Links to Classroom Materials

OpenMind (https://openmindplatform.org/) is an educational project of New York University.

The goal is to help people develop a capacity for perspective taking and understanding of new or challenging viewpoints on important issues.

In line with our GlobalESD Design Concept, OpenMind brings together insights from evolutionary anthropology and various branches of psychology about our cognition and social behavior. These insights can help us to understand our own intuitions, beliefs and reactions, and those of others.

OpenMind has been used in >50 schools and >300 universities in >15 countries in 2018

GlobalESD.org and our partner project, EvoLeipzig, are working to adapt and offer additional teacher professional development and classroom resources to utilize the content and design of OpenMind within the fields of science education and Education for Sustainable Development (ESD).

Information and Materials in German at the EvoLeipzig website for OpenMind

Content overview

OpenMind is about three basic questions:

Why should we talk to people who disagree with us?

Exchanging viewpoints is the basis of a functioning democracy and helps us to learn.

Why are people so divided, especially on ethical or moral issues?

Intuition shapes our perception and cause us to quickly decide on "good" and "bad", "right" and "wrong", "we" and "the others". Sometimes this is helpful, sometimes it is not.

How can we learn to deal with these human characteristics?

By understanding the science of social and behavioral psychology, we can learn to notice our own intuitions, to be more flexible with them, and to understand those of others.

Why should we talk to people who disagree with us?

OpenMind arose in the context of the increasing polarization of American society. In recent decades, the gap between Democrats and Republicans, between rural and urban areas, between religious and non-religious people has widened. Many facets of this polarization can also be transferred to the context of other countries and regions: in particular a general left-right spectrum in society, attitudes and disagreements on immigration, discrimination, social justice, religion, freedom of expression or environmental protection, but also the possible negative consequences of social media on social exchange of ideas.

The increasing polarization is noticeable in discussions in politics but also in many other areas of society, which are often characterized by severe, emotionally charged disagreements, which jeopardize our potential for collective action and peaceful coexistence in a democracy. In particular, the dramatic increase in the impact of social media over the last decade has contributed to this polarization.

"Conversations with people who hate me."

Dylan Marron receives many negative, often insulting comments on social media due to his work and attitudes. In his podcast he contacts the people who write these negative comments to him, talks to them (if they do not hang up), and often interesting encounters arise between two people who did not know each other before.

"Why I, as a black man, attend KKK rallies"

Musician Daryl Davis explains why he makes friends with representatives of the racist organization KuKluxKlan and what he learned from these encounters.

"I think the more you think about how right you are and how wrong everybody else is, the less you'll learn. A lot of people in this country get stuck in bubbles - especially because of social media."

"If I vilify half the people in this country where is that going to bring me? I think there is so much that we can do if we all look at each other and say, 'Where can we agree?' Because that's normally where the most progress is made."

Cameron Kasky

https://www.bbc.com/news/stories-47217467

Cameron Kasky is a student at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, where a tragic shooting took place on February 14, 2018, killing 17 people. He became co-founder of March For Our Lives, a protest movement to call for stricter gun laws in the United States. However, his experience in discussing this issue with adversaries has taught him that it is better to deal with these disagreements with respect, to learn from each other, and to work for common goals.

He has a podcast series "Cameron Knows Nothing".

Fast Thinking, Slow Thinking

Why do people prefer to surround themselves with like-minded people (so-called "echo-chambers" can result in social media)? And why is it so difficult for people to deal constructively with disagreements, to endure criticism, or to change their mind, especially when it comes to complex, ethical and moral issues?

Answers to these questions can be found in cognitive, behavioral and social psychology.

Part of the answer lies in the fact that most of our mental processes run unconsciously, quickly and automatically, and only a small part is determined by conscious, deliberate thinking. Psychologists often differentiate between these two different "thinkings" - the fast, intuitive, automatic "System 1" and the slow, deliberate, conscious "System 2".

The Israeli-American psychologist Daniel Kahneman has made these findings popular in his 2011 book Thinking, Fast and Slow.

