This essay by Andrew Guest, Ph.D., Professor and Chair in the Department of Psychological Sciences at UP, is the first in a series of short pieces that offer faculty across the campus an insider’s tour of one of the courses that make up UP’s Core program. Since the Core involves almost a third of the curriculum for every UP student, faculty can benefit from these discipline-by-discipline essays, to better understand the breadth of their students’ campus experience.
In the early weeks of PSY 101, while framing what it means to see through a psychological lens, we spend a good few days working through a classic question in psychology: why are you who you are? Your parents? Yes, but because of their parenting or their genes? And are you really just like your parents? Or is much of what defines you, your taste in music, your politics, your style, your speech, more like your peer group than your parents? And how much, anyway, is from all those many hours you spent in schools? How about all those hours on the playing fields or in drama productions? And what about your DNA, of which you share about 85% with mice, about 98.8% with chimps, and 99.9% with most any other human? Does that help explain why your parents (and your professors) tend to like The Who, while you spent your teenage years on Taylor Swift and Drake.
These, of course, are all versions of the broader nature-nurture question, which most students confront in a variety of classes and thus know well enough to answer ‘both.’ But in our PSY 101 class, tasked with the core element of ‘diversity and difference’, we take the nature-nurture question as an opportunity to think about diversity through a social science lens. What about us, and our psychology, is a product of our social, cultural, and interpersonal experiences? What exactly creates the wonders of human diversity? And, just as importantly, what about us is a product of human nature? Understanding diversity, it turns out, benefits greatly from also being able to understand what does not vary – what aspects of the mind that are relatively universal and predisposed.
Though at UP we give PSY 101 instructors a fair amount of autonomy to tailor the course to their own teaching style, most of us follow a trajectory that is common across American undergraduate psychology. After a small bit of history, theory, and methods to frame the course, most PSY 101 courses start with the more biological side of psychology: how does the brain work, how does it sense and perceive information, and how do conditioning and reinforcement shape behavior? This usually then transitions into more cognitive topics including memory, intelligence, and information processing, while also introducing developmental concepts about change over time and social psychological perspectives on the importance of groups and context. It is only in the final stretch of a PSY 101 course, after establishing a foundation of psychology as a science, that we talk about mental health. This often starts with biopsychosocial perspectives on physical health, and progresses into introductions to psychological disorders and their treatment.
All these topic are leavened with the nature-nurture question and our core questions: “How do relationships and communities function? What is the value of difference?” We specifically ask students to “interpret ways that psychological and social factors vary or are similar across diverse groups of people” and to be able to “explain and analyze the ways that key concepts from psychology such as socialization, identity, and heritably contribute to differences among individuals and groups.”
Because much research in psychology is specifically devoted to understanding diversity, our PSY 101 course has much to draw upon. In my classes, for example, I frame much of the brief introduction to social psychology around research on prejudice and discrimination. This starts with the idea that the human mind is efficiently designed to take short cuts – and to group things together in ways that have social meaning. Drawing on social identity theory, we talk about how easy it is to create enmity between groups that might otherwise have much in common through the use of identity markers, competition, and socially defined groupings (think, for example, of rival sports fans who love the same sport but seem to hate each other). And we open up questions of why contemporary society puts an emphasis on certain identity groups over others, and what might be done if we were thinking about equity from a psychological perspective.
This is a decidedly scientific approach to understanding diversity, and contrasts with a more humanistic approach focused on affective values. In fact, when a group of UP psychology faculty used a core assessment process to do research about understandings of diversity we set out to explicitly test whether scientific understandings associated with humanistic sentiment in our PSY 101 students. For the most part they did not – but that was at least partially because most UP students already rate themselves quite highly on their more humanistic respect for diversity.
The scientific lens on human phenomena is, however, what we psychologists know best – and we think it is a critical piece of a quality liberal arts education. There is a saying that if you care about people, you should care about the social sciences, and we think the particular lens the social sciences offer towards understanding people using empirical methods is essential for any college student. We hope that students leave PSY 101 with a foundation for thinking empirically about any of the issues they confront in their lives – from their prospective career path, to their political values, to their human interactions. We also use PSY 101 to offer a foundation for making that thinking practical: we introduce research skills, interpersonal skills, helping skills, and analytical skills that can be useful in any vocation. And, finally, we hope that reflecting on the implicit questions underlying our course – who are you, and why – contribute to the broader journey of a UP education towards people who successfully integrate head, hands, and heart.