A month into ‘lockdown’ I WhatsApped in reply to a friend this week:

For my part, I have been studying Introduction to Psychology on Coursera with Paul Bloom of Yale.

And here he is.

Paul Bloom

As I said to my friend:

I reckoned I knew my psychology but it turns out far less that I thought; it’s a revelation! We are so much more a product of emotion and subconscious probabilistic inference than of conscious thought or deliberation. And we are fantastically suggestible in every respect; easily triggered and primed to find patterns where there are none and seeking to exert control where none is possible.

A roam around ‘Intro Psych’ reveals just how much we are a bag of impulses and how little we are the rational beings the Enlightenment set out to make us. That’s not to say we can’t do better than simply follow our instincts – but it’s well worth knowing how ‘hard wired’ they are.

One tiny vignette from Paul Bloom… the number one fears for Chicago preschoolers are snakes and spiders (as they are universally) even though the great majority will probably never have encountered the former. There’s something primal about snakes and spiders – it’s a simple survival instinct.

Week four was ‘Social Psychology’: group dynamics, stereotypes, bias, belonging and ‘fitting in’. And the most helpful idea for me here is the ‘Spotlight Effect’:

The spotlight effect is the phenomenon in which people tend to believe they are being noticed more than they really are. Being that one is constantly in the center of one’s own world, an accurate evaluation of how much one is noticed by others is uncommon.

Wikipedia

As Bloom points out the Spotlight Effect is a great thing to know about… Individuals are more anxious they’re being noticed than they should be; everyone is far busier worrying about themselves than taking an interest in you, and fear of failure and embarrassment are universal – especially in novel situations and with new tasks.

Only experts, practising in their narrow domain of expertise perform better with an audience. The rest of us fare worse, because of our fear of being in the spotlight. And Bloom (who comes across as a rather splendid person) points out that this sometimes drives the so-called ‘Fundamental Attribution Error’:

In social psychology, fundamental attribution error (FAE), also known as correspondence bias or attribution effect, is the tendency for people to under-emphasize situational explanations for an individual’s observed behavior while over-emphasizing dispositional and personality-based explanations for their behavior. This effect has been described as “the tendency to believe that what people do reflects who they are”.

Wikipedia

FAE also leads to people believing (including sometimes Academics themselves) that because a person is impressive in their particular field of expertise they are similarly sound in all domains. Not so Bloom reminds us. And with a dash of ‘confirmation bias’ I’ve quickly decided (as above) that Bloom is a ‘splendid person’ not just a good psychology prof… FAE hard at work (I’m sure he’s a splendid person all the same!)

The Fundamental Attribution Error is a keeper, because it nudges us to remember that far more of what people do is ‘situational’; it’s what anyone would do, or how they would be seen in the same situation.

It also reminds us that when we blame others (not least at work) we tend to pin it on their ‘character’; whereas when we make a mistake or do something wrong ourselves – we are far more likely to blame the circumstances…

All in all, my enthusiasm for psychology is blooming under Bloom. As I concluded on WhatsApp:

I’m finding all this Covid-19 uncertainty as hard as the next person, but at least I’ve rediscovered a love of learning (which working professionally with Academics had damaged enormously!) It’s not all bad is it!

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