A Philosopher's Blog

Education & Negativity Bias

Posted in Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on March 3, 2014
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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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9 Responses

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  1. magus71 said, on March 3, 2014 at 10:21 am

    Mike,

    I go through the same problems when it comes to disciplining soldiers; do I let them fail at tasks and other things that can get them kicked out of the Army, like the physical tests, or do I continuously push them?

    One way to look at the punishment model is the way that Aristotle looked at laws. he did not consider adherence to laws to be inherently virtuous, but considered laws as training for immature people who could later be taught to use reason to come to the same conclusions the lawmakers came to. So if you consider that most college students are immature people, and that you as a professor are more than just a person who mechanically reproduces data–you are a mentor if we follow the ancient Greek model–then perhaps you should consider a bit of the stick to go along with the carrot.

    Also, failing classes and perhaps failing school all together has a massive effect in total on the economy. A person with no skills and massive debt….

    My problem with the Army is that there are too many rules in which reason cannot support.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on March 3, 2014 at 6:30 pm

      True, that is a very similar problem. But, at least a failing student won’t get other people killed (usually).

      While I do believe that adults should succeed or fail by their own will, rather than being “parented”, you are right to look at the matter from a utilitarian standpoint: if you and I do not serve to compel people to do what they should be doing on their own, the consequences for society could be bad.

  2. WTP said, on March 3, 2014 at 10:56 am

    Also, failing classes and perhaps failing school all together has a massive effect in total on the economy. A person with no skills and massive debt….

    Agree to some extent, but this should not be considered a total loss as such is perpetrated by society these days. There is much to learn from failure and many, many very successful people attribute their success to their numerous failures. Story has it that Edison tried hundreds or so filaments before testing tungsten. As he said, success is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration.

    The trick is to make failures as incrementally small as possible. To correct the “wrong turn” early enough such that fallacies are not built on fallacies that were built on other fallacies resulting in colossal failure. The wise teacher permits small failures by students as the best way lessons are learned.

    I’ve come to believe that Gators b-ball coach Billy Donovan works this way on a longer wave length. In games leading up to the tournaments he seems to at times let the team do whatever. I used to find myself wondering wtf he wasn’t calling time outs in certain situations, but I believe he did this to let the team run things their way to failure. Then he chews them out about it later, thus come tournament time, when it really counts, they are more likely to listen to him. Or so I believe. Don’t follow the machinations of regular season well enough to say for sure but when I pass this idea past more ardent fans, they tend to agree.

    • magus71 said, on March 3, 2014 at 11:22 am

      Been listening to Nassim Taleb. He says that as a society we are capitalist when it comes to success but socialist when it comes to failure. So we don’t learn from failure the way we should.

      Good observations on Donovan. I think the challenge for me is not turning into a micro manager (which is not in my nature–if I feel I have to micromanage I just do it myself).

      Recently we had some issues in our company with inventiry and equipnment which kept getting lost. The army’s instinct is to keep revising “the system” (read: add complexity to the system). But after a while you just have to fire people, which is what happened.

  3. WTP said, on March 3, 2014 at 1:22 pm

    Another amusingly smug post by Mike:

    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.
    Again the lack of self-awareness. Perhaps they are taking other classes far more oriented to objective thinking. At UF back in my day, law students were required to take the initial computer programming class that CIS/MIS majors took. AIUI, the purpose was to impose some humility by exposing what one thinks is logical in relation to what really was logical. The lab exercises were not “Hello World” type programs. We don’t really know this is the case with Mike’s colleague, but just a thought.

    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.
    More assumptions here than I can shake a stick at. Though one for consideration…You will notice in this post and many of Mike’s others, his belief that he understands better what a “rational” response is to a given life event more that the persons actually faced with the choice(s). I would propose that taking a philosophy course at most any higher educational institution these days is itself quite irrational. And I say this as someone who considers philosophy a very important aspect of education.

