This module is a resource for lecturers
This section contains suggestions for in-class educational exercises, while a post-class assignment for assessing student understanding of the Module is suggested in a separate section.
The following six exercises are designed to allow the students to gain a meaningful understanding of the psychological mechanisms that are the focus of this Module. The exercises are highly interactive and build on each other. The Module should ideally be taught through these interactive exercises, and very little time should be spent lecturing to students. The lecturer, rather, is encouraged to present the material and highlight key themes and then facilitate student conversation. Each exercise starts with a short video clip that could be used to stimulate discussions about the mechanisms and forces motivating people to act in ways that they would not want to act if they were fully aware of what they are doing. The videos selected do not require prior knowledge of relevant topics.
To maximize the effectiveness of the discussions, the lecturer could encourage the students to share examples from their own lives that illustrate how the relevant psychological mechanisms can play both positive and negative roles in our lives. Students should be encouraged to discuss how these mechanisms can affect their ethical orientations, both in general and in specific instances. How can the negative effects of these mechanisms potentially be avoided? What can each of us do to make sure that these forces can be put to work for our benefit?
The exercises in this section are most appropriate for classes of up to 50 students, where students can be easily organized into small groups in which they discuss cases or conduct activities before group representatives provide feedback to the entire class. Although it is possible to have the same small group structure in large classes comprising a few hundred students, it is more challenging and the lecturer might wish to adapt the facilitation techniques to ensure sufficient time for group discussions as well as providing feedback to the entire class. The easiest way to deal with the requirement for small group discussion in a large class is to ask students to discuss the issues with the four or five students sitting close to them. Given time limitations, not all groups will be able to provide feedback in each exercise. It is recommended that the lecturer make random selections and try to ensure that all groups get the opportunity to provide feedback at least once during the session. If time permits, the lecturer could facilitate a discussion in plenary after each group has provided feedback.
Whenever possible, all students should get a chance to participate. If the class consists of up to 20 students, the lecturer could facilitate a discussion with the entire group. In larger classes, the lecturer could break the class up into discussion groups after presenting the material for discussion, and ask each group to appoint a spokesperson who can relay a summary of the group discussion to the entire class once students have regrouped. In classes of up to 20 students, the last five minutes of each exercise could be dedicated to summarizing the conclusions reached, particularly regarding how the issues discussed pertain to the concrete lives of students present in the class. In larger classes that have been divided into groups, ten minutes could be dedicated at the end to discussing the findings of each group or of a selection of these.
All exercises are appropriate for both graduate and undergraduate students. However, as students' prior knowledge and exposure to these issues varies widely, decisions about appropriateness of exercises should be based on their educational and social context.
Pre-class exercise: Understanding dishonesty
Have students watch the RSA Animate video on Dan Ariely's book The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty . Ask them to consider, after watching the film, why is dishonesty everywhere but almost always kept within bounds? Why, in other words, are there many little cheaters and few big cheaters?
As explained in the introduction to the Module, Dan Ariely identifies a dissonance between wanting to be good and wanting to have things that we desire. This dissonance helps explain why few people will engage in criminal behaviour. But it is easy to steal a little if everyone is doing it, if the consequences for others are minimal, if the adverse consequences of stealing are minimal and, crucially, if we are able to tell ourselves stories that make us look like good honest people and steal at the same time. Indeed, the cost of stealing a little and thinking of ourselves as good honest people is that we end up distorting the lenses through which we see the world and, perhaps most importantly, ourselves.
If time allows, lecturers may wish to conduct the exercise in class. In that case, after showing the video, the lecturer can discuss with the students key aspects of Ariely's research, and consider the cases of little cheaters that Ariely discusses. This will involve understanding the "what the hell" effect that allows small cheaters to become shameless criminals. Consider asking the students the following questions:
- What is the "what the hell" effect and how does it work?
- What does Ariely say about the Catholic confession and why it may work to diminish dishonesty?
- Why do we tend to steal only a little?
- What can we do to diminish crime? Ariely suggests that we need to change incentive structures.
- If incentive structures are a central aspect of changing the way people behave, what does this say about the idea that we can be the drivers of our lives? It is easy to think that this means that we are not free at all in this way. But is this truly so? Experiments such as these show that we are free in a limited sense, but this does not mean that we are not free at all. Remember that not everyone reacts the same to the pressure of external circumstances.
- In case this exercise is conducted after discussing the Stanford Prison Experiment, ask the students how the issue of incentive structures relates to the Stanford Prison Experiment.
- In case this exercise is conducted after discussing the Good Samaritan Experiment, ask the students whether there is a contradiction between Ariely's findings and those in the Good Samaritan Experiment. Focus particularly on the idea of turning another leaf.
If incentive structures are a central aspect of changing the way people behave, what does this say about the idea that we can be the drivers of our lives? It is easy to think that this means that we are not free at all in this way. But is this truly so? Experiments such as these show that we are free in a limited sense, but this does not mean that we are not free at all. Remember that not everyone reacts the same to the pressure of external circumstances.