The following processes are usually the task of fast, automatic thinking:

  • our perception of the environment, including the social environment
  • intuitive decisions about "good" and "bad", "right" and "wrong", "important" and "unimportant", "right" and "wrong"
  • the tendency to confirm our present beliefs instead of changing them
  • the classification of things into categories, and of people in groups, often on superficial, sometimes quite irrelevant criteria
  • Teaching material: Fast thinking or slow thinking? Noticing and sorting behaviors of our mind (in preparation)

Fast Thinking and "cognitive biases"

Fast thinking leads to a distorted or simplified perception of reality. Unfortunately, by definition, we can not see most of these processes because they are unconscious. But optical illusions allow us to catch our fast thinking in the act. In doing so, we can reflect on why these automatic distortions are taking place at all - do they have a function? Do they allow us (and did they allow our ancestors) to better cope with our environment or are they useless "software bugs" in our brains?

The chessboard illusion. Square A and B are the same color. Image source: Edward H. Adelson. CC BY-SA 4.0
For navigating around the world, it is more helpful to perceive light-dark contrasts than absolute color tones.

Picture of a mountain range on Mars. We involuntarily recognize a face. Image source.
To navigate around the world, it is helpful to quickly recognize the presence of other living things (such as predators!) and other humans. It was better for our ancestors to be on the safe side: seeing no face where there is one can be deadly!
"Kanizsa Triangle" - We "complete" the picture and see lines where there are none.
For navigating around the world, it helps to turn even sketchy information into meaningful information, regular and familiar patterns.

However, this distortion and simplification of reality happens not only when looking at optical illusions, but almost always!

For the many pieces of information that ceaselessly enter our brains through our senses must in some way first be rated "important," "meaningful," "similar," or "new." So our brain constantly filters, simplifies, categorizes, interprets and evaluates this information, usually without us being aware of it: Is that a dangerous animal? Can I ignore that? Am I sure enough? Has this situation happened before? etc. These processes of "fast thinking" have were selected during our evolutionary history, allowing our ancestors to navigate a complex world and act fast. They therefore fulfill vital functions. It would be impossible for us to move and survive if, instead, we had to perform all of these automatic processes through concentrated, slow, rational thinking.

Usually these automatic simplifications of reality are helpful or at least harmless - we humans easily recognize faces everywhere, even where there are none. But these cognitive distortions can also lead to misinterpretations, prejudices, false accusations, and thus to social conflicts and other negative consequences for ourselves, our social environment and our society.

Awareness of how our brain constantly and automatically filters and evaluates reality is a first step in defusing the potentially negative impact of cognitive biases on our actions.

  • Teaching material: Cognitive bias - what are they good for (in preparation)

A list of all the known cognitive biases and their function.

"Every cognitive bias is there for a reason — primarily to save our brains time or energy. If you look at them by the problem they’re trying to solve, it becomes a lot easier to understand why they exist, how they’re useful, and the trade-offs (and resulting mental errors) that they introduce."

https://betterhumans.coach.me/cognitive-bias-cheat-sheet-55a472476b18

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_cognitive_biases

Our Moral Intuitions

Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt is co-founder of OpenMind. He explores the facets of human morality. An important insight from Haidt and his colleagues is that also our moral judgment is based primarily on fast and automatic intuitions rather than slow, conscious and rational thinking. People tend to quickly decide what is morally "right" and "wrong", guided by intuitions, and only then, through conscious, rationalizing thinking, to find reasons to support their initial intuitive responses.

This is not necessarily a bad thing! After all, intuitions and emotions serve important functions, and without them, people would hardly be motivated to spend time and energy to work towards perceived problems in the social groups they are a part of.

Through a variety of studies, Jonathan Haidt and colleagues found that people of all backgrounds seem to share a set of moral intuitions. According to this, people have similar abilities to react emotionally and intuitively to certain social situations. However, each culture or community forms its own "moral framework" out of these moral intuitions, shaped by (or even as adaptation to) historical and socio-ecological realities. Thus, people and groups of people differ in the way they perceive and react to social situations.

Jonathan Haidt

The following six moral intuitions have been identified so far:

  • Care / Harm - It is important to humans that no harm is done to them and others in "their group".
  • Fairness / Cheating- It is important to humans that they and others in "their group" are treated fairly.
  • Freedom / Oppression - it is important to humans that they and others n "their group" are not oppressed.
  • Loyalty / Betrayal - It is important for humans to engage with "their group" and that "their group" is not deceived.
  • Authority / Submission - It is important to humans that traditions, leadership and hierarchies in "their group" are respected.
  • Purity & Sanctity / Disgust & Degradation - It is important to humans that all behave, clothe, talk, eat, .... according to certain rules and norms that are considered "pure", "sacred", "proper" or "respectful".

