Friday, June 20, 2008

Communication in Mind

Adam CarleAdam Carle

Department of Psychology

Did you hear the one about the two professors who walked into a bar? The third one ducked…. I know. I know. I can hear you groaning now. Silly me. I love that joke. But, I didn’t write it for that reason alone (though I might do something like that). Rather, I wrote it to make a point. Did you know I had started a joke? If so, how? If not, did you find yourself suddenly concerned for my welfare? More so than usual? (Did you know that I meant that as a joke?)

Why should you care? Well, it turns out, we humans don’t communicate nearly as well as we think we do. In a series of intriguing experiments, Justin Kruger and his colleagues (2005) explored some of the limits of our communicative abilities. Generally, we have a tendency to overestimate the extent to which people understand our expressions and we simultaneously have a tendency to overestimate our ability to understand others’ communications. They found that this problem becomes particularly pronounced across email communications, i.e., communication where we don't see the other person. To simplify, they found that senders well overestimated the extent to which recipients would realize they’d written a joke in an email. And, on average, recipients well overestimated their ability to perceive jokes and humor sent via email. Thus, people often failed to realize that someone had sent them a joke. Likewise, people often failed to realize that the implicit joviality of their email had not translated across the electrical medium. Jokes and sarcasm met in one nasty accidental brawl.

So, when communicating via email, we don’t do so well. We think people know what we mean and we think we know what other people mean. And, here comes the kicker, we respond in kind. We get angry because a colleague, friend, or professor has sent us this ridiculously mean or sarcastic email, when in reality we never realize they’d intended their statement as a joke or gentle prod. Moreover, the colleague, friend, or professor has no idea that we, the student perhaps, missed their joke and that we’ve responded angrily because we misinterpreted their email.

What does this mean for you? As modern academics we do a tremendous amount of communication without direct interaction. As we move through the summer months, many of us will probably communicate with our peers and students via email more often than usual. Work like Kruger’s suggests that we regularly fail to convey and perceive the jovial nature of communication. We know we’ve told a joke. Surely the recipient knows it too. Moreover, it shows we frequently misinterpret others’ attitudes and emotions that they express to us via email and that we rarely realize we’ve misinterpreted the communication. We know how we would feel if we wrote that; they must feel the same way too. All this work suggests that we should work harder to explicitly state the nature of our communications. When we make a joke, we should preface our statement with a disclaimer noting as much. Moreover, when we receive ‘one of those’ emails from students and we think, ‘they can’t possibly mean that seriously,’ perhaps they don’t! We should ask others what they meant. We should work to clarify our communications as much as possible. And, I suggest, we should cut each other a little slack. We should assume the best in our colleagues and students. We should suspect that the angry note or stunningly awkward statement reflects the inadequate medium of email as communication rather than attributing it to a lack of character on the other’s part. After all, someone needs to pick us up after we walk into that bar....

Kruger, J., Epley, N., Parker, J. & Ng, Z. (2005). Egocentrism Over E-Mail: Can We Communicate as Well as We Think? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 89, 925–936.

The “Good” Teacher

Dan RichardDan Richard

Office of Faculty Enhancement

I have never been one for labels. Something just feels wrong about putting a label on someone, as if everything they are can be summed up in one word, one category. At dinner parties, when people ask what I do for a living, I often tell them that I am a scientist or that I teach just to avoid the strange, wide-eyed looks and awkward pauses that follow when I tell people I am a psychologist. It seems that the category of “psychologist” carries with it a host of ideas and responses that, by its invocation, immediately turns every learning theorist, comparative psychologist, biopsychologist, developmentalist (-- and social psychologist) into a couch-toting, ego-peddling, Freudophile.

These cocktail-party experiences, coupled with a symphony of adolescent label-drama (I will spare you the details) and my familiarity with 1Henri Tajfel’s work on categorization and group behavior, have left me with both a healthy respect for and a general dislike of using category labels for people.

It was a surprise to me, then, at a checkout counter in a large membership warehouse store, that I was hoping, anticipating, and even wishing that someone would assign such a label to me.

It started as it usually does, with a quizzical look, a feeling of familiarity and anticipation that comes from an area of your being that is somehow secret and mysterious (I know this person from somewhere, but where?). As these feelings typically resolve themselves, I realized that I was standing face-to-face with a former student. I teach large sections of Social Psychology, so I have many occasions to come in contact with former students. During these times, I never know if they will be happy to see me (i.e., they did well in my class) or if they would rather avoid me (i.e., they did not do so well). The person at the checkout counter was smiling. This was a good sign.

We exchanged recognition statements – “I had you for my psychology class,” and “Yes, social psychology.” Now the real test begins. What will this student say about the class? What will the student say about me? Will I hear the words I so long to hear? Will I be categorized and labeled by this person?

