Dr. Miserandino Uses Pandemic to Illustrate Social Psychology

By Caitlin T. Burns | November 3, 2020

“This was the semester to get real,” said Dr. Marianne Miserandino, chair and professor of Psychology, about her Social Psychology course that examines social interactions and behaviors. “Social psychology is right there in the streets. I felt with the Black Lives Matter movement, the election, and the controversy around wearing masks, that everything in my syllabus was showing itself in a New York Times headline.”

Students created a Jamboard about masks to showcase cognitive dissonance.

Whereas Dr. Miserandino usually teaches the course in a theoretical examination of social psychology, students this year are taking a hands-on approach to topics like cognitive dissonance and social norms. Through the use of Jam Boards, an interactive whiteboard system available in Google Suites, students are showcasing examples from the news and their own personal experiences to understand the psychology behind current events.

“I want them to use critical thinking to apply the theory,” said Dr. Miserandino, who hasn’t thrown theory away completely but has used it to support examples. “I’m using a flipped classroom model this year with asynchronous readings and videos, so when we meet online we can go deeper—we can have discussions, instead of straight lectures.”

A recent topic of discussion in Dr. Miserandino’s class was the controversy around wearing a mask, and how it exemplifies cognitive dissonance. 

“We have to be flexible as the science changes,” she said, which is the opposite of what happens with cognitive dissonance. Instead, people who are rigid in their beliefs and demand answers often exhibit cognitive dissonance because they justify their beliefs through this rigid structure. Students explored how people who don’t wear masks justify it to themselves versus people who do wear masks. “They want an answer, and then their cognitive dissonance locks them into the wrong side. We also have the political battles, and now we’re in the second wave because people don’t know who to believe and how to take care of themselves. It was a very real discussion.”

Psychology major Kylie Stephens ’21 said the cognitive dissonance was one of the more interesting chapters they explored so far, especially in seeing how it plays into elections and voting. 

“It’s interesting because people don’t even realize they’re doing it,” said Stephens, who thought the connection between voting and family beliefs stood out the most. “People say one thing and do another all the time.”

Through this adapted class model, Dr. Miserandino has encouraged students to bring their own social psychology examples into the classroom—and where students went surprised her: cults. While cults are a small section when they study principles of social psychology, the students were so enthralled with the topic that she’s adjusted the syllabus to include more discussion around 21st century cults through the use of technology.

Dr. Miserandino’s presentation on schemas, which is how the human brain packages information for quicker processing such as stereotypes.

“I asked them if, because of the pandemic and everyone sheltering in place, they think people are more vulnerable to the influence of these types of groups through Facebook and other social networks,” said Dr. Miserandino who noted how students discussed the connections of social upheaval in the 70s to the increase in cult followings. “They agreed and gave me their own examples of Tik Tok challenges and things they had heard. They’re applying what they’re learning and seeing their own experiences through new eyes.”

Stephens said she could see the theories discussed in class in action while waiting in line to vote on Election Day—even so far as questioning her own ideas and bias.

“It was interesting to see all of it while I waited in line,” said Stephens. “We talked about stereotypes, and I found myself questioning my own—like if someone was wearing a mask, I’d assume they were voting one way. I’m seeing these theories in society and in my own behavior.”