How Not to Have An Adult Debate About Education Reform

For all the progress education reformers have made over the years, there are some warning signs. Most glaringly, the philosophical differences underlying many big policy debates are still being ignored. Both sides continue shouting past each other about a specific issue while the real reason for the policy disagreement remains hidden in the background.

Exhibit A: The pushback against New York City’s value-added scores. Although many people act as though they are objecting to certain aspects of New York’s specific system, their words make it clear that they don’t believe a value added score should ever be part of any teacher rating system. Take this article by New York Times education writer Michael Winerip on how value-added scores don’t show who the good teachers really are:

Ms. Byam’s 7 in math is as invalid a value-added score as such things can get. She regularly takes on extra duties. Several years ago, when teachers were unhappy with the standard math curriculum they formed a committee to find a better method. Ms. Byam represented P.S. 146, and spent two days a month for a year studying new approaches.

Winerip calls Byam’s low value-added scores “invalid.” He knows the score is invalid because Byam stays after school, and that makes her a good teacher. How does he know that makes her a good teacher? He just does. But don’t worry, it’s completely different than the way certain people just know that a high value-added score means you’re a good teacher. Essentially, Winerip’s argument boils down to “your effectiveness measure is arbitrary and faulty, and my proof is that your measure disagrees with my effectiveness measure, which, oh by the way, is just as arbitrary and also faulty.”

This is not the reasoning of somebody ready to make a productive compromise.  Winerip might think he’s leveling a nuanced criticism of a specific aspect of a specific system, but his underlying beliefs are clear: value-added systems do not deserve to have any authority. None of this is to say that value-added systems are the magic bullet that will accurately identify every good teacher. The point is that if we want to make progress people need to understand and address their major philosophical differences before moving on to specific policy disagreements. Until there is real movement from both sides on these large abstract issues, there will be little productive compromise. (See: federal tax policy, 2008-present.)

Your Predictions Are Bad And You Should Feel Bad

In times of trouble people often ask something along the lines of “What would Jesus do?”, but research on perspective taking is steadily demonstrating that the better question to ponder might be “What would Bob from accounting do?” The latest piece of research comes from Ilan Yaniv and Shoam Chosen-Hillen of Hebrew University. The two psychologists found that people gave more accurate estimates when they were instructed to take the perspective of another person.

We tested the idea that decision makers taking the perspective of another person engage a less egocentric mode of processing of advisory opinions and thereby improve their accuracy. In Studies 1-2, participants gave their initial opinions and then considered a sample of advisory opinions in two conditions. In one condition (self- perspective), they were asked to give their best advice-based estimates. In the second (other- perspective), they were asked to give advice-based estimates from the perspective of another judge. The dependent variables were the participants’ accuracy and indices that traced their judgmental policy. In the self-perspective condition participants adhered to their initial opinions, whereas in the other-perspective condition they were far less egocentric, weighted the available opinions more equally and produced more accurate estimates. In Study 3, initial estimates were not elicited, yet the data patterns were consistent with these conclusions. All studies suggest that switching perspectives allows decision makers to generate advice-based judgments that are superior to those they would otherwise have produced.

All of human thought is nothing more than a series of predictions (e.g. “I will probably enjoy this burger”, “This left turn will probably get me where I’m going”, “It’s probably ok to steal to feed my family”) so getting better at predicting is no small feat.

The other nice thing about the study is that it illustrates what some might call the “subjectivity of reality.” Every single person sees a different world — one that has been uniquely shaped by their beliefs, experiences, and desires. Unfortunately, this unique shaping makes us bad at seeing the world as it “truly” exists or as many others see it. Both Julian Sanchez and Jesse Singal recently wrote about how this influences reactions to controversial events like the Trayvon Martin case, and these subjective interpretations influence nearly everything in life that we think about. This subjectivity is one reason why something like “The Secret” can be scientific hogwash and still have a positive effect. If you have no job, no friends, and no prospects, but you convince yourself you’re living the life you always wanted, then you are living the life you always wanted.

We tend the discount the opinions of others because they make less sense given how we see the world. However, they make a lot of sense given how others see the world, and the way others see the world isn’t inherently less “right” than the way we see it. The result is that by taking the perspective of others we can find a truth that’s slightly less subjective, and that outlook allows us to make better predictions.
Yaniv, I., & Choshen-Hillel, S. (2012). When guessing what another person would say is better than giving your own opinion: Using perspective-taking to improve advice-taking Journal of Experimental Social Psychology DOI: 10.1016/j.jesp.2012.03.016

Why Everybody Wants to Be the Victim

Nowadays whenever a political group is accused of unjustly harming another group, it will invariably play some kind of victim card (e.g. “We’re not anti-capitalist racists screwing you over, you’re anti-capitalist racists screwing us over.”) It’s the political version of  responding to a positive steroid test with “I was taking cold medication.”

Thanks to the work done by a group of University of Kansas psychologists, we have a pretty good idea of why people respond to accusations by acting as though they have been wronged. When a group’s moral identity is threatened by accusations of unjust harm, the group (whether it be a political party, ethnicity, or your intramural basketball team) will attempt to reclaim its moral standing by engaging in something called “competitive victimhood.”

Accusations of unjust harm doing by the ingroup threaten the group’s moral identity. One strategy for restoring ingroup moral identity after such a threat is competitive victimhood: claiming the ingroup has suffered compared with the harmed outgroup. Men accused of harming women were more likely to claim that men are discriminated against compared with women (Study 1), and women showed the same effect when accused of discriminating against men (Study 3). Undergraduates engaged in competitive victimhood with university staff after their group was accused of harming staff (Study 2).

