Short Takes: Perception vs Reality vs Others

I was going to do a normal “what I’m reading” column this week, but I thought so much about the first two links I just decided to turn it in to a short takes. I’m seeing a lot of interesting parallels between these two articles, so I wanted to highlight a few things.

The first link was a Medium post called “How to Change a Mind“, an excerpt from an upcoming book called “Stop Being Reasonable: How We Really Change Our Minds“. It tells the story of a woman named Missy, and how she got her husband Dylan to leave a cult. The whole story is worth reading, but it the ultimate conclusion is worth pondering. Dylan didn’t leave because she was able to point out some of the ridiculousness in what the cult believed (though she tried), but because one of the leaders ended up offering a large and objectively unfair critique of Missy ending with an encouragement to leave her.

This was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. Dylan knew his wife had been nothing but kind and supportive, and the attempt to cast her in a different light caused him to doubt the leaders in a way he never had. As the article says “Dylan did not need to lose his faith in what his elders were saying; he needed to lose his faith in them.” And lose it he did. He spent two days straight Googling every critique of the group that was out there, then severed his ties. He describes his faith in them like a faucet that just got suddenly shut off.

The article does a good job of contextualizing this, and pointing out the lessons here for all of us. While most of us have never joined a cult, many of us take the word of others for granted on many topics. We have faith in certain sources, and barring any challenges will continue to believe those things. Maybe the topic is history, chemistry, math or some other topic we are aware of but didn’t study much personally. Even something as simple as another person’s name is mostly taken on faith. The point is, we can’t check every single thing that comes across our path, so we all have short cuts and rubrics to decide what information we believe and what we don’t. The point of this story is that the “who” part of that rubric can at times be more important than the “what”.

Given that, it was interesting that this next link landed in my inbox this morning “The Dangers of Fluent Lectures“. The article is based on a study that compared Harvard freshmen who took a physics class with lots of well polished lectures (passive learning) and those who took a class that made students work through problems on their own before explaining the answers to them (active learning). The results were interesting. Those who sat through the nicely polished lecture believed they learned more, but those who sat through the active lecture actually learned more:

There’s a couple theories about why this happens, but I think at least some of it has to do with the first article. Feeling that you are in the presence of someone hyper-competent could end up giving you the impression that you are more competent than you are. The active learning forces students to focus on their own deficiencies, while the passive learning lets them ignore that and focus on the professor. As the study authors say “novice students are poor at judging their actual learning and thus rely on inaccurate metacognitive cues such as fluency of instruction when they attempt to assess their own learning.” Again, it’s not always what you believe, it’s who.

Now there’s a couple caveats with this study: it’s not clear what would have happened if they had tried this study on 4th year students who were doing more advanced work, or if they had tried this at a state school rather than Harvard. They also mentioned that the kids in the study weren’t given any warning about teaching methods up front. In a later version of the study, they spent a few minutes in the first lecture teaching kids about active learning methods and the proof that they help students learn more. The students subsequently rated those classes as more effective, and said they felt better about the learning methods.

As always, we continue to be poor judges of our own objectivity.