Saturday, December 03, 2011

Facing Up to Bullies as a Class Exercise

Steven Pinker, in The Better Angels of Our Nature, emphasizes that there has been a massive reduction in violence in the world because, in part, we have developed skills and habits such as self-control and sympathetic compassion.

One of the sources of collective violent acts come when groups do bad things together even though the members of the group individually think it is wrong. This comes about from what positive psychologists call "pluralistic ignorance" - each thinks the others all agree. Moreover, the effect of pluralistic ignorance is multiplied if there are a few enforcers in the group, insisting that everyone follow the group line. And the irony of enforcers is that they themselves often don't really believe in the bad action the group is doing. Instead, they are trying to convince other people of their sincerity.

This circle of ignorance and evil can be pierced by a few people willing to stand against the group. Sometimes this means standing against individual bullies. It is probably harder to stand against the group when it does not have an obvious bully in it.

So this is my idea, and also my question to you. I want to develop a class exercise in my "Happy Society" class to help students practice speaking up for conscience, even in a group of friends. This kind of practice is especially important because most of their friends probably have the same pangs of conscience, but are held back by the pluralistic ignorance of what the others really feel.

One example Pinker cites is that most students actually do not think binge drinking is good or fun or what they really want to do. Some students in the class are likely to find themselves in a situation where they can speak up against an impending binge drinking game. And, no doubt, there are other, similar situations that arise in ordinary life.

I would welcome ideas on how, exactly, to help students develop the capacity to pierce pluralistic ignorance.


Nate Kratzer said...

The most straightforward exercise I can think of would be a survey of their friends attitudes on various activities (like binge drinking). I wouldn't have been comfortable telling my friends I didn't want to play a drinking game while they were setting it up, but I would have openly shared my opinions when the activity wasn't about to take place.

ceemac said...

You might check with Rodger Nishioka at Columbia Seminary. I know he has done a good bit of work on how adolescents and young adults make moral/ethical and behavioral decisions. And how they may or may not recognize the consequences of these decisions.

There has been a good bit of work on how late the portion of the brain devoted to this type of decision making develops. Rodger has been exploring that. At least he was a few years ago.

gruntled said...

Thanks, ceemac, that is an excellent suggestion. I think practice in doing it is even more helpful in creating habits that talking about how one makes such decisions.