Thursday, February 20, 2020

A Quick Classroom Experiment on Cognitive Bias

We've been told that seeing is believing but I suspect that most of us don't really think that's quite true, at least when it comes to our own cognitive biases.  

After all, we are trained attorneys, steeped in expertise in evaluating evidence carefully and thoughtfully.  We don't rush into conclusions.  We sort, we deduce, we reflect.   At least that's what I used to think...until I got caught by one of my own students.

Here's what happened.

We were talking about cognition, and one of my students - a former teacher - asked me if I wouldn't mind taking part in a little experiment about thinking - a mathematics experiment. I was so excited because I'm a mathematician by professional training.  I was ready for the test, or so I thought.  

Step by step, my student became my teacher, asking me the following questions in front of about 90 of my students:  

Prof. Johns, what's 1000 + 1000?  Good.  

Now, add 50.  Good.

Now, add 40. Perfect.

Now, add 10.  

What's that give you?  ______.

I blurted out, as proudly and as loudly as I could...3000...and I was completely wrong and utterly embarrassed (since the correct answer is 2100).  

Here's what happened:  My thinking got in my way because I wasn't really thinking but acting like I was thinking, which is what I think cognitive bias might come down to.  

Try this out with your own students.  Ask them to work through this little math problem, out loud, one calculation at a time, as a class.  

[Note: At first, few will participate by calculating answers, after all, because most are scared of math, so start the whole problem over until all are participating by speaking - out loud - the answers to each step of the math problem.]

What's 1000 plus 1000? _____

Plut 50? ______

Plus 40? ______

Plus 10? ______

Most, just like me, will blurt out 3000.  And that's a problem - as attorneys and as law students - because that means that the first impulses of our minds are often wrong, whether we are working through multiple-choice questions, sketching out possible issues as we read through an essay question, or probing problems that we might need to address to help our clients.  

So if you have a chance to try out this little experiment with your students, please let me know what you learn.  And, let me know what your students say that they've learned from this experiment. If your students are at all like me, this little experiment will not just open up their minds but also their eyes too.  And that's something worth seeing.

(Scott Johns).

https://lawprofessors.typepad.com/academic_support/2020/02/a-quick-classroom-experiment-on-cognitive-bias.html

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