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Active Learning and Research
Active Learning and Research
Psychologist Joe deRivera and a group of peace studies students have been trying to understand what motivates people to take action on social or political causes that are important to them.

Taking action

Professor Joseph de Rivera's research
Evil flourishes when good people do nothing.

We all wonder why evil things happen. Genocide, homelessness, famine, and child abuse are just a few examples of situations we all deplore. But despite harboring a feeling that "something should be done," many of us never do anything.

As a psychologist and Director of the Peace Studies Concentration, Joe de Rivera wants to understand what motivates people to take action for the good of others whom they will probably never see. Why do some people donate blood, participate in demonstrations, volunteer, or even risk their lives for causes that will benefit society, while others with the same convictions do nothing?

De Rivera, in collaboration with graduate student Lisa Maisels, and then undergraduate Elena Gerstmann '91, conducted an experiment to determine what factors influence a person to take action on a social issue of importance. The results of their research suggested that, without the sense of emotional involvement and energy provided by feelings of anger, a person would be much less likely to take action.

The experiment used volunteers who were in favor of a nuclear test ban, and focused specifically on what would prompt them to write a letter in support of such a ban. The experiment was structured so that de Rivera and his team could examine the interplay of three factors:
  • Type and level of emotional response to the issue
  • Attitude about the usefulness of taking action by means of letter writing
  • Degree to which the person feels a sense of personal responsibility
The results revealed that people who felt a strong sense of anger (as opposed to sadness, sympathy, or some other emotion) and personal responsibility, in combination with a positive attitude to letter writing, were most likely to write a letter supporting a test ban.

The experiment

How would people behave when presented with the opportunity to write a letter in support of a nuclear test ban? The experiment was set up to measure participants' emotional response to the effects of nuclear war, sense of personal responsibility, and attitude toward letter writing as a means of taking action. Different levels of emotional involvement were created by exposing participants either to technical, written material about the nuclear destruction of Hiroshima or a video presentation. (The researchers assumed that the "dry" written material would be less likely to elicit an emotional response than would the video.)

Thirty-eight volunteers participated in the study. At the beginning of the study, each completed a questionnaire designed to determine his or her
  • Attitude to a nuclear test ban
  • Attitude towards writing a representative
  • Feeling of personal moral responsibility for preventing nuclear war
One week after completing the questionnaire, each participant was shown
  1. A videotaped interview of a congressional aide explaining that legislators were influenced by the letters of their constituents. Then participants again completed a questionnaire designed to ascertain their attitudes towards this kind of letter writing.
  2. A newspaper op-ed piece promoting the test ban
  3. EITHER intellectual OR emotionally-charged media about the bombing of Hiroshima during WWII
    • Half of the participants were given a technical article to read describing the physical effects of the bombing
    • Half of the participants watched a video containing interviews with bomb survivors and footage of the destruction
After reading or viewing the media, each participant was brought to a room and answered questions about
  • his or her emotional response to the material just viewed
  • his or her attitude to a nuclear test ban
  • his or her feeling of personal responsibility
Participants were told that, after they finished the questions, and while they were waiting for a final interview, the following materials were available for their use:
  • magazines unrelated to the issue of nuclear test bans
  • the addresses of authors of the media they had been shown
  • a list of legislators and their voting records on the test ban
  • writing material and a sample letter format without content
During the interview, participants were asked to write about how the last media presentation (article or video) made them feel. Each participant was interviewed about his or her experience in the waiting room, and debriefed.

The participants each received a score based on what they did in the waiting room:
0 points = the participant only read material unrelated to the test ban

1 point = the participant checked the voting record of his or her legislator

2 points = the participant checked the voting record and thought of writing a letter, but didn't

3 points = the participant checked the voting record and intended to write

4 points = the participant intended to write, and took an envelope or copied down the address of a legislator

5 points = the participant wrote a letter to a legislator while in waiting room
There was a wide range of behavior in the waiting room, from eight participants (score = 0) who just read magazines, to three who wrote letters (score = 5). The average score was 1.87.

 

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