Category Archives: Classic articles & reports

Classic book: “When Prophecy Fails” by Leon Festinger

Recently, a self-described evangelical preacher named Harold Camping received much media attention after predicting that, in line with his interpretation of the Christian Bible, the world would end on May 21. (As far as I can tell, the world’s still here). I’ve long had an interest in apocalyptic cults because of the incredible complexity with which members of such social groups look at the world – psychologically speaking, they’re fascinating.

It’s no surprise, then, that such group have received much scholarly attention over the years. One work stands out – When Prophecy Fails by Leon Festinger, Henry Riecken and Stanley Schachter. First published in 1956, When Prophecy Fails tells the story of Dorothy Martin, a Chicago homemaker who claimed to receive telepathic messages from the alien planet Clarion warning that the Earth would end on December 21, 1954. Led by Martin, a group of followers gave up their possessions, jobs, and family ties to follow Martin, who told her group that ‘true believers’ in the aliens’ warning would be evacuated from Earth a few hours before the end via flying saucer.

Festinger, the lead researcher and a social psychologist at the U. of Minnesota (later, he moved on to Stanford), used the Martin group as a case study of his theory of cognitive dissonance, which argued that humans tend to generate belief systems and worldviews that conform to their actual behaviors in order to reduce the dissonance – or conflict – caused by holding incompatible beliefs simultaneously. In the case of the Martin UFO group, after the world did not end (and they were not saved by a flying saucer), only some members of the group abandoned Martin. Others came to believe that their actions (spreading the word about the impending end of the world) actually caused the end to NOT happen – that is, rather than concluding that they had accepted a mistaken belief, many of Martin’s followers instead concluded that the end would have happened but for their actions.

When Prophecy Fails was recently reprinted and is available from various booksellers, including Amazon.


Classic article: Garey & Arendell on “mother blame”

In 1999, sociologists Anita Garey (now at U. of Connecticut) and Teresa Arendell (now at Colby College) wrote a white paper for U. of California at Berkeley’s Center for Working Families entitled “Children, work, and family: Some thoughts on ‘mother blame’.” This paper subsequently became the basis for a chapter in a volume entitled Working families: The transformation of the American home.

In ‘Mother blame,’ Garey and Arendell review the literature on motherhood and trace the tendency of society to blame mothers for various conditions, illnesses, and behavior patterns that contemporary science suggests are the result of other factors (such as genetics), not the ‘fault’ of mothers. Examples include blaming mothers for their children’s autism, schizophrenia, substance abuse, and sexual behavior.

Bibliographic information: Garey, A. I., & Arendell, T. (2001). Children, work, and family: Some thoughts on ‘mother blame’ In R. Hertz and N. Marshall, eds., Working families: The transformation of the American home.  Berkeley: University of California Press.

Read the 1999 white paper version of “Mother blame” here (PDF).

B Good Science Blog on “the man who could not forget”

Ben Good of the B Good Science Blog recently posted about mnemonists, whom Good defines as “individuals [who] have unfathomable memories and data recall.” In his excellent post, Good describes the case of Solomon Shereshevskii, a Russian man who was studied by famous psychologist and neuroscientist Alexander Luria:

Luria looked around the room and noticed that, unlike all the rest of the journalists, there was an individual not taking any notes. Luria confronted Shereshesvkii asking why he was not taking notes, at this point Shereshesvkii recited his entire talk back to word for word. Luria was stunned, as was Shereshesvkii who at this point had never realised that no one else had his perfect recall.

Classic article: Anthony Greenwald on “The totalitarian ego”

Writing in The Huffington Post, social psychologist Heidi Grant Halvorson defines self-serving bias as:

The tendency to see ourselves as responsible for our successes, but to see other people or the circumstances as responsible for our failures. We reason this way to protect our self-esteem, and to protect our image in the eyes of others. We also do it because it really feels right.

In other words, in a given situation, humans’ self-serving bias causes us to attribute positive outcomes, or successes, to our own individual, internal factors – we tell ourselves, I succeeded in this task because I am smart,or talented, or deserving, et cetera. The same bias causes us to attribute negative outcomes, or failures, to external factors: I failed because my boss didn’t give me clear directions, or my professor didn’t teach in a way I could understand, or the policeman who gave me the speeding ticket was out to get me.

A famous analysis of the self-service bias was published by Anthony Greenwald in the journal American Psychologist in 1980. Dr. Greenwald earned his Ph.D. from Harvard in 1963 and went on to join the faculty at Ohio State and U. of Washington. In his 1980 paper, Greenwald argues that self-serving bias is not merely a way for humans to interpret specific events, it is a fundamental part of the process by which we organize our understanding of the world.

