Developing Social Consciousness

By Michael Fisher, Guide (Faculty)

This week our Quest started with a genuine social science experiment.  With little introduction, students were presented with a series of images from the micro-lending website Kiva.  Each image included a photo of a single individual and a background that may or may not have revealed something about their workplace.  As students looked at each image on the projector, they were asked to rate "how much I want to help this person?" on a scale of 1-10.

The methodology was simple.  We asked students to stay quiet so as not to influence others' judgments, and allowed 10-20 seconds to review each image.  The idea was for them to circle their immediate reactions, since these were most telling of deep assumptions and moral reasoning.  

After scoring eleven images, students discussed their responses and the factors that influenced their degree of sympathy and altruism.  Many talked about facial expressions: the presence of smiles and frowns, and what they thought these meant.  There were some diverse interpretations, as some thought a smile meant a person was happy, so needed no further help, while others thought a smile indicated "niceness" and hence sympathy.

The final two images displayed the same man with an apparent frown on his face.  Like the previous nine images, #10 contained no information or context.  Yet #11 included the Kiva description, which listed where he was from, the amount of money he wanted to raise, and what he planned to use the money for.

This distinction allowed students to assess the role of information in decision making.  Did knowing more about the man incline us to want to support him more, or less?  What kind of information mattered the most, and how did individual students interpret the same facts?

What we found is that our moral reasoning is highly subjective.  Students and teachers alike are affected by their cultural assumptions, which reveal themselves in distinct reactions to differences in clothing, facial expression, skin color, and housing.

Our purpose in starting with this experiment is to prime students to approach their Kiva giving project with more awareness and ownership of their own meaning-making faculties.  This is the beginning of a much longer-term project in developing social consciousness and sensitivity to diverse experiences.  But already it's clear that our students are responsible global citizens in the making.

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