Third International Conference on the Teaching of Psychology
Richard L. Miller,
University of Nebraska at Kearney,
Kearney, USA

Presentation (ppt)


Students are enthralled with reports of the paranormal, so when psychologists in the classroom try to alter such beliefs, students often resist. Although students learn that paranormal occurrences resist systematic exploration, they do not embrace this idea personally. In this address, I describe strategies for helping students cast aside their previous beliefs and adopt a more critical stance.

The assumption that students arrive with an open mind that can be easily changed by classroom experience is often not true. They frequently retain their misperceptions because paranormal beliefs can help reduce uncertainty, especially in turbulent times. Although courses that emphasize critical thinking and research methodology can be useful in combating such beliefs, the effectiveness of such courses is not what we would wish. Presenting information is simply not sufficient, but educational interventions based on cognitive dissonance theory can make a difference. Bill Wozniak and I have investigated the role of counter-attitudinal advocacy in overcoming students’ beliefs in the paranormal. In this technique, students assert a position in opposition to the one they actually hold, generating arguments against their own beliefs.

We compared changes in students’ beliefs as a result of writing counter-attitudinal essays, reading others’ arguments against the existence of paranormal phenomena, or no exposure to the issues. Change in the direction of current scientific evidence was greatest when students generated arguments that contrasted with their beliefs. Simply reading an essay written by someone else produced the least change—even less than in the control group. Also, we investigated whether the amount of energy students expend in creating their arguments contributed to the change. In this study, we assigned students to groups that differed in the amount of work needed to complete the task. Students summarized another student’s arguments, generated their own arguments, or outlined a lecture by a well-known psychologist about the evidence against paranormal phenomena. Results indicated that energy alone was irrelevant in effecting change. Only students in the counter-attitudinal advocacy group showed significant change in their beliefs.

In a follow-up study, we provided evidence for long-lasting effects of the technique. When the campus bookstore conducted a product survey, we included questions about whether to stock subliminal self-help audio tapes. Students in a counter-attitudinal advocacy condition indicated much greater reluctance to purchase the tapes compared to other groups and, in fact, were opposed to making such tapes available. To be effective, this technique must not be coercive. Dissonance works when participants believe that they maintain free choice. Because effectiveness is greatest when students feel personally responsible for the arguments they generate, group activities are not likely to work. Finally, in one study, we found that overexposure to the counter-attitudinal message can backfire and reduce the amount of change. In summary, when students’ arguments are grounded in the scientific approach and when they must think critically about the message they are delivering, counter-attitudinal advocacy can provide a sound pedagogical tool.

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