    One is that if students are compelled to attend, they might very well inadvertently learn something.
    A quibble, but as usual Mike ignores opportunity costs. For example, the distinct possibility that spending an hour shooting pool might teach more than an hour in his class. And that’s at the lower end of possible options.

    After all, they will probably need to endure awful jobs until they retire or die.
    Yeah, if they follow Mike and similar philosophers’ reasoning which fails real-world tests, they will be. Students in engineering, math, and similar objective-oriented courses not so much.

    • WTP said, on March 3, 2014 at 1:53 pm

      And in a similar vein to my point re “…his belief that he understands better what a “rational” response is to a given life event more that the persons actually faced with the choice…”, this from Ace of Spades regarding Obama’s statements on Russia, which I damn well could have written myself (though not as well, but with my emphasis added):

      But the ace arrow in their quiver always seemed to be — as it continues to seem to be — that all they have to do is patiently inform Russia (or Iran, or China, or whoever) that it is in their own countries’ best interest to act as “civilized” members of the “community of nations.”

      This is so arrogant and dumb I don’t know what to say about it.

      Did they really think that not a one of Bush’s diplomats thought to say something utterly obvious like “You know, it’s actually in your own interests to agree with us?” This is the first or second thing said in any negotiation, over anything at all — buying a car, buying a house, arguing with a spouse about who changes the diapers… The “it’s really in your own interest” is such a common gambit that it indicates the incredibly dull-witted nature of Obama’s squad to imagine this was new or novel to anyone else.

      The second level of arrogance concerns the foreign nation in question — Does Obama or Kerry (or did Hillary) really imagine these countries hadn’t already gamed out in their own heads what their own best interest was? Did they really think that Putin, for example, had utterly failed to consider the benefits of being a good actor in the “civilized community of nations” would net him, and what being a bad actor would lose him?

      I have to imagine that our counter-parties in these “smart power” negotiations are somewhat annoyed to be held by Obama’s people as slow children who haven’t bothered to think about the most basic things, such that they want and need Obama to remind them of the most basic things.

      Did they really think they could just Jedi Mind Trick the whole world?

      Just because it works on the weak-minded — Democrats, the media — doesn’t mean it works on everyone.

      http://ace.mu.nu/archives/347585.php

      • magus71 said, on March 3, 2014 at 5:59 pm

        One thing that many people do not seem to understand is that people using rational means can arrive at different conclusions. Putin is very rational.

  4. apollonian said, on March 3, 2014 at 3:20 pm

    Teacher’s Duty Is Education–Indicated By Proper Testing, That’s All

    Prof: u should have most confidence in the tests whence u find out what students actually know–this is what education is and should be all about–RESULTS. The tests will say whatever u need to know as teacher about the students and what they’ve learned. After all, WHAT exactly is it u’re really looking for, anyway?

    As long as u continue to fool the students and getting them to say u’re great teach–what have u to complain about?–and having less people in class–what’s wrong w. that?–makes things easy for ur day-to-day work, eh?

    And prof., if there’s one thing u really ought to understand–it’s gross fraud upon students and education in general to give or take pt.s for sucking-up to the teach, based on idiot “attendance.” U owe it to students and society who subsidize u to being objective, hence fair for ur grading.

    U should do what’s easiest and self-serving, long as it does no harm–that’s Aristotle’s real advice, if u just observe. Aristotle is truly “master of those who know.”

    “Negativity bias”?–hmmm, too bad u don’t give a good ref., but that’s ok–I can google

  5. Roy Baron said, on March 4, 2014 at 5:57 pm

    Michael,

    Would you like to have an interview on our show talk about teaching politics philosophy where humanity is going how we can improve peoples lives?

    Support APRI Alternative Public Radio International at this link https://m.facebook.com/alternativepublicradiointernational

    I, Roy Dan Baron, will be giving my formal weekly address on Alternative Public Radio International – Roy Dan Baron is the Texas Chairman of Compassion and your 2016 Compassion Party candidate for President of the USA!

    Thanks Michael

    >


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