Who Me, Biased? 

Lori Hodin teaches Psychology and is the Coordinator of Safe School Initiatives at Lincoln Sudbury Regional High School in Sudbury, MA. She loves teaching Psychology and has been teaching for 30 years, working with High School Students and AP® Psychology teachers for the last 25 years. As Safe Schools Coordinator, she uses psychology in peer mediation training, violence prevention assemblies, and leadership development. She is a co-author on the Student Study and Retrieval Guide for Psychology in Your Life, Fourth High School Edition.

Lori Hodin
Image Credit: Lori Hodin

I have been teaching psychology for 30 years and love it because it connects directly to student experiences. For example, earlier this week, after viewing footage of Bandura’s classic Bobo dolls study demonstrating  observational learning, I asked students in small-group “think tanks” to apply Bandura’s conclusions to gun violence in America. When a  girl in one group recommended limits on video games, a boy in her group (fellow athlete and friend) had an “aha” moment, stating  “I never considered that gaming might have that kind of  impact.” While some topics like observational learning are visible and easier to understand, I have found that abstract processes like decision making are more difficult for learners. Also, it is hard to study decision making objectively when students are experiencing mounting pressure; many decisions, like choosing colleges in the fall and “promposals” in the spring, are jacked up and publicized on social media.  

Understanding cognitive biases, like heuristics, is particularly tricky for some of my 12th-grade Intro to Psychology students. This is not so surprising, considering that rational choice is a guiding assumption in traditional economic, philosophical and political theories.  Also, no one (myself included) likes to admit that they’re biased. 

My lesson on decision making has helped students understand and apply this abstract and counterintuitive concept. Here’s how I approach this lesson in my classes:   

On Board: Thinking like a cognitive psychologist: judgment and decision making 

 “Are humans logical thinkers?

I ask students to spend a minute jotting down their response and then share with a partner before opening to general discussion. This primes the pump for a range of student responses: from “yes, logical thinking distinguishes humans from other animals,” and “I make lists of pros and cons when making important decisions like where I want to go to college,” to “absolutely not, my sister is so emotional, she does not think things through at all,” and “some employers hire people who look like them.” After a few minutes of healthy debate, I share the purpose of today’s lesson is to think like a cognitive psychologist to accurately describe human decision making and identify patterns of bias, in order to make better decisions. 

Next, I ask students, “How could cognitive psychologists gather evidence of cognitive bias?” Usually some students will suggest asking subjects. To which I respond, Yes! We’re lucky to have footage of a random sample of ordinary folks responding to questions on this Discovering Psychology Decision making and Judgement clip (first 10 minutes) with cognitive psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Twersky. As we watch, I tell students to jot down their responses to five questions as they come up in the clip, stopping to ensure understanding. The first two questions illustrate the availability heuristic: 

  1. Are there more words in the English language that begin with the letter K or words in which K is the third letter? (third letter) 
  1. Which claims more lives in the United States: lightning or tornadoes? (The likelihood that a person in the United States is killed by lightning is higher.) 

Most people and many students get these questions wrong because words beginning with K and tornadoes seem more likely as they more readily pop into one’s mind. I ask students to come up with real-world examples of the availability heuristic in their decision making. For example, deciding not to apply to a college that was recently in the news due to a hazing incident. 

Question 3 illustrates the representative heuristic: 

  1. Imagine that Linda is 31, single, outspoken, and very bright. She majored in philosophy in college.  As a student she was deeply concerned about racial discrimination and other social issues, and participated in antinuclear power rallies.  Which statement is more likely: that Linda is a bank teller or that Linda is a bank teller active in the feminist movement?  (Linda is a bank teller.)   

Because Linda fits the prototype of “feminist,” many people falsely believe that it is more likely she fits into the second and smaller subcategory. I ask students to come up with real-world examples of the representative heuristic in their decision making.   

The different responses to questions 4 and 5 illustrate the anchoring effect also known as framing: 

  1. Is the Mississippi River longer or shorter than 500 miles?  What is the actual length? 
  1. Is the Mississippi River longer or shorter than 5,000 miles?  What is the actual length? (2,348 miles) 

I ask students how the anchoring effect connects to the survey method (to reinforce learning in Unit 1) and ask for real-world examples. 

To reinforce understanding and connect to students’ life experiences, I give students 10–15 minutes to visit Kahneman’s page on the Social Psychology network, and ask them to write a reflection addressing the following questions.  

In Kahneman’s recent book Thinking, Fast and Slow, what is the difference between fast and slow thinking?  

What psychology units or terms connect to Kahneman’s argument? 

When have you noticed biased decision making (fast thinking) in everyday life? 

Class discussion focuses on the difference between fast thinking and slow thinking, paying particular attention to examples where fast thinking, and heuristics, can reinforce unhealthy or unhelpful thinking patterns. Students bring up real-world examples of news, ads, and social media feeding stereotyping or fueling anxiety loops and worst-case scenario thinking. We wrap up the class discussion with this closing question: How can knowledge of cognitive biases help you make better decisions? The exit ticket: Cognitive psychologists conclude that the truth defies popular assumptions about human rationality. Use a term from today’s class to show that people are not as logical as they think.   

I was reminded of the relevancy of this lesson the other day when I overheard two seniors, both accepted at colleges of their choice, commiserating about the high cost of college. One student dramatically claimed, “I just won’t pay back my student loans, I’ll leave the country after I graduate.” Her friend, my psychology student, replied, “That makes no sense, why get a degree if you’re not going to be able to use it? I spoke to my mom about scheduling monthly payments to pay off college loans, lots of people do that.” Later, I asked my student to connect the conversation to the cognition unit, she smiled broadly and said, “Humans are not as logical as they think!”  

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