When education makes problems worse

Insert controversy of choice in the blank:

For people who mistrust ___, learning the facts may make the problem worse.

That’s the tagline from “Vaccine Myth-Busting Can Backfire“, which highlights these findings:

A new study published earlier this week in the journal Vaccine found that when it comes to vaccination, a subject rife with myths and misperceptions, knowing the facts may not really be all that effective in winning over anti-vaxxers—and, in some cases, may even do more harm than good.

The study found that when people concerned about side effects of the flu shot learned that it couldn’t cause the flu, they actually became less willing to get it.

It’s a variant on the classic phenomenon of

the “backfire effect,” or the idea that when presented with information that contradicts their closely-held beliefs, people will become more convinced, not less, that they’re in the right.

What’s simultaneously interesting and more troubling about this finding is that people did change their knowledge, but that still didn’t translate into the corresponding action:

Though the vaccine studies have yielded results subtly different from the “backfire effect”—people were willing to accept new information as true, even when it had no effect on what they did in the end—Nyhan believes that the same sort of mental gymnastics is likely at work across both areas: reactance, the psychological phenomenon in which persuading people to accept certain idea can push them in the opposite direction.

It raises the ethical question of how educators should “first, do no harm” when teaching, if their efforts may backfire. It also highlights how crucial it is for instruction to account for learners’ identities, values, and motivations in order to be meaningfully effective.

Reducing Implicit Bias

Chris Mooney summarizes important research on measuring and reducing implicit bias:

The single best intervention involved putting people into scenarios and mindsets in which a black person became their ally (or even saved their life) while white people were depicted as the bad guys. In this intervention, participants “read an evocative story told in second-person narrative in which a White man assaults the participant and a Black man rescues the participant.” In other words, study subjects are induced to feel as if they have been personally helped or even saved by someone from a different race. Then they took the IAT—and showed 48 percent less bias than a control group. (Note: The groups in these various studies were roughly three-fourths white; no participants were black.)

Other variations on this idea were successful too: making nonblack people think about black role models, or imagine themselves playing on a dodgeball team with black teammates against a team of white people (who proceed to cheat). In other words, it appears that our tribal instincts can actually be co-opted to decrease prejudice, if we are made to see those of other races as part of our team.

There’s also “epistemic unfreezing”, in which “subjects [were] pushed to compare and contrast the two cultures, presumably leading to a more nuanced perspective on their similarities and differences”, with these results:

This experimental manipulation has been found to increase creativity. But surprisingly, it also had a big effect on reducing anti-black prejudice. In one study, Tadmor et al. found that white research subjects who had heard the multicultural presentation (but not the American-only or Chinese-only presentation) were less likely than members of the other study groups to endorse stereotypes about African Americans. That was true even though the subjects had learned about Chinese and American cultures, not African American culture.

Learning about differences through structured comparisons can help reconcile differences.

Less identity, more ideas

Once again, “we would all benefit from more meaningful interaction and less labeling… along any dimension by which we divide humanity.”

From Tom Jacob’s “America’s Increasingly Tribal Electorate“, describing political scientist Lilliana Mason’s research:

“behavioral polarization”—anger at the other side, activism for one’s own side, and a tendency to look at political arguments through a biased lens—is driven much more strongly by that sense of team spirit, as opposed to one’s views on public policy.

According to her:

the only way to reduce the anger and bias would be “to reduce the strength or alignment of political identities.”

Yet I remain hopeful that, in spite of the dangers of the backfire effect, we can find ways to separate ideas from identities, and share knowledge both dispassionately and compassionately at the same time. As before: “Most of all, we should put wrongness back in its place– linked to the idea, not the person,” or the identity.

Connecting knowledge and action: On explaining, informing, educating, and mobilizing

In Public Opinion and Political Participation in the Climate Change Debate, Matthew Nisbet reviews factors influencing how people understand and act upon science and policy issues, in a preprint of his chapter:

Nisbet, M.C. (2011). Public Opinion and Political Participation. In D. Schlosberg, J. Dryzek, & R. Norgaard (Eds.), Oxford Handbook of Climate Change and Society. London, UK: Oxford University Press.

Although he focuses on climate change, the principles he describes are more broadly relevant to communication and engagement, or to understanding and acting on new knowledge in general.

Knowledge isn’t action:

only a small proportion possess the type of opinion intensity that motivates direct participation

Information access isn’t knowledge:

the multi-tasking facilitated by hand-held devices is negatively related to learning and recall

Valuing information isn’t the same as evaluating information:

individuals are ‘cognitive misers,’ relying on personal experience, values, social influences such as friends or colleagues, personal identity, and the most readily available information

He then summarizes these influences:

  1. Schemas

    People have multiple schema[s]… which can be triggered by conversations, personal observation, and direct experience

    tailoring communication to these mental models can improve the ability of individuals and groups to reach decisions and to take actions, especially when statistical information is paired with affective, personally relevant images

  2. Values
    • Hierarchists [worry about] threats to those they respect in power, to established order in society, and to status quo practices

    • Individualists [worry about] unwise restrictions on markets, enterprise, and personal freedom.

