Oct. 26, 2023
Being a slow thinker is an asset in the most popular elective class in humanities at Culver Academies because it encourages students to reconsider what they think they know.
The goal of the class, Literature of Behavioral Economics, is to make students less certain of what they know and believe.
“That feeling of uncertainty or feeling of doubt is a good thing,” master instructor Jen Cerny said. “It might feel bad, but it's good. Because it means you’re probably updating your beliefs and making them more accurate.”
The name of the class may make it sound like a snoozefest. But students say the one-term class is engaging and enlightening. Students learn about a subject they think they already know: themselves.
The class was created at Culver, growing from a multi-year faculty seminar about character and critical thinking, that later explored questions of rationality, metacognition, and that nature and effects of cognitive biases, which often causes people to have impressions and intuitions that are incomplete and inaccurate. Cerny has made presentations about the class to the Association of Boarding Schools, the Independent Schools of the Central States and the National Association of Independent Schools.
The class looks at how and why people think and behave as they do. It also asks students to consider how they can get better at thinking and behaving and becoming aware of what they might be blind to or missing.
Students read the book “Thinking, Fast and Slow” by Daniel Kahneman, who won the 2002 Nobel Prize for economics. The book says people have two ways of thinking. System 1 is the brain’s fast, automatic intuitive approach, for example how a person reacts to a speeding car while stepping off a curb or to facial cues from an angry boss. It is optimized for speed, not accuracy.
“System 1 is about creating quick judgments that are good enough to cause action,” Cerny said.
System 2 is the brain’s slower, analytical mode, where reason dominates and more careful thought is needed, such as when working on a difficult math problem or filling out a complicated form. It’s when people look at various possibilities before coming to a thoughtful conclusion.
The class teaches students they need to stop more often and use System 2 instead of automatically depending on System 1.
“If you actually understand how System 1 and System 2 work, then it gives you the power to override System 1 in order to activate System 2 to think about something that's really complex or uncertain,” Cerny said.
The challenge, though, is people have to force themselves to think in System 2 because it is tiring and mentally uncomfortable.
“System 1 is always on, always on. System 2 you have to turn on. So what we're trying to do with students is get them to recognize those moments when they need to turn on System 2. In the language of the class, this is called developing a System 3, or rationality,” Cerny said.
Lou Canelli, a senior humanities instructor who also teaches the class, said the class encourages students to embrace ambiguity, to seek complexity and to realize their default is to simplify.
It encourages students to get off autopilot, he said.
An assignment Canelli gives students is to think of someone at Culver they don't know well but have a strong opinion about. He then tells the students to have lunch with that person.
He hopes most students will find their opinions were wrong.
“It can be transformative,” Canelli said. “Part of it too is they're recognizing the challenge of changing their minds about a strong opinion.”
Other assignments include starting a conversation with someone they don’t think they would like or researching the other side of a topic you have a strong opinion on. These assignments are designed to directly address our default toward confirmation bias, which is our tendency to only seek or see information that aligns with or confirms our initial belief or impression.
Cerny said the class encourages students to look for ways to prove their intuitions wrong.
“How can you go and look for evidence that you're not right?” she said. “A lot of this is about admitting that there's stuff that we don't know, caring about what we don't know, figuring out what we don't know, and then making room in our brains for that new information so that we can come up with an updated model of the world.”
Students learn people frequently draw conclusions based on little information.
Cerny said the class teaches that another problem is that people often avoid looking at difficult questions. She gives the example of this question: “Should the United States government do something to mitigate poverty?”
“The first thing out of some people’s mouths is, ‘I think poor people are lazy,’ ” she said.
“What you didn't notice is that your brain just created an easier question because the actual question that you were trying to answer is too complicated,” Cerny said.
She said our brains do that frequently. But if students are aware of that, it gives them the ability to deal with complex problems in a way that most other students can’t.
“Acquainting students with how their brains work gives them the tools that they need to cope with things when they're hard. To be patient. To be curious. To remain open-minded even when our System 1 creates the feeling of certainty and confidence, which it does fast and in a way that's really powerful,” Cerny said.
It gives students access to different tools so they can make better decisions for themselves and better decisions in their capacities as leaders, Cerny said. That’s important in a school that puts an emphasis on leadership and citizenship.
“When the essence of citizenship, particularly in a democracy, is shared decision-making, it's important to learn how to get out of our own point of view and our own interests in order to consider others, to consider the bigger effects of decisions on society, and the effects of policy into the future,” Cerny said.
The class grew out of a faculty summit on the topic organized in 2010 by Kevin McNeil, who was Culver’s academic dean at the time. Cerny and John Yeager, Ph.D., who was then chairman of Culver’s wellness education department and has since retired, created the class, which originally was titled “Thinking Smart, Living Well” when Cerny started teaching it in 2012.
Then Cerny started running faculty seminars on the subject. Now the basic concepts are taught in other classes so that students get the basic ideas repeated in a variety of contexts, which hopefully increases the probability that students will be able to 'use' these insights to make better decisions and be patient with forming judgments.
Peter Miller, a senior humanities instructor who taught the class last year, said he includes some basics of System 1 and 2 in the freshman Western Perspectives class he’s teaching this year.
“I think it helps the students to become better learners and more responsible citizens by understanding more about the limitations of their brains,” Miller said.
He sees value in introducing students to the concepts as freshmen.
“The school’s mission is responsible citizenship. I think to live responsibly, students should be introduced to the foundational elements of how our brains operate at an earlier age so they’re much more aware in their interactions with others and in their study habits,” he said.
The concepts also are taught in leadership classes at Culver, including in the freshman class Living, Learning and Leading, where students are introduced to Jonathan Haidt, author of “The Happiness Hypothesis” and a professor at New York University, who describes the two systems as the elephant (intuition) and the rider (reasoning).
In 11th grade Ethics and the Cultivation of Character, students are taught System 1 and 2 to make them more ethical people and decision makers and ethical leaders.
Cerny said the earlier students get exposed to the ideas of System 1 and System 2, the better.
Celeste Gram ’24 said what she learned in leadership classes led her to take Behavioral Science.
“It’s important to know how our brains work,” she said.
Gram said she highly recommends the class because it is so unique.
“It’s had a big impact on my life because you are learning about yourself a lot,” she said. “I’ve seen a very positive change ever since the beginning of the class. Being able to feel more comfortable in different situations and just be more content with my life in general. Just being able to look deeper at the world more critically. I think it puts a lot of things in perspective.”