Exercise 1: Failing to see what is right in front of you
Have the students watch The Monkey Business Illusion and ask them to count the number of times players in white pass the ball. Make sure not to spoil the exercise by telling students what to expect. After the students finish counting the passes, facilitate a discussion about the mechanism of selective attention and its potential to induce unethical behaviour.
The discussion should start with students explaining the experiment, particularly explaining what they understand selective attention to be. The lecturer can then pose questions such as these:
- Why do we focus our attention on some things and not others?
- What things could impair our ability to see, or properly to see, what is right in front of us?
- In what ways does selective attention play positive and negative roles in our lives? Consider specific examples from your own life.
- Although it is true that selective attention should do its job behind the scenes for the most part, sometimes it probably should not (consider selective attention informed by bigotry). What can one do to make sure that one sees what one ought to see in specific circumstances? Consider examples from your own lives.
- What does the phenomenon of selective attention say about our ability to take responsibility for our lives?
- How can we avoid being adversely affected by the phenomenon of selective attention?
The Monkey Business Illusion shows the extent to which selective attention can affect us. The exercise therefore provides a good lead into discussing this mechanism and its potential to induce unethical behaviour. In the specific case of the Monkey Business Illusion we may miss the gorilla because we are too busy counting passes. The aim of counting passes blinds us to details of what is right in front of us. Selective attention, as explained in the Key Issues section of the Module, establishes a hierarchy of relevance. This translates into a hierarchy of value ( this is more important than that), which may not accord with what we genuinely value. For example, most of us would have probably liked to see the gorilla and we feel somewhat disappointed for missing it because the mechanism of selective attention blinded us to the obvious. We may be looking at the gorilla - most people doing the experiment actually do - but fail to see it. Importantly, selective attention is not a mechanism we have full control over. It operates largely in the background and does the job for us without our knowledge, unless we make an effort to observe its operation.
If time allows, have students watch the short video in which Daniel Simons stresses the positive role of selective attention and observes that we need to focus our attention on something in order to see it.
An interesting essay about the Monkey Business Illusion that can be discussed with student is The fallacy of obviousness by Teppo Felin, published by Aeon on 5th July 2018.
Exercise 2: The Good Samaritan Experiment
Show the students this short video clip about the famous Good Samaritan Experiment conducted by J. M. Darley and C. D Batson. Ask the students to explain the experiment and relate it to the phenomena of selective attention and psychological distance.
The Good Samaritan Experiment illustrates a basic feature of our lives: the ability to attend to some things and not to others. While this feature may not prima facie seem terribly relevant for understanding ourselves as ethical agents, Darley and Batson's experiment shows to what extent being in a hurry can blind us to what is right in front of us because we are in too much of a rush to get to an appointment. After showing the clip, discuss with the students the phenomenon of psychological distance, which is another mechanism that can cause us to miss the significance of ethically salient things. For example, the physical distance of attacking parties also distances them emotionally from the event, thus blinding soldiers to the full significance of their actions. Similarly, the suffering of distant strangers tends to affect us far less than the suffering of those who are closer to us, or those who we can relate to more easily.
Subsequently, facilitate a discussion about our ability to attend to some things and not to others, and the potential effects of this mechanism on ethical behaviour. Consider asking the following questions:
- If being in a hurry can adversely affect our attitudes and behaviour, what does this say about the idea that to be ethical is largely about following rules of conduct? Note that experimental subjects were theology students, that is, individuals allegedly deeply committed to living ethically.
- Would you like to be someone who stops to help?
- If so, what do you think you need to do to avoid the distorting work of external factors such as being in a rush?
- In what ways have you seen psychological distance operating in your lives? Give examples of how they help you along and how they can hinder your ability to live in ways that you consider appropriate.
- Consider, for instance, the tension between care for those closest to you and a commitment to justice. Care demands that we are close to those we care for, and that we are willing at times even to act unjustly on behalf of them (for example by unjustly distributing our time and resources), whereas justice demands impartiality (fairness). Care is in a sense nepotistic and in this regard it is in tension with the demands of justice. How can this tension be negotiated? It would be too simple to say that we should do away with care or with justice. Both play crucial roles in our lives, one predominantly in the private realm and the other predominantly in the public realm. This tension, it should be noted, depends on the phenomenon of psychological distance, for care depends on the fact that I care more for those closer to me, much more in fact, than I care for most.
- What does this experiment say about our ability to take responsibility for our lives?
A good case study for exploring intuitions about the care/justice tension would be a version of the trolley problem. If time allows, ask students to imagine what they would do if they had to choose between killing several strangers or one beloved person. Alternatively, consider the case, mentioned above, of a mother who has exhausted all other options, and must steal life-saving medications that will save her sick daughter's life.
Exercise 3: Asch's Conformity Experiment
Either reproduce the Conformity Experiment, if you have time, or have the students watch the video that describes Solomon Asch's influential experiment.
