September 17, 2003

How Well Did You Do?

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It’s a typical day in a typical Cornell lecture hall. Psychology 265 students take notes while listening to Prof. David Dunning, psychology, discuss reactions to stress in people exhibiting antisocial personality disorders.

Suddenly, without warning, Dunning lets out a scream. Students drop their pens, some gasp and every head in the auditorium snaps to attention.

The scream, according to Dunning, is to illustrate fear reactions in persons without antisocial personality disorders.

Dunning uses a variety of tactics such as this one to illustrate his points in class.

“No one should be bored in class,” he said.

Psychology 265: Psychology and Law covers a broad set of topics ranging from technical information about the law and the legal process to disorders that often appear in criminals.

According to Dunning, “I got into psych and law because of the major surprise that … witness’ confidence in their identification was not related to the actual identification.”

Dunning said that in studying witnesses, their confidence in picking the right person can sometimes be misleading in judging whether or not their identification is actually accurate.

“An accurate witness can be very hesitant and an incorrect witness can be supremely confident,” he said, adding that this fact leads to the question, “if you can’t trust confidence, what [can] you trust?”

Witness accuracy, according to Dunning, is most prevalent in those witnesses that make their identification in ten to twelve seconds. These results have been replicated in many other labs, Dunning said.

Initiating a fear response by screaming in the middle of class is just one of the many ways Dunning illustrates his points. In a class about witness identification error, many times Dunning has a person come into the front of the class, steal an object from the podium and run off. Dunning then asks students to remember and describe the witness.

One year, Dunning remembers, “someone [a student] actually got up to protect me.”

While his research and lectures cover many topics in witness perception, Dunning said that he chooses not to be directly involved with the legal process and offer his testimony in cases. “I’m conservative in my work,” he said, adding that he prefers to see his research confirmed and duplicated within the psychology field rather than immediately shared with the legal system.

The topic of witness’ perception of their accuracy in identification is part of the broader spectrum of Dunning’s research on accuracy in human judgment and people’s perceptions of themselves and how they differ from reality.

Dunning said that in many cases, “people really don’t have an accurate perception of themselves.”

Much of the research Dunning has done concentrates on asking people to complete tasks and then evaluate how well they have done.

One experiment Dunning has conducted asks people to identify jokes that they consider funny, and then evaluate their performance in being able to identify humorous jokes. The jokes deemed humorous were the ones judged to be funny by professional comedians. According to Dunning, “people who really differed from expert comedians thought that they were doing just fine.”

In his research, Dunning said that “one finding that hit the media was that incompetent people don’t know they’re incompetent.”

This research has potentially serious implications in the medical profession. “For doctors, needless medical mistakes are a big problem,” Dunning said, adding that the perception doctors have of their profession could have an effect on these mistakes.

As a result of this, Dunning spends time speaking to groups of doctors and medical groups, discussing perception of performance.

According to Dunning, a more difficult step in research in this area is notifying and educating people about their errors in perception. “That’s the next phase,” he said, noting that a problem in doing this is that “people are surprisingly resistant to feedback.”

Many businesses, responding to the fact that there is so much error in employee’s perception of their performance, are adopting “360 degree feedback” which involves an employee receiving feedback on his or her performance from colleagues, supervisors and other workers.

Dunning said that people are less likely to be able to acknowledge their own incompetence in that “the skills used to judge your behavior are the skills that produced the behavior in the first place.”

In addition to evaluating past behavior, Dunning also studies how people anticipate what they will do in the future. “What people thought they would do did not match what they actually do,” he said, adding that this can be attributed to the fact that “it’s hard for people to anticipate how they will react in situations with real emotion.”

To illustrate this point in his class, Dunning asks students whether or not they would be willing to dance to the song “Superfreak” in front of the packed Uris Hall Auditorium during class for five dollars. Dunning said that the number of students who anticipate they would dance differs greatly from the number who actually do dance when he offers them money and invites students to the front of the class.

Former Psychology 265 student Matt Henning ’04, said that he enjoyed Dunning’s “great sense of humor” and “the surprises he throws in.”

According to Henning, Dunning’s willingness to talk to students is also important. “I like how he interacts with students. He’s willing to answer student questions,” he said.

“It’s my favorite class I’ve taken here. It’s a random elective for me, and it’s my favorite class,” Henning added.

Dunning said that he attributes positive reactions to Psychology 265 like this one to the content first and foremost. “You cant beat the content. The content is about the here and now,” he said.

More important to Dunning, however, is the way in which his students are thinking about the issues they are presented in class. “I want students to be thinking about the material,” he said. “I want them to say, ‘Here’s an issue, is it good? How do I think this through?'” he added.

According to Dunning, “the content of what everyone in the room is going to be dealing with in twenty years is going to be totally different,” but the ways in which students think about issues and concepts will be the same.

Currently, Dunning works on research with seven graduate students and twelve undergraduates.

“I enjoy working with people, seeing what they’re learning and what specific people they’re going to be,” he said.

“It’s a joy to actually see people become who they are going to be,” he added.

Deanna Caputo grad, a former TA of Psych 265, said the reason that she chose to pursue a Psych and Law concentration was because of Dunning and the work he has done.

“He’s very much a mentor,” she said, “he gives positive feedback.”

Caputo noted Dunning’s teaching style. “Dave was a performer. That is evident in that class,” she said, “he goes into the class aiming to be entertaining.”

Caputo also said that while the class can be extremely interesting for students, many are surprised at the work necessary for success.

“It’s a difficult class … it’s not a fun, sit around and walk out class,” she said.

According to Dunning, “each year the class is different for me,” noting that each year he might choose to focus on a different aspect of psych and law.

“The class is a kaleidoscope image,” he said. “So many facets of the class are important to students,” he added.

Archived article by Kate Cooper