You can certainly identify other moral intuitions, depending on how narrow or broad you define them. For example, some people have suggested moral intuitions for "truth," honesty", and "property. " (more here).

Who belongs to the "group" is highly variable and can change quickly depending on the circumstances. Because humans usually belong to many different groups. Depending on the situation, the group of importance may be e.g. your own family, the clan or community, the circle of friends, the nation, the religious community, the fan group, the political movement, the professional group, all people, all living beings / "nature", all people who behave and think the same way.

  • Teaching material: Noticing moral intuitions (in preparation)

Sense of Fairness

A sense of fairness is one of our human "moral intuitions". Almost all people, regardless of their culture and social background, seem to have a sense of fairness, even if it manifests itself in very different situations and varies in strength. In many conflicts in everyday life and in society, our sense of fairness comes into play. We also find hints of this sense of fairness in other species that live in social groups.

Why do we have these moral intuitions?

Where do our moral intuitions come from and why do we have them? These questions about why and where can we answer in different ways:

  • Which immediate environmental influences triggered these intuitions? With which emotions and reactions are they connected?
  • Which influences and experiences in the individual development have contributed to the fact that these intuitions are triggered by certain environmental influences?
  • Did these intuitions fulfill important functions for our ancestors throughout evolutionary history? Do they fulfill important functions for a human today?

Because of our evolutionary history, we humans are highly social beings, and our social intuitions and emotions are part of our evolutionary heritage. They helped our ancestors to navigate in their social environment, to evaluate the social behavior of others and, where appropriate, to respond to it, and thus to regulate the life in the group. Is this person going to harm us? Is my child well? Is that unfair? Is this betrayal? Does this person belong to a dangerous group? Does everyone behave according to the rules? Am I good enough for my group? Are the others good enough for my group? Is someone taking advantage of us? Whose fault is it? etc.

So the moral intuitions fulfilled and still fulfill important functions for our social life in a group. However, like other cognitive biases, they can also lead to negative consequences under certain conditions.

In this video the moral intuitions, their functions and evolutionary origins are dicussed.

  • Teaching material: Caues of our moral intuitions (in preparation)

Researchers study the behavior of infants to explore the question of the extent to which a sense of "good" and "bad", or a distinction between "we" and "the others" are innate.

"Moral Taste Buds"

Jonathan Haidt compares the moral intuitions with our taste buds. This analogy can help us to understand the evolutionary origins of our moral intuitions, and the variation in "moral tastes" between humans.

“We humans all have the same five taste receptors, but we don’t all like the same foods. (...) Just knowing that everyone has sweetness receptors can’t tell you why one person prefers Thai food to Mexican. ( …) It’s the same for moral judgments. To understand why people are so divided by moral issues, we can start with an exploration of our common evolutionary heritage, but we’ll also have to examine the history of each culture and the childhood socialization of each individual within that culture.”

"In this analogy, morality is like cuisine: it’s a cultural construction, influenced by accidents of environment and history, but it’s not so flexible that anything goes. You can’t have a cuisine based on tree bark, nor can you have one based primarily on bitter tastes. Cuisines vary, but they all must please tongues equipped with the same five taste receptors. Moral matrices vary, but they all must please righteous minds equipped with the same six social receptors."


Quelle: Haidt (2012). The righteous mind. Why good people are divided by politics and religion. p. 113, 114.
  • Teaching material: Our "Moral Taste Buds" (in preparation)

"Morality binds and blinds"

Our social and moral intuitions seem to have played important roles in the life of our ancestors. Common beliefs about what is "true" and "important", and what behaviors are "normal", ensure that group members develop a common identity, are able to regulate their social life, work together towards goals, resolve conflicts, and to take care of each other. Even today, people find themselves easily in groups of like-minded people, who gradually develop their own customs, languages, behaviors and rules.

One's own group, its customs and beliefs appear to be "good," "normal," and "justified," and maybe even "superior" and morally on the "right" side. But the downside of this is that outsiders may seem all the more "different," "bad," "dangerous," "ignorant," and "morally reprehensible." This is especially the case when the impression arises that "They" represent a danger or threat to the own group.

