Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Dr. Fox Effect

There's a lot of talk that Obama's great speaking ability will bring this nation together, inspire kids, especially kids of color. Clearly, having hope is important, and a leader who can inspire kids is an attractive quality by itself, even if its all based on smarmy quotes from Successories.

The bias of presentation is rather unsettling when it comes to leaders who aren't merely figureheads, but making important decisions. The famous account of Nixon winning his debate with Kennedy according to radio listeners, but losing just as much according to TV viewers, highlights the importance of nonverbal communication.

This reminds me of the famous "Dr. Fox effect", a fun stunt performed 35 years ago:

In 1973 a group of academics noticed that student ratings of teachers often seemed to depend more on personality than educational content. They wanted to find out how far this effect could be stretched: what if you had an impressive, charismatic and witty lecturer, who knew nothing at all about the subject on which they were lecturing? Could plausibility alone make an audience feel satisfied that they had learned something, even if the information delivered was deliberately inconsistent, irrelevant, and even meaningless?

They hired a guy who “looked distinguished and sounded authoritative”. They called him “Dr Myron L Fox” and he was given a long, impressive, and fictitious CV. Dr Fox was an authority on the application of mathematics to human behavior.

They slipped Dr Fox on to the program at an academic conference on medical education. His audience was made up of psychologics, psychiatrists, mental health educators, and graduate students. The title of his lecture was Mathematical Game Theory as Applied to Physician Education. Dr Fox filled his lecture and his question and answer session with double talk, jargon, dubious neologisms, non sequiturs, and contradictory statements. This was interspersed with humor and 'meaningless references to unrelated topics'.

The doctors, healthcare workers, and students all gave it a thumbs up. As the study of this little stunt summed:

The study serves as an example to educators that their effectiveness must be evaluated beyond the satisfaction with which students view them and raises the possibility of training actors to give "legitimate" lectures as an innovative approach toward effective education. The authors conclude by emphasizing that student satisfaction with learning may represent little more than the illusion of having learned.

All very depressing. One reason why student performance ratings of teachers is highly overrated. And democracy is about giving the people what they vote for ... good and hard.


J said...

It works also with teachers. Even the best teachers can be fooled by ¨bright¨ students.

Anonymous said...

I used to think this is why people hired me, but then I started watching MSNBC.

Interesting how Dr. Fox shares same name with Fox News.....coincidence I think not.