As explained in the Key Issues section of the Module, Asch's experiment shows us how we will either tend to follow the lead of the group because we do not want to rock the boat (normative conformity) or because we will genuinely come to see things in the wrong way because of group pressure (informational conformity). It also shows us how the pull of conformity can be punctured with the presence of a partner who gives the right answers to the questions regarding line lengths. It also shows how it is that giving answers in writing rather than orally radically changes the results of the experiment.
If time allows, students could also enact Asch's experiment. The lecturer could pretend to be Solomon Asch and a group of students could either be confederates of the experiment or subjects of the experiment. Students should record how hard it is for them to remain honest to the evidence of their senses or, most typically, honestly report on what they see. Ask the students what ethically relevant lessons can be drawn from this experiment. How, for instance, can they avoid the pull of conformity when required? Pay attention to specific examples provided by students, focusing in particular on what they felt when refusing to conform.
Questions to facilitate student discussion of these issues could include:
- Who would you rather be, someone who resists the pull of the group or someone who does not? Substantiate your reply.
- Who would you rather be, someone who conforms because she does not want to rock the boat or someone who is genuinely muddled by the replies of the other participants? Substantiate your reply.
- Why do you think it is that having a partner makes it easier for participants to answer the questions correctly?
- Why do you think writing replies rather than voicing them in public tends to make it easier for participants to avoid the pull to conform?
- How can the pressure to conform lead to unethical action? Substantiate with concrete examples, ideally from your own lives.
- What strategies can we come up with to avoid conforming when our considered judgment would be that we should not conform?
Exercise 4: The Milgram Obedience Experiment
Show students the video about Stanley Milgram's controversial obedience experiment. After they watch the video, ask the students to explain the Milgram Experiment.
As explained in the Key Issues section of the Module, the Milgram Experiment shows that there is a strong tendency among humans to follow the dictates of authority figures, even if following the instructions of an authority figure can be extremely harmful, even lethal. Milgram's conclusion is not that people tend to be morally bankrupt. Rather, his conclusion is that obedience can lead perfectly good people to do bad things.
To facilitate a discussion about the phenomenon of obedience, diffusion of responsibility, and the Bystander Effect, consider asking students the following questions:
- What would you do if you were a "teacher"?
- What can we do to make sure that the pull to follow the orders of authority figures does not undermine our ability to act in accordance with our better judgment?
- Think of circumstances in your own lives in which insights drawn from the Milgram Experiment play themselves out.
- Have you ever passed responsibility for your actions to a group or an authority figure? Illustrate with examples.
- What do you think would happen if the learners were in the same room as the teacher? What would happen if shocks were administered by hand rather than indirectly through a switchboard? Allude to the mechanism of psychological distance.
- What can you do to avoid the pull of authority when the authority figure is demanding something of you that you believe is wrong?
- How does the phenomenon of diffusion of responsibility relate to Asch's Conformity Experiment and to the Good Samaritan Experiment? Consider in particular cases in which conformity is punctured.
- Do you think this experiment is ethically dubious? If so, why do you think this is so? See related discussion here (scroll to "Ethical Issues" towards the end).
Exercise 5: Zimbardo's Stanford Prison Experiment
Show the students the short video of the controversial Stanford Prison Experiment, which demonstrates the problem of situationism - i.e. the extent to which external circumstances can influence behaviour. This problem is discussed in further detail in the Key Issues section of this Module.
Ask the students to explain the experiment, focusing in particular on the specific mechanisms that led guards and prisoners to adopt their roles. Facilitate a discussion by posing the following questions:
- What difference in behaviour can you detect among prisoners and among guards?
- What particular details in the environment motivated prisoners and guards to act as they did?
- What insight can you draw from this experiment that speaks to your own lives? Give examples relating specifically to your lives.
- What particular design features of your specific environment do you think have had a powerful impact in guiding your behaviour?
- What does this experiment tell us about our ability to take responsibility for our lives, its character and how to preserve it?
- What, if anything, does this experiment tell us about the relationship between society and the individual?
- How can we live so that we do not fall prey to conditions analogous to those present in the Stanford Prison Experiment?
- Discuss 'John Wayne's' own reflections on his behaviour as a guard. Relate your insights to specific examples from your own lives.
- Consider how 'worked up' people get when watching a particular sports match or in other circumstances, such as a party or a celebration. To what extent has your behaviour and your inner world changed significantly in such environments, and what do you think accounts for the differences?
- To what extent can you observe how your behaviour changes when you move from one set of circumstances to another and try to identify reasons for such changes? Fear of being singled out or even shamed could be one factor, but there could be others that have less to do with deliberation and may even subconsciously impact our behaviour. How much does clothing, for instance (including sunglasses), affect how you feel about yourself?
If time allows, spend some time discussing whether or not the experiment is unethical. Facilitate a discussion by posing the following question:
Zimbardo retrospectively acknowledges that his experiment is ethically problematic, despite the fact that none of the participants suffered long-term harm and it is clear that the experiment could not be reproduced today. What are your views? If time permits, discuss the latest controversy over the experiment outlined above.