Friday, December 14, 2012

"Can you get through this entire post WITHOUT feeling itchy?"

I used to do a quick classroom demonstration during the social psychology unit about itching. As I stood in front of the class talking about conformity and obedience, I would start to scratch my head, arm, shoulder, etc. As I talked, I tried to notice how many students succumbed to the "contagious" itching, then I stopped and told them what I was doing and asked them to talk about whether they experienced itches as they watched me itch.

It was a fun and engaging demonstration, but I have to admit that I never really felt confident about the connection (if there is one) between the social psych. principles and the contagiousness of itching. So I was happy to spot this article on the phenomenon: "You scratch, I scratch! The social contagion of itch.

This short article describes research about itch contagion and the brain biology that might explain why we itch when we see others scratch. The next time I do this demonstration, I'll do it in the bio unit I think, and I'll be much better informed.

image credit:

Blog post title is a quote from:

posted by Rob McEntarffer

Friday, December 7, 2012

The NYC subway death and the bystander effect

[I'm in the midst of the end-of-semester crunch, so I was thrilled yesterday to see Michael Britt writing on his Facebook page about the tragic death that occurred on the New York City subway tracks earlier this week. As many of you know, Michael is the former psychology professor who is the genius behind the amazing The Psych Files site that many of us frequently use. So I was delighted that he accepted my offer to do a guest post about this story and whether it is or isn't an example of the bystander effect in action. Take it away Michael!  --Steve]

A Clear Case of the Bystander Effect? 

You may have heard that recently a man was pushed onto the tracks of an oncoming subway train and that no one reached out a hand to help the man get back onto the platform. Not only that, but a photographer snapped a picture of the man as he desperately tried to get back onto the platform. [Here is a link to the photo, which should also appear below.]

Why didn’t anyone help? This real life story has many similarities to the infamous story of Kitty Genovese who was attacked and killed in NYC in the early ‘60s while many people heard her screams but did not help.

Your first reaction might be that of many others who read these stories; that people are callous – especially people who live in cities, or that the photographer was uncaring and more interested in getting a picture that would make him rich than he was in doing the right thing.

Bibb Latane and John Darley, psychologists who studied bystander intervention, might say that this is a clear example of diffusion of responsibility: all the onlookers are shocked, but they’re thinking that someone else – perhaps a police office – will jump in to help.

When we read about a story like this we often think we would not just stand by – we would help. But when things like this happen the chaos and confusion of the situation often make people behave quite differently than they might like.

There is also a connection here to the idea of the fundamental attribution error: our reaction to what the photographer did (or didn’t do) might be to think that he’s “immoral” or “selfish”. We’re attributing his actions to an internal cause – his personality. The photographer, however, attributes his behavior to an external cause – despite what the picture shows, he was actually too far away to help the man.

Here’s another connection to an important concept in psychology: blaming the victim. If you read the full story about the incident you would learn that the victim left home that morning drunk and that police found a bottle of vodka on his body. Learning this, you might say to yourself that maybe he was partly to blame for what happened to him. After all, he shouldn’t have been drunk.

Psychologists would say that we don’t like to think that we too could be victims of something bizarre and somewhat random like what happened here, so we are motivated to blame victims as a way of protecting ourselves from the anxiety involved with thinking that we might be victims ourselves.

It’s a disturbing story, but one worth discussing with students and helping them understand the many different psychological principles that could be applied here.

PS: Here's another wrinkle: the photographer who took the dramatic photo later said that he was not deliberately taking a picture of the man on the tracks anyway. He was flashing his camera in an attempt to alert the conductor that there was something wrong. The pictures that came out of this act were just an accident.

Also, many people on the platform were shouting at the conductor to stop while others ran to the ticket booth to tell that person to contact the conductor to tell him to call the conductor and tell him to stop.

So perhaps people did try to help after all – just not the way we think we would have done if we were there. But what would you really have done in this upsetting situation?

By the way, not everything you read or heard about the famous “Kitty Genovese” story is true. Listen to this episode from The Psych Files podcast: “Kitty Genovese – What Really Happened?” 

[Thanks, Michael!]
--posted by Steve

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

APA/PT@CC/TOPSS videos from the APA convention!

The good folks at the APA/TOPSS shared some GREAT videos recently of the speakers they sponsored at the APA convention last summer. I haven't watched them all yet, but so far they are all clear and VERY usable in a high school psych class. Check out this great line up!