    • [Those with] egalitarian and communitarian values [worry about] the need to manage markets and industry in favor of the collective good and to protect the most vulnerable

  3. Framing
    If the information doesn’t fit, it won’t stick.

    a specific media frame is only influential if it is relevant—or applicable—to the audience’s preexisting interpretations and schema

  4. Knowledge
    Knowing how to act matters more than knowing why it is.

    understanding how to take actions or to get involved on an issue [is] generally more important to decision making and behavior [than knowledge about the causes of a problem]

  5. Interpretative Communities
    Whom you know affects what you know.

    Different interpretative communities tend to prefer their own ideologically like-minded news and opinion media

There’s a slight irony in the fact that the initiatives he describes for how to apply these principles to promote understanding and action seem a bit less well developed than the principles themselves. But he does offer this guideline:

the ideal approach… [establishes] an iterative dialogue between stakeholders and experts, where the experts can explain uncertainty and the ways it is likely to be misinterpreted [and] the stakeholders in turn can explain their decision-making criteria as well as their own local knowledge

More recommendations along these lines are critical, especially considering the backfire effect. Knowing that risk discussion can backfire on building consensus should remind us to tread gently when confronting uncertainty, feelings of lack of control, and conflicting beliefs.

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

From positive self-esteem to positive other-esteem and learning

Dealing with differences needs to be encouraged gently, whether with ideas or with people.

As described in “People with Low Self-Esteem Show More Signs of Prejudice”[1]:

When people are feeling bad about themselves, they’re more likely to show bias against people who are different. …People who feel bad about themselves show enhanced prejudice because negative associations are activated to a greater degree, but not because they are less likely to suppress those feelings.

The connection between low self-esteem and negative expectations reminds me of related research on the impact of a value-affirming writing exercise in improving the academic performance of minority students:

From “Simple writing exercise helps break vicious cycle that holds back black students”[2]:

In 2007, [Geoffrey Cohen from the University of Colorado] showed that a simple 15-minute writing exercise at the start of a school year could boost the grades of black students by the end of the semester. The assignment was designed to boost the student’s sense of self-worth, and in doing so, it helped to narrow the typical performance gap that would normally separate them from white students.

After two years, the black students earned higher GPAs if they wrote self-affirming pieces on themselves rather than irrelevant essays about other people or their daily routines. On average, the exercises raised their GPA by a quarter of a point.

And from 15-minute writing exercise closes the gender gap in university-level physics[3]:

Think about the things that are important to you. Perhaps you care about creativity, family relationships, your career, or having a sense of humour. Pick two or three of these values and write a few sentences about why they are important to you. You have fifteen minutes. …

In a university physics class, Akira Miyake from the University of Colorado used [this writing exercise] to close the gap between male and female performance. … With nothing but his fifteen-minute exercise, performed twice at the beginning of the year, he virtually abolished the gender divide and allowed the female physicists to challenge their male peers.

Helping people feel better about themselves seems like an obvious, “everybody-wins” approach to improving education, social relations, and accepting different ideas.


[1] T. J. Allen, J. W. Sherman. Ego Threat and Intergroup Bias: A Test of Motivated-Activation Versus Self-Regulatory Accounts. Psychological Science, 2011. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/0956797611399291

[2] Cohen, G.L., Garcia, J., Purdie-Vaughns, V., Apfel, N., & Brzustoski, P. (2009). Recursive Processes in Self-Affirmation: Intervening to Close the Minority Achievement Gap. Science, 324(5925), 400-403. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1126/science.1170769

[3] Miyake, A., Kost-Smith, L.E., Finkelstein, N.D., Pollock, S.J., Cohen, G.L., & Ito, T.A. (2010). Reducing the Gender Achievement Gap in College Science: A Classroom Study of Values Affirmation. Science, 330(6008), 1234-1237. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1126/science.1195996

Acknowledging and learning from differences

On “New Directions in Diversity — Toward Social Justice for All“:

Fresh takes on the divisiveness of race and other differences include abandoning color-blindness and admitting that ethnic mixing isn’t the end in itself.

The goal isn’t to ignore or minimize differences, but to acknowledge and learn from them. (As expressed in a rather unusual analogy: “As sulfur indicates the health of a marshland, so conflict signifies the health of a society.”)

Classic issues: defining people as “norm” vs. “other”, framing differences as deficits rather than collective strengths, focusing on race and excluding other dimensions, equating all diversity concerns with power struggles, polarizing race as two colors instead of many, addressing diversity as a poster or event rather than exploring its ongoing influence.

New(er) findings: that children may be more equipped to explore diversity in 1st than in 3rd grade, that 3-yr-olds already ascribe positive traits to similar-looking people and negative traits to others.