In psychology, this distorted perception and evaluation of one's own and the other groups is called ethnocentrism. Ethnocentrism shapes the history of humanity and continues to be a challenge in today's human societies. In times of uncertainty or perceived scarcity, people are particularly vulnerable to messages and clues that outsiders or dissenters pose a threat or are the perpetrators of perceived problems.

“Morality binds and blinds. It binds us into ideological teams that fight each other as though the fate of the world depended on our side winning each battle. It blinds us to the fact that each team is composed of good people who have something important to say.”


Jonathan Haidt (2012). The righteous mind. Why good people are divided by politics and religion.

Practicing Change of Perspective

Cognitive distortions, moral intuitions, and other processes of "fast thinking" are so powerful and effective because they generate automatic feelings and thoughts, instantly affect our mind and actions, and give us a sense of security and truth - it feels "good" and "true". So it usually feels safe and pleasant to be with people who think, speak, look or dress like ourelves, have the same preferences or come from the same "scene" as us. People usually have a great need for such social relationships and belonging to a group - this, too, is part of our evolutionary heritage.

But from time to time, we have to be able to leave this security zone, especially if in today's society people from different backgrounds have to live together, tackle challenges and make decisions together. But this can feel "bad", "exhausting", "insecure" and "confusing", or go along with other negative thoughts and emotions.

So OpenMind is also about noticing automatically occurring intuitions, thoughts, memories and emotions (watching our system 1 "at work") and accepting them first - after all, they only do what they are supposed to do from an evolutionary point of view, namely to draw attention to possible dangers for us and conflict within our social group.

We tend to automatically identify with these inner experiences. But similar to our perception in optical illusions, we should consider these automatic inner experiences "at a distance". This helps us to be able to change perspective, be more flexible in dealing with disagreements, and learn from each other.

Carol Dweck talks about "Growth Mindset." Growth mindset (as opposed to "fixed mindset") stands for the belief or attitude that certain qualities and abilities of a person are not fixed or innate, but that one can continuously improve one's own abilities through learning from mistakes, experience, and effort. This way our own mistakes, criticism of others, or the fact that one is wrong or does not know something, is less threatening. These mindsets in turn have a strong impact on our motivation and thus become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

According to Carol Dweck, promoting a growth mindset in students is an important task of school education.

"Whether you think you can, or you think you can't—you're right." Henry Ford

True stories ...

... of people who have left a radical movement, or deliberately discuss with representatives of the "other side" and build respectful relationships, let us explore the circumstances, experiences and insights about why prejudice, hatred and violence against other people or a group can arise and how they can dissolve again.

Tips for the classroom: Students form groups and each group studies one of the following three stories. They make a short presentation on the person and their story, in particular on the following questions:

  • By what circumstances did this person become part of a radical movement? What is the movement and what characterizes it? What role do the human need for belonging and identity, as well as moral intuitions, play in this story?
  • What circumstances lead this person to change their previous attitudes and leave the movement?
  • What did you find most surprising, interesting or inspiring about the story, or about what the person said (use quotes)?
  • What important conclusions do you draw from the experiences and insights of the person?
    • What can we, as individuals, as a school, and as a community, do to ensure that people do not succumb to radical beliefs or join radical groups?
    • How should we treat people who have radical beliefs or belong to a radical group?

Afterwards, the class brings together the impressions of all stories, compares and discusses their similarities and differences.

"My descent into America's neo-Nazi movement & how I got out"

Christian Picciolini talks about how he became the leader of a radical Skinhead-Gang as a teenager, how he changed his views, and finally co-founded the non-profit organisation "Life After Hate", which supports other people in leaving radical groups.

"I was a neo-Nazi. Then I fell in love with a black woman"

https://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-40779377

This article of the BBC talks about the story of an American women who joined a racist group as a teenager, changed her views after personal experiences in prison, started to study psychology and sociology, and finally co-founded the non-profit organisation "Life After Hate", which supports other people in leaving radical groups.

Megan Phelps-Roper talks about how she left her earlier life in one of US-America's most controversial religious groups. She shares her experience about extreme polarisation and her insights about how we can learn to communicate and understand each other across ideological divides.