  • Brain Organization for Language: It’s All in the Network(s),” Christine Chiarello, PhD
    This lecture reviews research that identifies which brain regions coordinate activity during language processing and how this activity is modulated by characteristics of the task, language experience and individual differences.
  • Why Students Love Evolutionary Psychology… and How to Teach It,” David Buss, PhD
    This lecture discusses evolutionary psychology — such topics as sexual selection, evolved psychological mechanisms and ultimate and proximate causation — and tools for teaching evolutionary psychology in the classroom.
  • A Letter to Teachers: William James, H. B. Alexander, and Me,” Kenneth D. Keith, PhD
    This lecture explores how scientific literacy, critical thinking, complex cognition and the liberal arts connect to the science of psychology and the art of teaching.
  • Connecting the Dots: How Race in America’s Classrooms Affects Achievement,” Beverly Daniel Tatum, PhD
    This lecture presents why honest conversations about race are important, and discusses strategies for teachers and other adults to consider in an effort to reduce stereotype threat and increase trust in cross-racial interactions.
  • Meta-studying: Teaching Metacognitive Strategies to Enhance Student Success,” Elizabeth Yost Hammer, PhD
    This lecture discusses why psychology teachers are uniquely positioned to teach students how to learn, and presents strategies to teach metacognitive skills in the classroom to enhance learning and improve study skills.
  • The Seven Sins of Memory: An Update,” Daniel L. Schacter, PhD
    This lecture discusses recent research and considers recently emerging evidence for the idea that misattribution and other memory sins can be conceived of as byproducts of otherwise adaptive features of memory.
  • Microaggressions in the Classroom: Manifestation, Dynamics and Impact,” Derald Wing Sue, PhD
    This lecture discusses microaggressions and how they relate to difficult dialogues in the classroom that deal with topics such as race, gender, sexual orientation, disability, etc.

posted by Rob McEntarffer

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

One heck of a final exam!

Cedar Riener is one of my favorite psych teacher/bloggers, and if you are on Twitter, follow his feed (@criener) and/or read his great blog ( for = great info. He's a thoughtful psych. teacher who comments on teaching pedagogy, psych topics, and he's darn funny and insightful. We've posted about Cedar's experiments with re-organizing his psych class on this blog before.

Cedar recently shared his final exam for his Sensation/Perception class and check out this great set of writing prompts! It's a doozy! I love the variety, and it's a good reminder that the AP Psych Free Response Question isn't the only model we can use when designing written response questions for psych assessments:

"You are welcome to use your own books, notes, and lecture slides, but do not seek or give help to your classmates on this exam.  I strongly suggest that you start early and give yourself ample time to complete it.  Normally, you might spend a certain amount of time studying, and then take a 3 hour exam.  Since this exam is open book, open notes, and untimed, I would expect it to take that time which would combine studying and taking an exam, which would be considerably longer than 3 hours.  I think allotting 8-9 total hours to complete the exam is likely a good estimate.  You may skip one question, leading to a total of 15 questions.
  1. Why is it not quite accurate to say that we have 5 senses? Pick one of your senses and describe how we might consider it more than one sense. Describe two sensory experiences in which it seems that we are experiencing the same sense, but in fact there are separate biological detectors and pathways in the brain.
  2. Compare the processes of transduction for hearing and for taste.  How are they similar?  How are they different? (2-3 paragraphs)
  3. The first chapter draws the distinction between “perception” and “recognition.”  Describe a time when you “perceived” something without “recognizing” it.  Did you recognize it eventually? Use some of the knowledge you have learned in this class to apply to your recognition process in this case.  (2 paragraphs)
  4. Our perception of color is similar in many ways to our perception of pitch.  Describe at least 4 similarities and 4 differences between these two different perceptual dimensions (and no, the fact that one is seen and the other is heard does not count as a difference).    Focus on both the physical qualities of the energy in the world, as well as the biological and psychological aspects of the sensations and perceptions. (3-4 paragraphs)
  5. Watch the video of the cheetah running here:  Describe the optic flow field for this cheetah. Why might it be advantageous to the cheetah (considering again the optic flow field) to hold its head as steady as it does? Compare the optic flow field of the cheetah running to that of a human running. What might be different between the two? Use elements of the optic flow field from the book and those that you’ve learned in class.
  6. Take the Magic School Bus book and make your own set of full facing pages (two pages in the book).  They should include two little lined notebook pages, with fun facts, and text in the style of the rest of the book.  To give you some idea, I think we have covered a fair amount between pages 15 and 17 (more on rods and cones, or receptor activity in the retina) that you could fill in, or after page 19 (depth perception?  Object perception?), or you could fill in our spatial localization of sounds (the headphones and ringing bells demonstration), or something on speech.  You get the idea.  I would prefer that you draw yourself, but you are welcome to use computer collage techniques, but do not simply cut and paste from the textbook.  I won’t grade on your artistic ability, but I want you to put some thought into summarizing what you know on a topic and putting it into an accessible and fun format.
  7. Draw a figure explaining how lateral inhibition leads to Mach bands.  Draw a neural diagram that would NOT result in our perception of Mach bands.   Which two kinds of cells in the retina, if removed, would lead to a reduction of lateral inhibition?  (2 drawings, and two words)
  8. Why is the sky blue? Without getting into more detail than the physics of light that we have described in class, why do we see the sky as blue? Describe the wavelengths of light and the relative activity of photoreceptors. How is this related to the pictorial depth cue of atmospheric perspective?
  9. Pick a photograph from the National Geographic Photo Contest at the following website: or from the selections at this website: For this photograph pick four (4) pictorial depth cues and describe how they help to arrange the objects in depth. Also, describe the depth of field in the photograph, how depth of field is changed in a camera, and how it is different for our eyes (2 paragraphs)
  10. Pick another photograph from one of those sites and describe how 4 Gestalt principles of perceptual organization apply to specific elements of the photograph. (1 paragraph, at least 4 sentences)
  11. In one movie clip shown in class describing an experiment by Dan Simons, an unknowing participant was asked for directions.  While they were giving the directions, the person listening to the directions was changed, and the directions-giver did not notice.  This video shows another example of inattentional blindness .  Can you explain this referring to the relative density of cones in the fovea (how tightly the cones are packed) vs. the peripheral retina?   If you can, explain using the density of cones in the fovea.  If not, explain why this happens.
  12. Describe your Thanksgiving dinner, in terms of taste, smell, and flavor.  First, start with the preparation.  How do the smells go from the cooking in the kitchen to your nose, and then to your brain? (describe the pathway in one paragraph)   When you sit down to eat, how do the foods activate your taste buds?   Can you account for the flavor of the food just by the activity of the taste buds?  Let’s say that there is a special family recipe that uses hot sauce to flavor the stuffing.  What kind of receptor activity accounts for the spicy flavor of the stuffing?
  13. Watch the following video:  Describe how this video was made (you may google, but also use concepts covered in class).  Is this real motion?  Is anything on TV motion?  How is this video similar to a normal TV show, in terms of the process of visual perception of motion? (2-3 paragraphs)
  14. Below is an illusion of brightness.  The front face of the words “black” and “white” are each the same color (they are shown to the right without the rest of the picture).  How does this illusion work?  You may want to make a drawing and refer to luminance, illumination, and reflectance.
  15. What was your favorite demonstration, movie, or activity from the class?  How did the particular aspects of this demonstration illustrate the relevant concept (please be specific)?
  16. Briefly describe what you learned from your favorite student presentation.   What made this presentation or topic particularly interesting or memorable?  (1 paragraph – 5-6 sentences)"

