“We are Heroes, They are Villains”: My Brilliant Students

At Tsinghua University, which is like a Chinese MIT, I am teaching a small class (25 students) called Frontiers of Psychology. It is required of freshmen psychology majors. There are a few students from other majors. So many of my students do brilliant work that it is hard to keep track. For example, two classes ago I started having presentations (short talks related to the reading). In the very first one, a student talked about her dysmenorrhea and self-experimentation to stop it. Later, during a discussion of how to give a talk, another (female) student said, “I could not have given such a talk.” “That’s a compliment, right?” I said. “I don’t know,” she said. Which is only to say what a radical and stunning talk it was.

For this week’s class I assigned several readings, from which students chose one. The shortest and most popular paper, by Joshua Knobe, a Yale professor of philosophy, was about judgments of intentionality. Knobe showed subjects various scenarios and asked them whether the side effects of a action described in the scenario should be considered intentional or not. Changing one word had a big effect. Knobe concluded that we tend to see bad side effects as intentional, good side effects as unintentional. I assigned it because the effect of changing one word was large and I liked the source of data (“Subjects were 78 people spending time in a Manhattan public park”).

Here is one student’s comment:

When I was in primary school, we had a very kind English teacher who was quite close to me. After she left school, she sent some photos to me and I found it a great honor to deliver them to my classmates. Later on, a math teacher got married and she gave another pupil some sweets to deliver the class. I felt unpleasant since not every student could get a sweet. I thought it unjust.

However, in both cases, photos and sweets, there weren’t enough for the whole class. The only difference was who passed them out. When I did, the main issue I cared about was “I’m the one to deliver them”; in the other case, “Why can’t everyone get one?”

She titled her comment “We are the Heroes, They are the Villains”. Her point was that Knobe’s results could be explained by the idea that we slant our judgments of others and ourselves to make them look worse and us look better — an explanation that Knobe didn’t consider.

Knobe isn’t the only one who didn’t think of it. Other students proposed other plausible explanations. But I think the “we are heroes” explanation is quite plausible because three other students made the same point in other ways. One of them repeated a story from a test preparation book:

A teacher had a student do ten math problems on the board. Then she asked another student to describe what he saw. “Two of the answers are wrong,” he said. “What about the eight correct answers?” said the teacher.

Not a true story but surely based on actual events. Another student told of the time her teacher had made her push her fellow students to exercise for an half-hour per day. The students complained to her about their loss of time. Later, however, her class had finished first in a physical competition — much better than usual. Her classmates did not give her any credit for this.

To emphasize how unobvious this idea is, here is what two professors make of Knobe’s results:

This asymmetry in responses between the ‘harm’ and ‘help’ scenarios, now known as the Knobe effect, provides a direct challenge to the idea of a one-way flow of judgments from the factual or non-moral domain to the moral sphere. ‘These data show that the process is actually much more complex,’ argues Knobe.

My students disagree. Their proposed explanations, such as the “we are heroes” idea, were not “much more complex”.

I believe they have noticed a broad truth about human nature that has escaped many psychologists, not just Knobe. In this excerpt from his new book, my former colleague Danny Kahneman describes what he calls “the illusion of validity”: personality judgments were considered more predictive than they actually were by the people who made them. Could this be another example of “we are heroes”? The “we are heroes” idea also explains the Lake Wobegone Effect: Most people consider themselves above average. The technical name for this is illusory superiority. The Wikipedia article about illusory superiority does not mention the Knobe Effect and vice-versa. In this important aspect of human nature, professors (including me) have had trouble seeing that the trees make a forest.

12 Replies to ““We are Heroes, They are Villains”: My Brilliant Students”

    1. SB, yeah, that book is a good source about this sort of stuff. I haven’t read it but the title and range of topics covered are saying something like this is a big part of human nature.

  1. It’s fascinating that the concept wouldn’t occur to psychologists. Is it too obvious to be worthy of their notice? To me, the insight is almost a truism.

    “Where you stand depends on where you sit.”
    ? Nelson Mandela

    It may be a corollary of your idea that academics disdain simple, high-benefit research in favor of complex research of little use: Perhaps they also disdain simple, actionable conclusions in favor of complex, useless ones.

    1. “Is it too obvious to be worthy of their notice?” I don’t think it’s obvious at all. After it is pointed out it may sound obvious. My students came up with other possible explanations of Knobe’s results. Meaning the “we are heroes” explanation wasn’t obvious to them.

  2. I have often thought that if we all know someone we believe to be “crazy” then surely some of us are that someone to someone else.

  3. This is interesting (that it has not been noticed), because ingroup-outgroup (and how you talk about and deal with them) is very standard fare in social psychology, as is, what is called, the fundamental attribution error (which is not necessarily group based, but suggests that you give environmental excuses for yourself, and dispositional for others).

  4. I never thought of it that way….But your students have a point, different decisions and different outlook always affect how we interpret any event that happens to us. Be it intentionally or not. We always find it hard to blame ourselves, because we always think we are right. It’s really hard to look at it another way.

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