Who's Minding the Mind?

We're all familiar with the notion of first impressions and how the first day of class is crucial for setting the tone for the entire semester. But how does it work?

Primed by our senses
Part of the answer can be found in Benedict Carey's article "Who's Minding the Mind? (New York Times via Will Thalheimer), which reports on psychology experiments showing that people are primed by their senses:

The study participants, college students, had no idea that their social instincts were being deliberately manipulated. On the way to the laboratory, they had bumped into a laboratory assistant, who was holding textbooks, a clipboard, papers and a cup of hot or iced coffee — and asked for a hand with the cup.

That was all it took: The students who held a cup of iced coffee rated a hypothetical person they later read about as being much colder, less social and more selfish than did their fellow students, who had momentarily held a cup of hot java.

And the article gives quite a few more examples of how sounds, smells and sights can prime us, for instance:

In one 2004 experiment, psychologists led by Aaron Kay, then at Stanford University and now at the University of Waterloo, had students take part in a one-on-one investment game with another, unseen player.

Half the students played while sitting at a large table, at the other end of which was a briefcase and a black leather portfolio. These students were far stingier with their money than the others, who played in an identical room, but with a backpack on the table instead.

The mere presence of the briefcase, noticed but not consciously registered, generated business-related associations and expectations, the authors argue, leading the brain to run the most appropriate goal program: compete. The students had no sense of whether they had acted selfishly or generously.

More sensory hardwiring
We're hardwired by our senses in many ways, one of which is beauty. The "waist-hip ratio (WHR) is a significant factor in judging female attractiveness" (Wikipedia). Symmetry is apparently a factor in judging beauty, too, not only in humans but also in other species (Feng). "[A]ttractive scents - like the smell of freshly baked bread - are already known to keep customers in a store for longer (New Scientist). Music affects us, too. In one piece of research, it was shown that labeling wines with flags representing country of origin (France or Germany) and playing French accordion and German beer-hall music on alternating days affected sales:

"Despite an overall bias in favor of French over German wine sales," they soberly reported last week in the prestigious science journal Nature, "French wine outsold German wine when French music was being played, whereas German wine outsold French wine when German music was played." What may be even more significant is that only six of the 44 customers who consented to fill out a questionnaire admitted that they had been influenced by the music.

The Power of Precedent and Cultural Norms
Similarly, students subconsciously notice cues about the instructor, about their classmates, and about the general classroom environment that prime them to act in particular ways. Of course, later sense impressions can also have an effect, perhaps contrary to the earlier ones. However, once a group, such as students in a class, has established a precedent, or culture, for particular ways of acting or feeling about writing, that precedent has a strong effect on later actions.

In The Psychological Foundations of Culture, Holly Arrow and K.L. Burns look at how small groups establish behavioral norms. Using both complexity science and Alan Page Fiske's social relational models of culture (see Social Relations and Classroom Activity for a brief explanation) as a basis, they studied four groups of college students playing social poker. These groups, for different reasons, formed different norms in their groups. Once formed, however, those norms tend to stay in place, although they can be disrupted.

A combined authority ranking/communal sharing model was popular but persisted. The group stuck with this norm not because they were happy, but because dissatisfaction did not translate into coordinated action. The market pricing/communal sharing norm disappeared when a dissident dyad shook up the system.

In other words, it takes effort to oppose or change norms, once they've been established. Remember the Stanley Milgram and Stanford Prison experiments? Just as our senses prime our actions subconsciously, so do societal norms.

What does that mean in practice? At the minimum, we should work at becoming more aware of how all that we do--from our appearance to our habits and attitudes to our gender--affects our students and us. (See here and here and here and here.) Actually, we're quite aware when an occasion is important to us. Few of us wear less than business attire when in a job interview or in court (see, for example, Judging by Appearance).

Of course, as noted in Trout's satire, How to Improve your Teaching Evaluation without Improving your Teaching!", we could approach this in a manipulative manner. That's not the point. As Robert Rosenthal, Professor of Psychology, remarks in his biographical blurb:

For nearly half a century I have been fascinated by the psychology of interpersonal expectations; the idea that one person's expectation for the behavior of another can come to serve as self-fulfilling prophecy. Our experiments have been conducted in laboratories and in the field, and we have learned that when teachers have been led to expect better intellectual performance from their students they tend to get it. When coaches are led to expect better athletic performance from their athletes they tend to get it. When behavioral researchers are led to expect certain responses from their research participants they tend to get those responses. For almost as long as I've been interested in interpersonal expectations I've also been interested in various processes of nonverbal communication. In part, this interest developed when it became clear that the mediating mechanisms of interpersonal expectancy effects were to a large extent nonverbal. That is, when people expect more of those with whom they come in contact, they treat them differently nonverbally. Some of our most recent research on nonverbal behavior has examined "thin slices" of nonverbal behavior -- silent videos or tone-of-voice clips of about 30 seconds or less. Some of our more recent work with these thin slices shows that we can predict, using 30 seconds of instructors' nonverbal behavior, what end-of-term ratings college students will give their instructors. From thin slices of doctors' interactions with one set of patients, we can also predict which doctors are more likely to be sued by a different set of patients. Finally, jury verdicts can be predicted from the nonverbal behavior of the judges as they instruct the jury.

Similar to our senses instinctively priming our behavior, our nonverbal behavior reflects our (often unconscious) attitudes and expectations, which in turn, prime students' behavior and performance. We need to "mind our mind," to become more aware of our habits, attitudes, and expectations, from the first day of class on in order to help spark the intellectual performance that our students are capable of.