Why do we fixate on particular data?

23 Oct

“You suck.”

A fear of hearing some variation of that phrase makes many instructors reluctant to gather midterm feedback from their students, even though research shows though the very act of gathering, reflecting on, and responding to such feedback can increase both student learning and end of term teaching evaluations.

“Climate change is a hoax.”

When challenged with contrary evidence – in evidence-based courses as in public discourse, many individuals steadfastly refuse to change their beliefs, particularly when those beliefs are close to their identity.

Why do so many of us fixate on those few critical comments, often in the face of much larger amounts of positive feedback?   And how might that fixation be related to those who steadfastly believe that climate change is a hoax?

One possible source of the hypersensitivity to criticism and the resistance to changing beliefs that are rooted in misconceptions is the way that the brain responds to threats. An article in Nature examined the brain activity of self-identified liberals while their political beliefs were being challenged. Researchers noticed that these individual’s brain patterns were very similar to the brain patterns of individuals who faced physical threats. In other words, their brains did not seem to distinguish between a physical attack and an attack on one’s values and identity.

The article also noted the role of emotion in belief persistence, as the parts of the brain related to emotion and feeling (insular cortex and amygdala), showed activity as individuals’ beliefs were being challenged. As the “You Are Not So Smart” podcast notes, thinking and feeling are inextricably linked: Because the brain that thinks is the same brain that feels, the fixation on a single negative student comment (“You suck”) in spite of the often overwhelming weight of positive comments is both understandable and yet irrational.

Likewise the study suggested that the involvement of emotions – especially threat – causes individuals to ignore evidence and focus even more on defending their beliefs.

In each case, the counter evidence backfired resulting in reinforcing beliefs rather than changing them.

Implications for Teaching and Learning:
What Not to Do

Don’t Start with Controversial Question or Topic

Some who teach discussion oriented classes may want to start off with controversial questions or statements, hoping they will initiate lively discussions. However, Jay Howard’s Discussion in the College Classroom: Getting Your Students Engaged and Participating in Person and Online) echoes the findings of the aforementioned research by noting that “students may perceive [these topics] to as quite threatening to their sense of self or to dearly held beliefs because of the risk of classmates’ negative judgments of them” (84).

Don’t Assume Hearing ‘the Facts’ Helps

In their Debunking Handbook, the psychologists John Cook and Stephan Lewandowsky caution against assuming that “misperceptions are due to a lack of knowledge and that the solution is more information.” Cook and Lewandowsky note that this “information deficit model” is simply wrong because “people don’t process information as simply as a hard drive downloading data.” Rather, teachers and learners both need to develop – and make use of – an understanding of “how people process information, how they modify their existing knowledge and how worldviews affect their ability to think rationally.”

To demonstrate their point that an accumulation of facts does not erase myth – but in fact preserves the myth, Cook and Lewandowsky provide the following illustration:

In the process of correction, that very myth may need to be repeated, which could reaffirm it. Indeed, addressing myths is not simple: telling someone, and then telling them again and again when they don’t agree or understand is likely to resemble the loop of miscommunication embedded in the classic Who’s on First? comedy routine, though neither instructors nor students are likely to see the humour in the process.

While conventional wisdom might suggest that burying the myth under an overwhelming amount of counter-arguments will convince, Cook and Lewandowsky point to research that suggests it can be overkill and counterproductive: “A simple myth is more cognitively attractive than an over-complicated correction.”

To demonstrate their point that sharing fewer and mindfully selected facts is more powerful, Cook and Lewandowsky provide this second illustration:

Implications for Teaching and Learning: What to Do

Unfortunately, the research on avoiding the backfire effect largely has been conducted in controlled laboratory settings, not the classroom. Wiring up hundreds of students to fMRIs for semester-long trials and exposing them to lists of carefully worded statements is, at least in this point in time, cost-prohibitive and impractical. However, Cook and Lewandowsky, as well as others, do offer guidelines that could be helpful.

Do Focus on Communicating Simply

Rather than repeating the misconception (“Climate change is a hoax because….”), Cook and Lewandowsky suggest focusing on the communication of facts in a simple and clear manner (“97 out of 100 climate scientists agree that humans are causing global warming”). Visually setting off the facts, either through color contrast in the text or graphical illustrations, can also help, especially when filling the gap that is created by breaking the misconception.   Cook and Lewandowsky contend that graphics are particularly effective for a number of reasons:

When people read a refutation that conflicts with their beliefs, they seize on ambiguities to construct an alternative interpretation. Graphics provide more clarity and less opportunity for misinterpretation. When self-identified Republicans were surveyed about their global warming beliefs, a significantly greater number accepted global warming when shown a graph of temperature trends compared to those who were given a written description.

Do Use a Learning-Centered Approach

While providing students with facts in a simple, clear and visual manner can help, it still largely adheres to the information deficit model. Instructors should also supplement this by using a learner centered approach to correct misconceptions.

  • Ask students to assume multiple roles/positions, especially ones that they do not personally hold. Earlier, Jay Howard suggested that controversial topics might threaten students so he suggests that asking them to articulate the opposite perspective of the one they personally hold might help them to participate. He contends that instructors can justify this by suggesting that in order to defend one’s position, a clear understanding of the critical position is needed. (84)
  • Use simulations and games or incorporate outside of the classroom experiences.In her chapter on signature pedagogy and sociology, Eri Fujieda observes that students frequently resist sociological concepts because it often challenges their “common sense”. She then cites the ways that simulations and role-plays can lead to more acceptance because they allow students to engage with these concepts in more embodied and affective ways (192-196).

Understand the Thinking-Feeling Connection

As the authors of Make It Stick observe, learning is hard.   “Learning is deeper and more durable when it’s effortful. Learning that’s easy is like writing in sand, here today and gone tomorrow.” (Brown, Roediger, McDaniel, 3).

Knowing that facts do not simply displace myths through the act of telling may be even discouraging and disheartening for instructors. However, the connection between thinking and feeling that causes individuals to fixate on criticism and deny counter-evidence may have an unexpected benefit for both teachers and learners

To assist our learning, we should connect memories to what we already know and associate them with images, places, stories and emotions (Brown, Roediger, McDaniel, 112). In short, we are more likely to remember that which is familiar and emotional. Instructors can therefore help students learn by using relevant examples or having students come up with their own examples.

Finally, don’t let the spectre of “You suck” prevent you from gathering student midterm feedback. Over the past 15 years, I have visited hundreds of classes to gather midterm feedback for other instructors and have never heard or seen a “You suck” comment from students. Perhaps the main reason for this is our process for collecting midterm feedback: by putting students into small focus groups to talk about their learning, the process tends to filter out the individual gripes; moreover, students are asked to frame their suggestions for improvement by completing the sentence, “The instructor could…”. Because the process directly engages students in identifying specific changes to support their learning, he resulting feedback is constructive, actionable and, as research suggests, likely to improve student learning and lead to higher teaching evaluations.

But then again, facts do not simply displace myths through the simple act of telling.


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