Facts that conflict with identity can lead to rejection: Teaching outside the mainstream
Thought-provoking piece on NPR. Take parents who believe that the MMR vaccine causes autism. Show them the evidence that that’s not true. They might tell you that they believe you — but they become even less likely to vaccinate future children. What?!?
The explanation (quoted below) is that these parents found a sense of identity in their role as vaccine-deniers. They rejected the evidence at a deeply personal level, even if they cognitively seemed to buy it.
I wonder if this explains a phenomenon I’ve seen several times in CS education: teaching with a non-traditional but pedagogically-useful tool leads to rejection because it’s not the authentic/accepted tool. I saw it as an issue of students being legitimate peripheral participants in a community of practice. Identity conflict offers a different explanation for why students (especially the most experienced) reject Scheme in CS1, or the use of IDE’s other than Eclipse, or even CS teacher reaction when asked not to use the UNIX command line. It’s a rejection of their identity.
An example: I used to teach object-oriented programming and user interface software using Squeak. I had empirical evidence that it really worked well for student learning. But students hated it — especially the students who knew something about OOP and UI software. “Why aren’t we using a real language? Real OOP practitioners use Java or C++!” I could point to Alan Kay’s quote, “I invented the term Object-Oriented, and I can tell you I did not have C++ in mind.” That didn’t squelch their anger and outrage. I’ve always interpreted their reaction to the perceived inauthenticity of Squeak — it’s not what the majority of programmers used. But I now wonder if it’s about a rejection of an identity. Students might be thinking, “I already know more about OOP than this bozo of a teacher! This is who I am! And I know that you use Java or C++!” Even showing them evidence that Squeak was more OOP, or that it could do anything they could do in Java or C++ (and some things that they couldn’t do in Java or C++) didn’t matter. I was telling them facts, and they were arguing about identity.
What Nyhan seems to be finding is that when you’re confronted by information that you don’t like, at a certain level you accept that the information might be true, but it damages your sense of self-esteem. It damages something about your identity. And so what you do is you fight back against the new information. You try and martial other kinds of information that would counter the new information coming in. In the political realm, Nyhan is exploring the possibility that if you boost people’s self-esteem before you give them this disconfirming information, it might help them take in the new information because they don’t feel as threatened as they might have been otherwise.