Cognitive dissonance

 Teaching students can sometimes be difficult.  I often make use of skills that are not so very different from what politicians, lawyers, and used car salesmen (are those really three different groups?) practice.

            Students, by definition, come into a class ignorant of the subject matter.  If they were not ignorant, there would be no need for them to take the class in the first place. They are sitting there with their pens posed on that blank piece of notebook paper because they want to change their sad condition.  But if the students’ minds were as blank as that pristine sheet of paper beneath their pens before I start talking, then my task as a professor would be wondrously simple.  All I’d have to do is talk and all they’d have to do is record my words and memorize them—thus achieving liberation from their ignorance.

            But it is not that simple.

            Mark Twain supposedly said, “What gets us into trouble is not what we don't know. It's what we know for sure that just ain't so.”  Misinformation and misunderstanding often stand in the way of discovering the truth.  Pre-existing wrong beliefs can, in fact, create insurmountable barriers. How do you convince someone that what they thought they knew for certain is in fact completely wrong?  After all, people have been burned as heretics for contradicting cherished beliefs.  Professors no longer have to worry about flames beneath their feet, but angry scowls and students dropping out aren’t much fun, either.

            Changing a mind is not easy.  The temptation, when I hear a student tell me something that is in error is to announce, “You’re wrong,” followed by a list off why.  I’ve found that is rarely effective.  As soon as the student hears the words “you’re wrong” he will usually stop listening.  Pride rears its head and he will defend his position regardless of whatever facts might be brought to bear.  This is especially true if the student has a emotional attachment to his idea, or if he believes that moving from his current position will undermine some other cherished belief that is critical to his world view and self-assessment. 

Usually, ideas are not isolated things: they are part of a complex web of thought forming the outlook and bedrock of the student’s ideas about the world.  If you challenge even one critical thread, the student hears not a gentle correction or a contradiction to a single statement.  Rather, the student hears an attack on his personhood, akin to telling him that his mother is ugly and dresses him funny.  Those who do not believe as he believes get labeled as  heretics doomed to the flames of Hell.

            So how can you change a person’s mind without destroying it?

            First, begin with what your student already knows and believes.  Start in a familiar place, with familiar ideas.  Then start showing him things—some new things that don’t directly challenge what he already believes to be true.  Talk about what he already knows, and then find something else he already knows that doesn’t quite jibe with the other bit of data.  Point out the apparent contradiction and ask him to explain.  Listen to the explanation and ask questions about it.  Drop in some new data and ask about that.  And be patient.

            If you manage to do it carefully enough, the student will not feel attacked.  Instead, he will experience cognitive dissonance: that is, he’ll notice the contradiction between the two things he claims to believe and he will have no choice but to alter what he believes in order to resolve the contradiction he now confronts.  Cognitive dissonance is painful and students will move quickly to eliminate them.  The result will be that the student will wind up explaining to you that which you want him to know that is new—and contradicts what he thought he believed. 

            For instance, I had a student once who believed the moon landings were a hoax.  I asked him if he ever watched the original Star Trek series.  He was a big fan.  “So what do you think about the special effects on the original Star Trek?”

            “Kind of cheesy.”

            “How about Lost in Space?”

            He rolled his eyes.

            “What did you think of Kubrick’s 2001, A Space Odyssey?” 

            “Kind of weird, but I liked it.”

            “Special effects realistic?”

            “They were good for the time.”

            “But now?”

            “Well, obviously not real.”

            Eventually, following that line of logic, and followed by revealing to him that Apollo 11 had been followed by five other moon landings and that there were hundreds of hours of film footage and photographs from all of them, he soon decided that there was a problem in maintaining his delusion.  “They didn’t have the technology to do special effects that good, and the kind they did back then were so expensive, it was cheaper for NASA to actually go to the moon than to pay for them.”

            Some ideas are not so easy to undo, of course.  But if one can avoid name calling and making the student feel stupid, success will usually come.