bones, muscles, and immunity—grows from challenge.


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

Jenel Cavazos

The Placebo Effect

Posted by Jenel Cavazos Jan 16, 2020

Some people are more susceptible to the placebo effect than others; it turns out your DNA might be responsible! Your DNA Could Determine How Easily You're Fooled by Placebos psychstudentrss

Probably like you, a lot of my Intro Psych students are interested in medicine. Most are interested in nursing, but a smattering are interested in becoming physicians or another type of medical professional, such as respiratory therapists.

This New York Times article (Brown & Bergman, 2019), coauthored by nurse and a physician, will be of interest to these future medical professionals in your course.


After covering ingroups/outgroups and superordinate goals in the social psychology chapter, ask your students to read the article and address these questions.


What factors contribute to dividing medical professionals into the subgroups of doctors and nurses? For example, physicians have higher status than nurses.  


What superordinate goal do the article authors suggest would bring nurses and doctors together?


At about 1,000 words, the article is short enough for students to read and discuss in class.


Alternatively, it’s an excellent real-world example to bring into your lecture.


From the new APA Intro Psych student learning outcomes, this activity addresses:

Identify examples of relevant and practical applications of psychological principles to everyday life.

Integrative theme: Applying psychological principles can changes our lives in positive ways.





Brown, T., & Bergman, S. (2019, December 31). Doctors, nurses and the paperwork crisis that could unite them. New York Times. Retrieved from

Cognitive dissonance theory—one of social psychology’s gifts to human self-understanding—offers several intriguing predictions, including this: When we act in ways inconsistent with our attitudes or beliefs, we often resolve that dissonance by changing our thinking. Attitudes follow behavior.


That simple principle explains why smokers often dismiss health warnings, why racial attitudes improved following school desegregation and civil rights laws, and why we tend to dislike those whom we’ve harmed and to love those to whom we have been kind. Although we sometimes do persuade ourselves to act, we also can act ourselves into new ways of thinking. Our deeds forge our understandings.


The principle reaches into our political attitudes. Consider how U.S. attitudes followed U.S. behavior as events unfolded during the 2003 war with Iraq, which was premised primarily on the need to rid Iraq of its Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMDs). Four in five Americans told Gallup they believed WMDs would be found, leading 4 in 5 also to support the war. Was the war justified even if Iraq did not have WMDs? Only 38 percent of Americans believed it would be; if there were no WMDs, there should be no war.


When no such weapons were found—and the war’s human, financial, and terrorism-enhancing costs became known—how did Americans resolve their dissonance? They changed their primary rationale for the war from eliminating WMDs to ridding the world of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. Thus, three months after the war’s launch, the 38 percent who supported the war if there were no WMDs now had mushroomed to 58 percent. Despite the war’s discounted initial rationale, support for a war that didn’t eliminate WMDs had increased.


Will such self-persuasion ride again in the 2020 American conflict with Iran? Prior to the January 3, 2020, killing of Major General Qasem Soleimani, Americans overwhelmingly disapproved of war with Iran:

  • In June 2019, about 4 in 5 Americans (78 percent) approved of President Trump’s calling off a retaliatory strike after Iran downed a U.S. drone. Few believed that retaliation against Iran was a good idea.
  • In July 2019, only 18 percent told Gallup they favored “military action against Iran.”
  • In September 2019, only 21 percent responding to a University of Maryland survey said that, to achieve its goal with Iran, “the U.S. should be prepared to go to war.”

I wrote the above words on January 8, 2020, and now await follow-up surveys—with the expectation that cognitive dissonance will ride again, as some Americans wrestle with the dissonance between their support for the president and their prior opposition to such military action—a tension that can be resolved by now thinking the retaliatory strike was warranted.


* * * *

P.S. Initial post-strike surveys:

  • A January 4-5, 2020, POLITICO/Morning Consult survey reported that “47% of voters approve of President Donald Trump's decision to kill top Iranian military commander Qassem Soleimani while 40% disapprove.”
  • A January 6–7, 2020, post-assassination Reuters/Ipsos survey found that “a growing minority of Americans say they are now in favor of a ‘preemptive attack’ on Iran’s military.’ The poll found that 27 percent said ‘the United States should strike first.’”
  • A January 7–8, 2020. USA Today/Reuters survey found Americans concerned about increased threats to U.S. safety, yet 42 percent supported the Soleimani assassination—far more than the 1 in 5 who favored such action in the summer of 2019.


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

After covering operant conditioning, ask your students to consider how government agencies could encourage more public transit use by using reinforcement. Give students a couple minutes to think about this on their own, then ask students to share their ideas in small groups. Next, ask each group to develop a plan where operant conditioning could be used to encourage the use of public transit.


What is the operant (the behavior being targeted)?


What will be used as the reinforcement? Will it be positive reinforcement or negative reinforcement?


What schedule of reinforcement would you recommend? Variable ratio, variable interval, fixed ratio, or fixed interval?


Once the group discussion has died down, ask each group to share their plan, ensuring that they have correctly identified the type and schedule of reinforcement.


Wrap up the discussion by sharing that Miami has implemented such a program. Using an app called Velocia, Miami residents can track how they get around: walking, biking, carpooling, riding the bus/train (“Miami launches app that rewards citizens for ditching their cars at home,” 2019). The more you don’t drive solo, the more “Velos” points you earn. Each method is worth a different number of Velos points. For example, walking 5 miles in a week earns you 300 Velos. Those points can be redeemed for public transportation discounts. For example, for 450 Velos you can rent a CitiBike for 30 minutes.


Even if you are not in Miami, you can download the Velocia app from Google Play or the App Store to see how it works.


An article on the Mass Transit Magazine website provides a nice summary of some transit rewards programs that have been implemented around the world (Comfort, 2019).





Comfort, P. (2019). Loyalty programs and gamification in public transit. Retrieved January 8, 2020, from


Miami launches app that rewards citizens for ditching their cars at home. (2019). Retrieved January 8, 2020, from

Jenel Cavazos

Fake News!

Posted by Jenel Cavazos Jan 7, 2020

Fake news is everywhere - are you good at telling what's real and what's not? Research shows you're probably not as good at it as you think you are. Students Are Really, Really Bad at Spotting Fake News, Misleading Websites - Teaching Now - Education Week Teacher psychstudentrss

Jenel Cavazos

How and Why To Forgive

Posted by Jenel Cavazos Jan 2, 2020

Forgiveness is GOOD for you, so why not try to be more forgiving in the new year? How To Forgive Someone Who Has Hurt You - and Why You Should psychstudentrss

Getting away from research done on "traditional" populations can show us a lot about what influences us. Personality is not only about who but also where you are | Aeon Ideas psychstudentrss