The invisibility of belonging and the salience of difference

Many years ago, long before I knew much of anything about social science research methods, I conducted a small-group activity for my fellow teacher colleagues for an in-service workshop. The gist of it was simply for everyone to note the ways in which they were in the majority or the minority with respect to the rest of their group. Although I never did any formal analyses of the data, it appeared as though people were more aware of the ways in which they were different from the norm than of the ways in which they were in the norm. That is, they listed more characteristics along which they were “different from the majority” than “same as the majority.”

This surprised me, since I expected that people would notice all the ways in which they were just like the norm and how a handful of individuals were different—reinforcement that they belonged to the dominant group. I can even propose an explanation for this based on psychology research I know now, noting that people use similarities to recognize differences. But if the results I saw from this little activity were to be believed, people noticed how they were different, moreso than how others were different.

Looking at it now, with slightly older and more jaded eyes, I suppose this egocentrism isn’t so surprising: People are afraid of losing their dominant status and are quick to notice where those privileges might be at risk. That seems to be the same phenomenon at play in Norton and Sommers’ recent article on perceptions of racism.

If only it were easier to demonstrate that societal benefits are not a zero-sum game, that in fact to help others really is to help oneself. It’s puzzling that people can be so keenly aware of how easily their advantages can slip away, yet not realize that constructing a society where everyone is protected is precisely how they can guard against this.


M. I. Norton, S. R. Sommers. Whites See Racism as a Zero-Sum Game That They Are Now Losing. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 2011; 6 (3): 215 DOI: 10.1177/1745691611406922

Science answers the question of “how,” not “what”

In “Trust Me, I’m a Scientist” , cognitive psychologist Daniel Willingham argues that the belief that improving science education would increase students’ appreciation for scientific opinion is a misconception, since “Those who know more science have only a slightly greater propensity to trust scientists.” Instead, he suggests, “A more direct approach would be to educate people about why they are prone to accept inaccurate beliefs in the first place.”

I agree with Willingham that educating people in some basic cognitive science (specifically, common fallacies of thinking) would go a long way, but I think he mischaracterizes what good science education should be. It’s not simply about the amount of content, but about an understanding of the nature of science. Science is not a collection of facts, but a way of knowing. Learning more about the history of science (whether in a history class or science class, or both) certainly is one valuable component in providing a richer view of science. Still, it’s only part of the picture. Science education itself should incorporate a strong focus on building an understanding of how scientific knowledge is developed over time. That demands an appreciation for evaluating and quantifying how well evidence supports explanation and comparing the explanatory power of competing theories.

We do still need to provide better science education—a better understanding of “how,” not “what.” It’s crucial for creating a responsible citizenry.