Plous: Learning from Social Psychology at a Time of Crisis

Scott Plous

Scott Plous

Professor of Psychology Scott Plous is a social psychologist whose research focuses on prejudice and discrimination, decision-making, and ethical issues relating to animals and the environment. He has a long-standing interest in web-based research and teaching, and has taught a Social Psychology massive open online course (MOOC) on the Coursera platform since July 2013. We spoke to him about what social psychology can teach us in these challenging times.

What are you teaching this semester, and how have you adapted your course for distance learning?

I’m teaching an advanced seminar on the Psychology of Prejudice and Discrimination. Because the class has only 15 students, it’s been relatively easy to teach online using Zoom. I simply tile the full class in gallery view so I can see everybody, and all the students can see each other as well. I’m able to play videos, share PowerPoint slides and PDF documents, and even hold pop quizzes. Zoom also allows us to hold breakout sessions, and I can jump between several small groups of students as they have conversations. I’ve found that Wesleyan students are incredibly generous and forgiving if there’s a technical glitch or a little bit of a learning curve. They’ve been tremendous good sports, and we’re finding our way together.

I’m also holding regular office hours. Zoom has a nice waiting room feature that allows me to meet with one student, and if another arrives, I’m alerted and can either bring in the second student to join the conversation, or have the second student wait to speak privately. It actually feels fairly natural once you get used to it.

One thing I’ve been learning through this experience is that it’s best to play to the strengths of the online medium rather than trying to simply replicate an in-person class. The same goes for the pandemic itself—it’s a devastating tragedy, but rather than just feeling worried or afraid, I’m trying to focus on what we can learn from it.

How have your students been adapting to this new normal, and how have you been trying to support them?

An important part of teaching is working to understand students, connect with them, and respect where they’re at. Because we’re all weathering this crisis together, I’ve been more expressive than I normally would be. I’ve been letting students know that I miss them, and asking how they’re doing. This half of spring semester is not just about academic learning but also about a shared social experience, which can be bonding.

Students vary widely in how they’re coping with the need to maintain social distance. Some of them, I think, are really struggling with isolation and loneliness. Others, who may find themselves in large families or have more contact with other people, or who may be less prone to loneliness in general, seem to be doing OK. Some have shared their personal feelings with me, whereas others are a bit more private.

This must be an interesting time to teach a course on prejudice and discrimination, as there have been many news reports about people of Asian descent facing terrible discrimination since the COVID-19 outbreak started. How are you teaching about this through a social psychology lens?

We’ve discussed how President Trump labeled COVID-19 “the Chinese virus” despite calls from the World Health Organization not to use language that stigmatizes racial or ethnic groups or encourages xenophobia. As one WHO official pointed out, a 2009 flu pandemic originated in North America, but we don’t call it “the North American flu.”

Unfortunately, after some U.S. political leaders began referring to the coronavirus as a Chinese or “foreign” disease, anti-Chinese rhetoric spiked on social media, and many Asian Americans (including some Wesleyan students) encountered acts of discrimination. Wikipedia even maintains a global repository of anti-Asian, xenophobic, and racist incidents related to COVID-19.

This is not your first foray into online education. Are you still teaching your Social Psychology MOOCs through Coursera?

Yes, I’m currently teaching the Social Psychology MOOC, and over the last couple weeks, the number of people joining the course has increased markedly—it now averages roughly 3,000 new students per day. As of today, there are about 115,000 students in the course. I think people are making good use of their time at home, often turning to MOOCs to extend their education or to learn new job skills. In some cases, I’m sure MOOCs have been assigned to students who had been taking regular brick-and-mortar courses prior to the pandemic’s shutting down schools. Coursera, to its great credit, has developed a promotion called Coursera Together, in which it is waiving its customary certificate-track fees through May 31. Social Psychology was one of the courses that Coursera chose for the promotion.

I’ve also adjusted the MOOC for this particular moment in time. It now has an online discussion forum specifically devoted to the coronavirus pandemic and social psychology. We examine questions such as: How can we use social psychology to reduce the rate of infection? How can we socially distance ourselves while maintaining close personal ties?

[Read more about Plous’s MOOC in this 2014 article from Wesleyan University Magazine.]

That’s a question on a lot of people’s minds these days as many are stuck at home with no end in sight. What’s your advice on how to stay emotionally healthy when we’re spending so much time at home?

Different people have different needs, but it’s really important to develop a regimen that includes interacting with others on a regular basis. For some people, it’s taking a walk outside with a friend while staying more than six feet apart, or each person walking in their neighborhood while talking by phone. For other people, the connection might be through FaceTime, Skype, Facebook, or other social media. It could be joining online gatherings. For example, the other day I had a wonderful online cocktail hour via Zoom with some friends, including a few on the other side of the Atlantic. We each had a glass of wine and talked for about an hour and had lots of fun.

Connection doesn’t have to be finding a direct substitute for your usual social activities. Instead, it can come from figuring out what makes sense in this new time period with the tools available to us. We’re no longer bound by geographic restrictions. In some cases, I think the creative social habits we develop may last beyond the pandemic. People should also be sure to have a bit of outdoor time, stay active, and break up their day so that it’s not one long parade of screen interactions.

Research on loneliness has found that it reduces longevity, good health, and immune function. Having a healthy immune system is obviously extremely important during a pandemic, so addressing loneliness can be a matter of life and death.

What else does psychology tell us about human behavior in times of crisis?

Social norms are very powerful in guiding human behavior. Whether it’s seeing pictures of crowds gathering on beaches, or seeing empty shelves at the supermarket, we’re influenced to act the way it appears that others are acting.

It’s very easy to criticize people for hoarding groceries and supplies, but there are understandable reasons why it’s prevalent. For one thing, there’s a tremendous asymmetry in consequences between buying one too many of something and one too few. If you overbuy toilet paper, it’s inconsequential, but if you underbuy, it’s highly consequential. The problem of mass overbuying during a pandemic is similar to a social dilemma known as “the tragedy of the commons.” In a nutshell, the dilemma is that it’s in everyone’s individual self-interest to graze their cow on common land, but if everyone with a cow did that, there would be no grass left.

The same thing applies to the problem of climate change—if everyone pursues individual self-interest by taking unnecessary trips or eating foods with a large carbon footprint, the end result isn’t sustainable at the collective level. Research shows that one of the best ways to solve social dilemmas is through regulation. That’s why, for example, you see some stores regulating the amount of toilet paper that can be bought, and why governments are ordering people to stay at home—not just recommending it.

You created a model for “action teaching,” or teaching that enhances learning while directly contributing to a more just, compassionate, and peaceful world. At a time when so many people are struggling, how are you using action teaching to make a difference?

I’m using action teaching in my Wesleyan seminar, but it’s through my Social Psychology MOOC that action teaching reaches the largest number of people. Each time that I teach Social Psychology, students carry out a capstone assignment called the “day of compassion,” in which class members are asked to apply social psychology to live as compassionately as possible for 24 hours and analyze the experience. This year, I’ll be encouraging students to focus on compassionate acts related to the coronavirus pandemic. The MOOC will also award a prize for the best work. In the past, prize winners have gotten to meet famous icons of compassion, including the Dalai Lama and Jane Goodall. This year, that meeting will probably take place online, but it should still be a wonderful experience. What better way to learn about compassion than to carry out acts of kindness during a pandemic?