Friday, December 18, 2009

The Santa Claus Professor and his Giant Elves

Jayarava over at his blog Jayarava's Raves wrote the following in his current post:

We also need to be very cautious about thinking that we understand the intentions of other people. Social psychologists have determined that humans are actually quite bad at guessing motivations: we can empathise, that is experience the emotions of another, but when we assign reasons for behaviour we tend to grossly under-estimate the importance of environmental interactions (including the social). This is called the Fundamental Attribution Fallacy. We assume that the individual is an entirely free agent, as we imagine ourselves to be, and in order to understand how another person could act in a particular way we try to imagine what kind of internal state (ignoring the external) might motivate us to act that way. An example very commonly encountered in online communication is where there is a perceived slight, and our first assumption is not that we have misunderstood, or that the person has communicated poorly, or that they are having a difficult time; our first assumption is that they acted maliciously because we can only imagine slighting someone if we were doing it maliciously. Online communication is often characterised by what is known as flaming - hot headed remarks and insults.

Ah, this takes me back a bit. When I was in undergraduate, I became very interested in social psychology. The merger of the personal with the collective that occurs in the work of social psychologists appealed to me greatly, and still does. Most of the learning I did in the area of social psychology, however, was done on my own, despite being in more than one class on the subject.

The social psychology professor at my little University was, to state it lightly, a character. Dressed in old tweed suits, and with full, wild-looking white beard and glasses, his appearance was more like a sophisticated Santa Claus than a professor. He was given to long, loud, and absolutely rambling lectures that almost never hit the mark, and often took turns into the bizarre. Among his frequent topics was a series of stories from his grad school days working with two giants of mid-twentieth century psychology: B.F. Skinner and Carl Rogers. Rogers, well known in psychology circles for his client centered therapy and interest in interpersonal relationship, is sometimes found as a favorite amongst spiritually-minded folks seeking a psychological framework that embraces the whole person. B.F. Skinner, on the the other hand, known for his very labratory experiment-focused work on human behavior, tends to be rejected in many circles as being limited at best.

Now, getting back to Jayarava's post, and specifically to assumptions about people and their actions, my old social psychology professor was very fond of telling us about how these two giants of mid-century psychology were not, in person, what their work suggests. Of B.F. Skinner, who seemed at times to reduce human life to a series of conditioned or conditionable responses, our professor would say he was the nicest man you've ever met. Friendly. Personable. Helpful to his students. And of Carl Rogers, whose writing sometimes gushes with connection and empathy, our professor seemed overly fond to disparage as a bitter guy who did little to help those he worked with, and who didn't really act the way he said he did as a therapist.

I have to say I was surprised the first time I heard these descriptions, and had definitely been one before that to assume the opposite about these two psychologists whose work kept coming up in nearly every psychology class I took.

What's interesting to reflect on now, though, is also how our professor underestimated the environmental factors involved when it came to his assessment. He met these two while in grad school, which is often an overly busy, sometimes not very friendly environment to begin with. Secondly, I'm pretty sure neither of these guys were his primary teacher, given that he ended up in social psychology, a departure from both Skinner and Rogers' work. Finally, there were the conditions he was experiencing at the time I heard these stories.

Having taught over 35 years by the time I landed in his class, my social psychology professor was nearing retirement age. I think both his body and mind were also ready, as was evidenced by those rambling lectures and, among other things, a vast trouble with sleeping. One semester, in particular, stands out as rather strange because of these issues. The professor was enrolled in a controlled sleep study, and had to time the amount of sleep he would get every night. He'd come into class and announce to us in his fairly deep, booming voice: "I had three hours of sleep last night. Tonight I get five." And then he'd start in on some aspect of the sleep study, or maybe something else vaguely related to whatever we happened to be studying. Skinner and Rogers were frequent subjects, and sometimes he was even able to round these tangents in such a way as to make a point with their stories that related to our class material. I often wondered what people walking by thought of the loudness coming out of that room, which most of the time only barely resembled a thought out, coherent lecture.

Despite all that, I had, and still have, a soft spot for the man. Like the image he gave us of Skinner, he was a man that, on the surface, appeared kind of scary and yet, in reality, was kind and generous. I remember entering his office one day to ask a few questions about something I was writing for class, and ending up spending at least a half an hour discussing the history of social psychology experiments with him. When he found out I actually cared about that stuff, his door was open and the conversation flowed without condescension.

Given all this, there is something deeply sad when it comes to how often we fall prey to processes like the Fundamental Attribution Fallacy. How much of life's richness is missed, and how often do we just assume we've "got it" about someone who we probably barely know or understand?

I feel fortunate that I had a taste of all this with my old professor, who now, in retirement, is traveling, gardening, and appearing as a double for Santa Claus to all those who cross his path.


spldbch said...

This relates to something I posted on my blog a while back about always questioning your perception of things. I try to remember to look for other possibilities when I perceive something a particular way. I try to avoid jumping to conclusions, although I fall prety to this cognitive error more often than I'd like to admit. As always, a very thought provoking post.

Sara said...

Really liked this post - I studied psychology and sociology at uni, but never social psychology.

I must keep this all in mind the next time I feel slighted (or, the opposite, extremely flattered!) by someone, especially in written communication.