Monday, December 3, 2012

Fraud Detectives!

This blog post and video about "The Legendary Dr. Fox Lecture" got me thinking about the general topic of fraud detection, and how it might be used in an intro psych class.

The Legendary Dr Fox Lecture - Footage Found!

In this demonstration, an actor effectively "fools" a group of medical experts into thinking that he is also a medical expert and maintains the facade over an hour long talk. He based this deception on one scientific american article and one day of preparation.

Much of what we teach in psychology can be helpful when detecting fraud: research methodology, statistical reasoning, compliance techniques, etc. Fraud detection tasks could be great "project based learning" activities: students could find claims of truth and act as "fraud detectives," using all their skills and knowledge to try to test claims of truth, and labeling the psych. concepts they are using along the way.

This Dr. Fox lecture might also be useful when discussing change blindness. There are so many great video examples of change blindness available, and some students start to generalize this very powerful phenomenon to just about every example of errors in perception. The Dr. Fox lecture can be a "test case" - is it an example of change blindness or not?

posted by Rob McEntarffer

Sunday, December 2, 2012


I have so much school work to do, but I am having trouble putting down Oliver Sacks' newest book, Hallucinations.  As only Sacks can, he shares stories and insights into this topic.

I suspect most of us keep the idea of hallucinations within the realm of schizophrenia symptoms and drug use, but there are so many other situations in which these occur.

I cannot possibly do justice to the writing or the stories, so I will simply list some topics he delves into.  If you want examples for class or answers to many of your student questions, you may want to check out this book.

  • references to many literature and historical examples
  • brain-induced hallucinations
  • Charles Bonnet Syndrome 
  • sensory deprivation 
  • wine and smells
  • hearing things, including voices
  • Parkinsons-induced
  • Altered States of Consciousness (including Sacks' own experiences)
  • Visual Migraines (migraines-another topic for another book on my shelf of Dr. Sacks)
  • Epilepsy
  • Hypnagogic imagery and hallucinations on the verge of sleeping/waking
  • Narcolepsy
  • Hallucinating oneself
  • Phantom-limb syndrome and other vestiges of parts gone
This book is just a fascinating journey through many stories about people who have had experiences with so many different types of hallucinations.  If you like questioning reality and examining how it can be different for others, this is definitely a book you will enjoy.

posted by Chuck Schallhorn