Greenwald’s article is available online here (PDF).

Classic article: Cole & Wertsch on Piaget and Vygotsky

This is another entry in an occasional series of posts on classic articles of interest to social science researchers and educators. This is cross-posted with my Education Blog.

Besides being giants in (among other fields) education, human development, cognition, and linguistics, Jean Piaget and Lev Vygotsky often are painted as philosophical rivals whose respective theoretical frameworks are forever at odds.

Purely from a dramatic perspective, it would be great if this was the case because these two men are similar and different in ways that make for great theater: born only two months apart, both were geniuses whose intellectual gifts bloomed early, and both went from advanced study in biological science (zoology in Piaget’s case, medicine in Vygotsky’s) to the study of the human mind and human development. Vygotsky came of age in Communist Russia while Piaget was a product of Switzerland, long a haven of Western liberalism and democracy.

Vygotsky died in his early 30’s, his work mostly forgotten outside the USSR until it was ‘rediscovered’ by Finnish and Scandinavian researchers in the 1970’s. Piaget, meanwhile, helped overthrow the behaviorist school that dominated Western psychology for half a century and left a lasting legacy to Western social science, both by his own research and via the hundreds of Ph.D.-level researchers he helped train.

Alas, like many entertaining stories, Piaget and Vygotsky are not necessarily as incompatible as some students of learning and cognitive development are often led to believe. In this article by Michael Cole and James Wertsch (both noted socio-cultural theorists), the authors point out that the real differences between Piagetian and Vygotskyan theories might be rather subtle.

Citation: Cole, M. and Wertsch, J. V. (1996). Beyond the individual-social antimony in discussions of Piaget and Vygotsky. Human Development, 39, 250-256.

Classic article: “Science and linguistics” by Benjamin L. Whorf

This is another entry in an occasional series of posts here on the Cognitive Science Blog were I refer readers to classic articles in the field. Some of these articles are still salient today while others have been – or at least appear to have been – superseded by subsequent research. The article at the center of this post fall in the latter category.

“Science and linguistics” was published in a 1940 issue of the M. I. T. Technology Review. The author, Benjamin Whorf, would die within a year, aged 44. Whorf originally trained as a chemical engineer at M. I. T. and turned to anthropology and linguistics later, studying at Yale. Whorf, who received much criticism for both his theories and his methods from some of his fellow linguists, is widely seen as the modern originator of the theory of linguistic relativism – the notion that one’s language constrains the way one perceives the world; in reality, however, Whorf simply joined a debate that goes back to the ancient Greeks.

This recent New York Times article argues:

Whorf’s theory crash-landed on hard facts and solid common sense, when it transpired that there had never actually been any evidence to support his fantastic claims. The reaction was so severe that for decades, any attempts to explore the influence of the mother tongue on our thoughts were relegated to the loony fringes of disrepute. But 70 years on, it is surely time to put the trauma of Whorf behind us. And in the last few years, new research has revealed that when we learn our mother tongue, we do after all acquire certain habits of thought that shape our experience in significant and often surprising ways.

For an update on the ideas tackled by Whorf, read the rest of the NY Times piece here. You can read Whorf’s original paper online here (PDF).

Classic book: “Endangered Minds” by Jane M. Healy

NOTE: This is cross-posted with my Education Blog.

When I was a master’s student taking my first graduate-level educational psychology class, our professor assigned us several book reviews. We could choose the texts we would review from a long list he supplied. One of those books has had a strong influence on how I think about brain science, learning, and human development.

Endangered Minds by Jane M. Healy, Ph. D. was first published in 1990. The book’s dust jacket description reads as follows:

[Endangered Minds] examines how television, video games, and other components of popular culture compromise our children’s ability to concentrate and to absorb and analyze information. Drawing on neuropsychological research and an analysis of current educational practices, Healy presents in clear, understandable language:– How growing brains are physically shaped by experience
— Why television programs — even supposedly educational shows like Sesame Street — develop “habits of mind” that place children at a disadvantage in school
— Why increasing numbers of children are diagnosed with attention deficit disorder
— How parents and teachers can make a critical difference by making children good learners from the day they are born

I haven’t re-read this text in several years and I suspect that some contemporary research might refute some of Healy’s points – indeed, my own survey of educational neuroscience leads me to believe that some, if not many, individuals are able to leverage modern media and information technology to their advantage vis-a-vis brain development. Nonetheless, whether one agrees with her conclusions or not, Endangered Minds is an excellent introduction to the major issues surrounding our contemporary media culture and child development.

A fairly lengthy preview of Endangered Minds is available here from Google books. Dr. Healy’s personal Web site is here.