Education & Negativity Bias

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In general, people suffer from a wide range of cognitive biases. One of these is known as negativity bias and it is manifested by the tendency people have to give more weight to the negative than to the positive. For example, people tend to weigh the wrongs done to them more heavily than the good done to them. As another example, people tend to be more swayed by negative political advertisements than by positives ones. This bias can also have an impact on education.

A colleague of mine asks his logic students each semester how many of them are planning on law school. In the past, he had many students. Now, the number is considerably less. Curious about this, he checked and found that logic had switched from being a requirement for pre-law to being a mere recommendation. My colleague noted that it seemed irrational for students who plan on taking the LSAT and becoming lawyers to avoid the logic class, given that the LSAT is largely a logic test and that law school requires skill in logic. He made the point that students often prefer to avoid the useful when it is not required and only grudgingly take what is required. We discussed a bit how this relates to the negativity bias: a student who did not take the logic class when it was required would be punished by being unable to graduate. Now that the class is optional, there is only the positive benefit of a likely improvement on the LSAT and better performance in law school. Since people weigh punishments more than rewards, this behavior makes sense—but is still irrational. Especially since many of the students who skip the logic class will end up spending money taking LSAT preparation classes that will endeavor to spackle over their lack of skills in logic.

I have seen a similar sort of thing in my own classes. At my university, university policy allows us to lower student grades on the basis of a lack of attendance. We are even permitted to fail a student for excessive absences. While attendance is mandatory in my classes, I do not have a special punishment for missing class. Not surprisingly, when the students figure this out around week three or four, attendance plummets and then stabilizes at a low level. Before I used BlackBoard for quizzes, exams and for turning in assignments and papers, attendance would spike back up for days on which something had to be done in class. Since students can do their work via BlackBoard, these spikes are gone. They are, however, replaced by post-exam spikes when students do badly on the exams because they have not been in class. Then attendance slumps again. Interestingly, students often claim that they think the class is interesting and useful. But, since there is no direct and immediate punishment for not attending (just a delayed “punishment” in terms of lower grades and a lack of learning), many students are not motivated to attend class.

Naturally, I do consider the possibility that I am a bad professor who is teaching a subject that students regard as useless or boring. However, my evaluations are consistently good, former students have returned to say good things about me and my classes, and so on. That said, perhaps I am merely deluding myself and being humored. That said, it is easy enough to draw an analogy to exercise: exercise does not provide immediate rewards and there is no immediate punishment for not staying fit—just a loss of benefits. Most people elect to under-exercise or avoid it altogether. This, and similar things, does show that people generally avoid that which is difficult now but yields lasting benefits latter.

I have, of course, considered going to the punishment model for my classes. However, I have resisted this for a variety of reasons. The first is that my personality is such that I am more inclined to want to offer benefits rather than punishments. This seems to be a clear mistake given the general psychology of people. The second is that I believe in free choice: like God, I think people should be free to make bad choices and not be coerced into doing what is right. It has to be a free choice. Naturally, choosing poorly brings its own punishment—albeit later on. The third is the hassle of dealing with attendance: the paper work, having to handle excuses, being lied to regularly and so on. The fourth is the fact that classes are generally better for the good students when the students who do not want to be in class elect to not attend. While I want everyone to learn, I would rather have the people who would prefer not to learn not be in class disrupting the learning of others—college is not the place where the educator should have to spend time dealing with behavioral issues in the classroom. The fifth is I prefer to reduce the amount of lying that students think they have to engage in.

In terms of why I have been considering using the punishment model, there are three reasons. One is that if students are compelled to attend, they might very well inadvertently learn something. The second is that this model is a lesson for what the workplace will be like for most of the students—so habituating them to this (or, rather, keeping the habituation they should have acquired in K-12) would be valuable. After all, they will probably need to endure awful jobs until they retire or die. The third is that perhaps many people lack the discipline to do what they should and they simply must be compelled by punishment—this is, of course, the model put forth by thinkers like Aristotle and Hobbes.

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  1. s. wallerstein

    Philosophy means “love of wisdom”. People don’t generally love something that they are obliged to do, although they may prefer something that they are obliged to do, in this case, philosophy, to something else that they are obliged to do, for example, mathematics.

    I’ve never formally studied philosophy, so I was never obliged to read any philosophy texts, except in some general humanities courses where we read a bit of Plato, Aristotle, etc. Maybe for that reason I enjoy it.

    As for a philosophy class imitating general conditions of the labor market, where one generally has no choice about what one does, I would think that philosophy should rather foment
    freedom or constitute itself as a space of freedom in a society where there is all too much unfreedom or authoritarianism or exploitation/oppression.

    A good philosophy teacher (you seem like a good one, Mike, from your blog posts) can show students how critical thinking can, to some extent, liberate one from conventional non-thinking, if not from the demands of the market, at least from confusing the demands of the market with free choice (whatever that means) and I don’t see how a philosophy teacher can do that, if he or she assumes an authoritarian attitude.

    The model of Hobbes, which you refer to, applies to society as a whole, not to classes of philosophy. There are social obligations, paying taxes, following rules, obeying the laws, etc., which, Hobbes says and I agree, people should be compelled to do or be punished, but that has nothing to do with critical reasoning.

    I think it’s utopian to imagine a society based on purely libertarian principles, without a strong government, without police, without taxes, without an army, without compulsory education of some sorts, without jails, without mental institutions, but that does not mean that no human relationships can or should be based on libertarianism principles.

    You are a philosopher, not a cop, after all.

  2. Derek Parfit talked about what he called our “bias towards the near” – our tendency to care more about the near than the distant future, one which can cause us to postpone some inevitable ordeal despite our knowledge that this will only make the ordeal worse. This seems both obviously irrational and obviously widespread. I don’t know that it’s recognised as a cognitive bias – but it seems to cut across the question of how people weigh good and bad possible outcomes. In terms of motivation it may matter less to folk whether it’s a carrot or a stick and more how quickly either will be delivered.

  3. Maybe in every college orientation there should be a discussion on autonomy, the positive and negative aspects of it. To engage in anything that is self-defeating is senseless. At college age not to have learned to be self-directed for positive ends may not be the fault of the student. Students may have been trained to look outside themselves for guidance and discipline, when it is absent they take the path of least resistance.

    Autonomy would be a good introductory course to philosophy because it impacts so much on our lives. Those who have been held captive found that in addition to a well-furnished mind, having the ability to come up with ruses to maintain autonomy, by not succumbing, meant the difference between life and death. It is necessary to balance autonomy, to know the difference between freedom to and freedom from, knowing when non-compliance is good or when it is bad and self-defeating.

    The focus is often on the grade, the degree, not on the journey towards the goal. There are probable many in college who do not belong there. Not everyone is meant for intellectual pursuits, crafts are still necessary; the machines have not taken over everything. What machines have taken over still requires human oversight and people could be trained for that, they could focus on one thing rather than having to take on different subjects which they may not have any real interest in. It might be that to gain autonomy some students need to free themselves from parental guidance and expectations.

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