Then, I heard the words, sweet and enchanting: “You’re a good teacher.” He must have noticed the change in my smile, from awkwardly apprehensive to graciously gleaming. He put me in the category of good teachers. All of the ISQ (course evaluation system) ratings and comments could not accomplish so much in such a short period of time as that one LABEL. Why did this arbitrary label (a label that I am sure the student did not give a second thought) mean so much to me?

Well, it may have something to do with how the brain works. Some models of the brain suggest that concepts operate as nodes (or connecting points) and that each concept is linked (through neural connections) with other concepts. One of the most important and frequently accessed concept in the human brain is “the self.” We know much about who we are because we spend a whole lot of time with ourselves. People learn about new concepts in the world often by figuring out how our “selves” relate to these concepts (see 2Kihlstrom, Beer,& Klein for a discussion of how this works). One thing that people know about who they are is that they are “good.” Humans place a high price on knowing that as individuals, we are connected to the concept of “good.” I guess that is why this student’s comment meant so much to me. I, and most other people, want to be categorized as “good.”

So, when you receive those not-so-positive ISQ (student rating) results, and you read those not-so-flattering comments, remember that the uneasy feeling you have is just your brain having trouble connecting your self-concept with those concepts. Too often, negative comments or evaluations can have such a negative impact on our emotions and motivation that we fail to take advantage of constructive criticism. If it helps to keep you motivated during ISQ season, just think back on those times when students made you feel that the world made sense by saying, “You’re a good teacher.”

1Tajfel, H., & Forgas, J. P. (2000). Social categorization: Cognitions, values and groups. New York: Psychology Press.

2Kihlstrom, J. F., Beer, J. S., & Klein, S. B. (2003). Self and identity as memory. New York: Guilford Press.

Greenwald, A. G., Banaji, M. R., Rudman, L. A., Farnham, S. D., Nosek, B. A., & Mellott, D. S. (2002). A unified theory of implicit attitudes, stereotypes, self-esteem, and self-concept. Psychological Review, 109, 3-25.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Journey of Thousands of Miles Is the First Step

Chiu ChoiChiu Choi

Electrical Engineering

There is a Chinese saying: “a journey of thousand miles begins with a single step.” I went to Taiyuan University of Science and Technology in Taiyuan, China for a short visit last month. I was accompanied by our Associate Dean Dr. Merckel. The purpose of the trip was to learn about their academic programs, infrastructure, resources, and to discuss with their leaders about exchange programs. The experience of this trip is unique. After this travel of thousands of miles, we have gotten the first step toward building a good relationship with the Chinese university.

After stepping off the plane, I noticed air pollution in Taiyuan. I was forewarned about it in prior web-browsing on the city of Taiyuan. The success of the local coal mining and other heavy industries comes with the price of polluted air. Air pollution is common in China as we all know. Even in non-industrial cities like Hong Kong and Macau, their air is also polluted. It is due to the movement of polluted air into those cities from the neighboring Pearl River delta areas, which are the heart of the “factories of the world.”

The hospitality provided by the university was superb. They treated us very nice and gave us much convenience in our few days of stay at Taiyuan. We had the opportunity to meet with their university president, vice presidents and college deans. We discussed with them potential collaboration and exchange programs. They showed us their resources and infrastructures. They have a good number of laboratories supporting a wide array of majors in engineering. Their flagship programs appear to be manufacturing of heavy machinery and material engineering. These majors are relevant to and very well supported by the local industries.

The university arranged for us a tour of a heavy machinery factory and a stainless steel plant. The heavy machinery factory produces construction and excavating equipment. To me it is sort of the John Deere of China. They also made the launch platforms for the rockets used in the Chinese space program.

The stainless steel plant was also very impressive. The heat was more than intense when the steel came out of the furnace. The literally red hot steel was rolled to thin sheets eventually. It was amazing to see how they got pressed and rolled over and over again and chopped into sizes suitable for shipping and handling. In the guided tour, I saw just a few workers in the production line. The manufacturing process was obviously automated. This plant was one of the largest in the world in terms of the amount of steel produced per year.

The administrators of Taiyuan University indicated that their graduating engineers became productive shortly after getting onboard these plants and others. It was because these graduates received education closely matching these manufacturing processes. Such approach reflects the old Russian style of engineering education according to the administrators. In the U.S. according to the national engineering accreditation criteria, we tend to focus on the fundamentals and give the students a more balanced education.

To appreciate the local culture and tradition, the university arranged a tour of several ancient sites for us to see. One of the historic sites was a walled city owned by a family for generations. This family compound was huge and looked extremely affluent at its time. They accumulated their wealth through tea trading with Europeans. They picked the tea leaves at one corner of China and shipped them across China to Eastern and Western Europe. The caravan navigated the first third of their journey along the Chinese rivers and continued the rest of the journey through the deserts and mountains by camels. A typical trip took three years to complete. The World War I and the extension of railroads into China from the West brought down this family business.
We have accomplished our goals of this trip. A cooperation agreement that promotes academic exchanges was jointly signed. Information about academic programs at both universities was shared. Most importantly friendship was built that will facilitate the success of our cooperation in the future.