Why is the moral standing that comes from being the “true” victim so important? According to the authors, past research demonstrates that victim status “gives groups moral license to commit acts that would normally be condemned.” If Group A harms Group B, but is able to claim that they are actually being harmed by B, it makes it a lot easier for A to continue to harm B.

One reason we’re seeing an uptick in politically-driven competitive victimhood is that politics is increasingly becoming all about morals. Strategists have figured out that people respond to moral arguments, and so the two parties can no longer disagree without attacking the other’s moral standing. In the 1980’s you could support higher taxes or the deregulation of public education without being bent on destroying America. That’s no longer the case. The easy response to the constant attacks on your moral identity is to play the victim card, and that creates a cycle of competitive victimhood that makes compromise impossible.
Sullivan, D., Landau, M., Branscombe, N., & Rothschild, Z. (2012). Competitive victimhood as a response to accusations of ingroup harm doing. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 102 (4), 778-795 DOI: 10.1037/a0026573
Wohl, M., & Branscombe, N. (2008). Remembering historical victimization: Collective guilt for current ingroup transgressions. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 94 (6), 988-1006 DOI: 10.1037/0022-3514.94.6.988

What’s the Optimal Length of Time to Review a Piece of Information

Ideally, one day kids won’t learn vocabulary or history through rote memorization (Battle of Hastings — 1066!!), but until then the best we can do is to figure out how to actually be good at rote memorization. A group of psychologists from Erasmus University Rotterdam decided to help the kids out by examining the optimal duration for studying a particular item.

The researchers gave subjects a list of word pairs, but varied the number of times subjects reviewed the list (16, 8, 4, 2, or 1) and the amount of time they reviewed each word pair (1, 2, 4, 8, or 16 seconds). The overall amount of study time was held constant so that subjects who reviewed the list 16 times saw each word for 1 second, subjects who reviewed it 8 times saw each word for 2 seconds, subjects who reviewed it 4 times saw each word for 4 seconds, and so on. The verdict? Subjects who who avoided the longest (16s) and shortest (1s) durations retained more information when testeed after 5 minutes and when tested after 2 days.

Performance was poor for short (e.g., 1 s) and long (e.g., 16 s) presentation durations and much better for intermediate (e.g., 4 s) presentation durations. These results indicate that the presentation duration of individual exposures has a large effect on memory performance even when the total study time is kept constant.

I bring up this study not because it’s crucial for our education system, but because in the future every part of our lives will be designed based on this type of research. Advertisements, online dating profiles, and all manner of printed instructions will be optimized for the perfect exposure length. If you can get past the tediously-robotic post-apocalyptic stench emanating from the previous sentence, you might consider that such advancements will ultimately have a positive effect because they will save people small amounts of time, and time is the most valuable commodity of all.


de Jonge, M., Tabbers, H., Pecher, D., & Zeelenberg, R. (2012). The effect of study time distribution on learning and retention: A Goldilocks principle for presentation rate. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 38 (2), 405-412 DOI: 10.1037/a0025897

Why Do East-Asians and Westerners Think Differently?

You might not know it from the bevy of hack comedians making jokes about the driving of Asian grandmothers, but the differences in how people from Western and Eastern cultures think has been scientifically documented. East Asians think more holistically and focus on relationships and interactive groupings, while Westerners think more analytically and focus on abstract rules. The question is, where do these differences come from?

Some new research that digs deeper into what drives these methods of thinking suggests that the differences stem from the need for personal control. Through a series of 12 experiments researchers found that being deprived of control led Chinese participants to think more like Westerners — that is, more analytically and less holistically. The reasoning is as follows:

Past work has thus contended that East Asians generally are inclined to accept things as they are and adjust themselves, whereas Westerners seek to change the world to suit themselves. Our work proposed, however, that these habits are not ironclad but flexible and that in particular people from both Asian and Western cultures may resort to analytical thinking when they wish to exert primary control over the environment.

In Western cultures people tend to alter their environment to suit themselves, an approach that’s more suited to analytical thinking. In Eastern cultures, people are more likely to change themselves to suit their environment, an approach where a “heightened focus on relationships and interactive groupings rather than abstract rules” is best. However, when people from Eastern cultures are deprived of control, it creates a desire to re-assert control and alter their environment, and that leads them to think more like Westerners. In other words, Easterners and Westerners don’t actually have different ways of thinking, they have differences in their desire for control.

The study is a good illustration of the difficulties involved in the idea of “cultural cognition,” and more generally in the difficulty of attempting to objectively rate the different theoretical approaches to human thinking. On one hand, from a practical standpoint the way people think on a day-to-day basis is clearly driven by their culture. On the other hand, when you dig deep enough the seemingly vast differences in the way people of different cultures think disappear — when it comes to re-asserting control, East and West think the same way. Depending on the level at which you’re examining human cognition, culture is everything (e.g. How does a person behave in a group?), or culture is meaningless (e.g. How does a person think when they want to assert personal control?)

On a slightly unrelated note, this sentence from the paper’s introduction is outstanding:

Acceptance requires the self to see what is there and relinquish emotional or motivational reactions that involve wishing it were different.

I feel like it should be on an inspirational poster in a college dorm room.
Zhou, X., He, L., Yang, Q., Lao, J., & Baumeister, R. (2012). Control deprivation and styles of thinking. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 102 (3), 460-478 DOI: 10.1037/a0026316