Week 20 (19 – 23 March): Testing & Individual Differences

Social & Environmental Influences on IQ

Even though I find IQ testing to be less than helpful and a little less than interesting, there are certain aspects of it that I find fascinating. When a general psychology class does this unit, I spend a lot of time on the self-fulling prophecy and the effect of expectations on performance, especially IQ. While there is a genetic effect concerning IQ which defines the boundaries of the IQ, where the individual falls, especially in determining whether the individual will maximize their intellectual skills within those genetic boundaries, is dependent on the environment.

From these findings, I assume that what we do in school everyday, can have a large effect on how my students perform. When I look at the studies that form the basis of the “Psychology In Your Life” sections: “Test Scores & The Self-Fulfilling Prophecy” (p. 468) and “Helping Others Think Critically About Group Differences” (p. 476), I am struck by how great of an effect the environment and social expectations have on IQ and performance.

Nothing is more telling to me than a study that Steele & Aronson (1995) did that they called stereotype threat. They looked at two factors priming students with their race and priming students with intelligence testing. They gave Stanford University students a standardized test. In one test condition, they had students identify their race on a demographic questionnaire. Black students who were primed with their race — thought explicitly about their race —  did significantly worse than black students who did not have to identify their race. In the other test condition, one group was told that the standardized test was an intelligence test and the other was not. The black students who were primed with intelligence — told before hand about the test — did worse than white students but in the other group (not primed with intelligence), there was no difference in the test scores between black and white students.

The stereotypes and views that we live with can effect our performance sometimes significantly.

Photo: Charlotte Button

Another stunning study was Jane Elliott‘s Blue Eye-Brown Eye study. Shortly after the assassination of Martin Luther King in 1968, Elliott, then a grade school teacher, decided to do a demonstration with her students. She decided to tell them that blue eyed people were smarter, nicer, and better in every way than brown eyed people. She put a special collar on the brown eyed children, separated the groups at recess (play time during the school day), called on the blue eyed children first, denigrated the brown eyed children for wrong answers but helped the blue eyed children when they were wrong, and allowed the blue eyed children to go first to lunch, recess, and get water.

The results were immediate and astounding. The blue eyed children treated the brown eyed children very badly almost from the very beginning, and the brown eyed children were filled with remorse, hurt-feelings, and self-loathing. Every time I see the footage of those brown eyed children crying because of how bad they feel, it breaks my heart.

So what’s in a label? Apparently a lot. Could it be that constantly reinforcing the idea that a student is ignorant or can’t perform up to expectations encourages them not to try? Could it be that constant feelings of failure, whether factual or created by the social environment, causes a person to under perform, try less, and give up much more easily?


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Week 19 (12 – 16 March) Problem Solving & Decision Making

Problem Solving & Decision Making

This has been a subject that has long fascinated me, but any time I delve into the literature, I am left feeling deeply bored. I guess, I want more to solve puzzles and problems than read about how psychologists have dissected how we solve problems.

That is until recently. Two years ago in an airport bookstore in Bangkok, I found the the book, How We Decide, by Jonah Lehrer. It is a fascinating volume, quite outside of the AP Psychology syllabus, which is too bad because it sheds more light on problem solving and decision making than the dry discussions of expertise and heuristics and biases found in our textbook does.

In the book, Lehrer reviews the recent findings in neurocognitive psychology regarding both problem solving and decision making. He takes the, by now, conventional approach of relating an interesting personal narrative of someone experiencing the topic of the chapter, and then, he discusses the neurology and cognitive psychology that explains the behavior.

Problem Solving

Victims of the Mann Gulch Fire (from http://www.honoringheroes.com)

He relates the story of Wag Dodge who as a smokejumper in 1940’s and 1950’s had jumped with his crew into the Mann Gulch river valley to fight a small fire. Upon their arrival, however, they found that the fire had gotten out of control. Dodge did not trust the fire; it was much larger than they were told but heading away from them.

Since they were too few to effectively fight a fire of such a size, the men moved down into the gulch and simply watched the blaze. As evening fell, the wind shifted and started blowing the fire towards them. At this point, the flames began leaping 60 meters into the air, and the fire grew to 1,500 meters wide, and almost 1,000 meters deep. At its center, the fire was over 1,000° Celsius — hot enough to melt rocks. Dodge ordered his men to drop their gear and retreat up the steep side of the gorge.

