Adventures of a Postdoc

July 30, 2009

Cognitive dissonance

Before all you runners throw down your gauntlet and challenge me to a duel, hear me out.  I realize that technology exists, and that the right equipment does help.  But how much?  And is all this technology being used as a mere marketing ploy to sell ridiculously overpriced merchandise?  Case in point:

Runners will swear that you need to be fitted for shoes.  Stores have video cameras that analyze your run and determine exactly what shoe you need to buy.  There’s a few problems with this, however, as I realized during a recent trip to a shoe store.

First, they didn’t use a camera.  They had you walk 20 feet down the store, and just by using their incredibly gifted sight, they could tell how much you pronate (slight, medium, extensive).  Very impressive.  They then sold you the right shoe, which was “made” for your degree of pronation.

I am a skeptic.  But others claimed that they had ailments galore until they were fitted for the “right” shoe, and then everything was fine.  What was the control in this experiment?  Nothing.  If they were given a shoe without telling them if it was made for their pronation or not, I would wager my entire salary that some of them would claim it didn’t help (when it should) or that it helped (when it shouldn’t).  Cognitive dissonance at work – if you spend $200 on a pair of shoes, not including the insoles (to be mentioned later) and other do-dads, your brain won’t be able to say that the shoe is just “okay” – it has to claim that in order to spend that much money, it is the best shoe in the world and made specifically for you.  Then all is well with the world.

That aside – I recently went to the running store where someone I know was “fitted” for a shoe.  Not surprisingly, it was the most expensive shoe in the entire store.  Coincidence?  I think not.  She was apparently having mild shin pains after using these shoes (how can that be, I asked, if they were “fitted” for her) and wanted to get the insoles (another mere $40) that they recommended.

A pimply high schooler proceeded to pick out two insoles, and said she definitely needed the green one.  When I asked why an insole is even needed, when the shoe is supposedly “fitted” for her pronation, he (I kid you not) said this:

“The shoe can only do so much.  The manufacturer needs to make money, so they design the shoe to provide some support, but in general it will be flat so that it will fit as many different people as possible.  The insoles will provide a better fit.”

Wait a second.  So being “fitted” for a shoe isn’t doing anything.  They’re made to fit as many people as possible.  So why not just buy the insole and put it in an average shoe, one that doesn’t cost hundreds of dollars?  No answer.

I could go on, but my point is this.  Cognitive dissonance exists, and people will justify things to avoid the tension that is created when you perform an action that seems so ridiculous that no one in their right mind (let alone you) would ever do it.  So your mind makes up a story, in this case, that the shoe is perfect, to reduce the dissonance that exists.

Okay, so what’s the point?  As a teacher, we do this all the time.  Grade inflation exists.  UNC recently admitted that their average GPA rose from a high 2’s (C+ or B-) to a mid 3’s (A-).  That means the average student is getting  a B+ or A-.  Is that good?  We’re giving out false information to our students, making them feel they know more than they probably really do.  So what will happen when they don’t have the skills that students from non-grade inflating schools have in the real world?  They will either feel like complete failures when they realize they don’t have the necessary skills, or they will go through cognitive dissonance and make up a story – such as how it’s someone else’s fault – to reduce the tension that exists at the thought that their incompetence could be their own fault.

Many people say that grade inflation is harmless.  Why not give an artificial boost to a student’s confidence?  Because it’s doing more harm than good.  Teach the students the skills they need, let them fail if they don’t gain the skills, and do what it takes to teach it to them.  Any school that practices grade inflation is actually going through cognitive dissonance themselves – rather than admit they’re doing something wrong, they often claim that everyone else is doing it, and that reduces the anxiety of their actions.

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