At this point the fire covered 1,200 hectares in 10 minutes. The fire was now a firestorm, moving at over 60 km/hr and roaring like a freight train. The rising heat started sucking the air in front of it causing the men to run into a head wind slowing them even further. Dodge could feel the heat of the fire scorching his back.

Diagram of the Mann Gulch Fire (from http://wildfiretoday.com)

Dodge yelled for his men to stop and follow his directions, but they could not hear him over the roar of the flames and wind. He realized they could not outrun the fire. There was no escape. Then, he took out his matches and lit a grass fire. After the flames burned an area large enough to lie in, he covered himself with his fire blanket (designed to resist flame and heat), and waited for the fire to pass over him.

Thirteen of the sixteen men there died. The fire overtook them as they climbed the ridge. Dodge lived through the ordeal because the flames could not touch him because there was nothing left around him to burn. The buffer was enough to allow his blanket to insulate against the terrific heat. Two others did essentially the same thing as he did: they had wedged themselves into rocky outcroppings and covered themselves with their fire blankets.

How did Dodge come up with his unique method of surviving the fire? He had no algorithm or heuristic to guide him, although smokejumpers now learn his technique as part of their training. First, he contained his panic which causes you to experience perceptual narrowing where you begin to focus only on the essentials. He realized that their initial instinct to run from the fire, even if fueled by their adrenaline, would not save them. Then, his limbic system (seat of emotions) stopped interfering with his thoughts allowing him to use his prefrontal cortex to evaluate his options. Once he thought of his solution, he realized he had nothing to loose.

Ariel photo of Mann Gulch showing where the bodies were found (from http://www.fireleadership.gov)

A body of one of the smokejumpers is carried from Mann Gulch (from http://www.bozeman-magpie.com)

Robert Sulley in 2005, the last survivor of the fire (from http://www.whitefishpilot.com)

Week 18 (5 – 9 March): Language

English: Basic sketch of brain areas involved ...

Image via Wikipedia

One of my greatest loves is language. I am constantly amazed at how language can move me emotionally, my adoration of well crafted phrase, or the perfection with which a scene or a character can be described. Language can capture our thoughts, desires, emotions. Yet, it can be so inadequate for the task also.

Watching my now seven year-old daughter learn French, English, and Vietnamese has very aptly demonstrated the critical period of language. Starting at about the age of two, she has been a language sponge. She absorbs words, meaning, concepts, and phrases. Her pronunciation of each language is perfect. She also is the perfect demonstration of productive versus receptive language: she understands far more in Vietnamese than she is able to express.

During the naming explosion, she was a Krakatoa of words. She spewed so many words so fast that she figuratively lit up our home with parental pride. She acquired grammar at an amazing rate. She overgeneralizes like all children do, but responds quickly, accurately, and even almost permanently to correction. Her time spent in telegraphic speech was very short. She went almost directly from one word to three words to grammatical speech.

My own experience learning foreign languages has taught me that after the critical period it is not easy at all to learn language. My ability to decode tones (Wernicke’s area) is quite limited. You may have noticed my struggles with spelling during class. In part, these problems are due to my inability to distinguish vowel sounds very easily. I also have trouble detecting the subtle differences that doubling a consonant makes when pronouncing a word. Consequently, I am reduced to guessing or remembering the spelling of words. Thank goodness for spell checkers!

Once I’ve learned the pronunciation of a specific word or phrase, though, I can repeat it with amazing accuracy. In Korea, I often fooled the Korean spouses of my friends by calling them up and asking for them in Korean. I often would hear the following exchange, “Honey, it’s for you!” “Who is it?” “I don’t know… some Korean.” Once past the greeting and request, though, my pronunciation gave me away.

I accept that the languages we speak do not significantly alter our thinking, but they do influence our thoughts. Mostly in social ways: how do you define or recognize a problem? What do you consider for solutions. Who do you ask for help? By living in non-American cultures, I directly experience the definition of a problem by individuals on an almost daily basis. For example, I am not always happy with how my housekeeper responds to situations in our home. She will leave light bulbs unchanged and tissue boxes unreplaced. As long as there is light from somewhere and tissue somewhere, they are not pressing problems.  Or, she may just be waiting for me to ask her to do them. However, I look at them as obvious things that I would want her to replace without me asking her to. It seems to me that any and every housekeeper would be safe in assuming that these are things to be done as a normal progression of her job in caring for our house.

The problem is, of course, is it the culture that shaped the thinking and language, the language that shaped the thinking and culture, or the thinking that shaped the language and culture. And, does it matter?