Everything You Know Is Wrong 1: Us and Them

Everything You Know Is Wrong 1: Us and Them

November 1, 2007


Good reasoning doesn’t come naturally. In fact, humans are instinctively terrible reasoners—most of the time, the way our brains work isn’t rational at all. Even with exceptional training in analytical thinking, we still have to overcome instincts to think simplistically and non-analytically. In this lesson, students explore some of the irrational ways in which humans think, and learn to recognize and overcome the habits of mind that can get in the way of good reasoning. Here we focus on the ways that people define themselves and others—how we develop our personal and group identities, how we treat people whose identities are similar or different, and how this affects our perceptions and our ability to reason.


In this activity students will:
  • Examine assumptions that can lead to errors of reasoning.
  • Learn techniques for recognizing and resisting these assumptions.
  • Examine their own prejudices and prejudices that others might have about them.
  • Learn how errors of attention and memory can impair reasoning.

Key Terms

  • Stereotype: A simplified image of a type or category of people, incorporating assumptions about those people.
  • Prejudice: A preconceived belief (usually negative) about all people belonging to one type or category.
  • Partisanship: The tendency to favor those with whom you agree.
  • Provincialism: The tendency to believe that the issues you feel most strongly about are the most important.
  • Herd instinct: The tendency to adhere to cultural norms of belief and behavior.
  • Availability bias: The tendency to assume that memorable or hard-to-ignore events are more common than unmemorable ones.


Good reasoning requires that we withhold judgment until we have all the facts, collect evidence from neutral sources, and make sure that we understand all sides of an issue. Unfortunately, the human brain seems to have a compulsion to simplify. Unless we are vigilant, certain instinctual thought patterns will derail our attempts at solid analytical reasoning.

One type of simplification involves putting people into groups, since it’s easier to deal with a few groups than with many individuals. We not only pigeonhole other people—we also put ourselves into groups and then identify strongly with our self-imposed categories. This has some benefits, especially in marketing and politics—it can be much easier to appeal to someone’s group identity than to appeal to the individual. But the assumptions that we make about people based on their categories can impair reasoning. Depending on our taxonomy, we may be more or less likely to heed people, more or less likely to find their concerns important, more or less likely to contradict them, and more or less likely to think well of them. We may also seek out evidence that supports our assumptions, instead of evidence that is solid and unbiased.


1. Student handout, “Us vs. Them.
2. “The Classic Middle Name” archive.
3. Bureau of Justice Statistics chart of homicide incidence.


Make enough copies of handout #1 for each student. If students will not have access to computers, print out the “Classic Middle Name” list and the Bureau of Justice Statistics chart and make copies of those as well.


Exercise #1 – Stereotypes, Provincialism and the Herd Instinct

To the teacher: Students often spend a great deal of effort on establishing their identities—who they are personally, and what groups they fit into. While it is important for young people to feel a sense of inclusion, group identity can often get in the way of critical thinking. This exercise focuses on the potential pitfalls of categorizing yourself and other people you encounter.
Ask students to take several minutes to write down every group to which they feel they belong. Provide some varied examples, such as “junior,” “lacrosse player,” “New Yorker,” “Republican,” “Buddhist.” You may want to write the categories to which you belong on the board, either before they start or while they are generating their own lists.

Once students have come up with a list, ask for examples of what they came up with. Choose two or three (non-controversial) examples and have students discuss characteristics of people in that group. First ask the student who made the suggestion how he or she would characterize group members; then solicit input from the rest of the class.

Lead discussion with the following questions:
  • How do the group’s characteristics as described by a group member differ from the characteristics described by outsiders?
  • Will every member of that group have these characteristics?
  • What are the potential benefits of making these assumptions about what group members would be like? What are the potential pitfalls?

Explain to students that it is natural to have positive beliefs about a group to which you belong, and to make assumptions (positive or negative) about other groups. In fact, sometimes these assumptions are useful. We think of stereotypes as negative, and many are ill-founded or mean, but some assumptions can help us target an audience and get our message across. For instance, it is a stereotype that high school students are interested in video games, since it’s not true of every student—but if you are trying to reach a group of high-school-age kids, you could do worse than to base your approach on that idea. However, there are several ways in which these assumptions can get in the way of good reasoning. Hand out the Psychological Impediments worksheet and introduce students to the four impediments listed:

  • Prejudice. Even if a stereotype is based in reality—and many are not—it will not be true of every member of a group. Assuming that you know what someone is like because of the groups they belong to is prejudice, and it can keep you from rationally evaluating their motives and choices.
  • Partisanship. We tend to make positive assumptions about groups to which we belong. Among other assumptions, we believe that people who think like us are more rational and more informed than people with whom we disagree. This hinders reasoning because we accept arguments based on who makes them, not on their content or support.
  • Provincialism. We tend to think that issues affecting our identity groups are more important or more urgent than issues affecting other groups. This prevents us from accurately evaluating these issues.
  • Herd instinct. We make assumptions about what’s acceptable and popular in the groups to which we belong, and it’s often hard to go against these norms. When an opinion is unpopular, the herd instinct can make us inclined to ignore evidence so we can maintain beliefs that are in line with the mainstream beliefs.

Ask students to come up with examples of each of these phenomena. Encourage them to think both inside and outside their own experience and their own identity groups. For instance, even a student who thinks she has never experienced prejudice may have seen racial profiling on a TV show. They should write down the best examples on their worksheet.

Exercise #2 – Errors of Attention

To the teacher: For more than a decade, Chuck Shepherd, who writes a weekly column called News of the Weird, has been keeping track of every convicted murderer with the middle name Wayne. The connection seems striking until you realize how many murderers do not have this middle name. In this exercise, students will use this list as a jumping-off point to discuss the way that selective attention can appear to confirm our biases and can thus get in the way of analytical thinking.

Announce that students are now going to examine a group they may not have thought of: people with the middle name Wayne.
Have students look at the News of the Weird’s “Classic Middle Name” archive. Have them consider the following questions:
  • Why do so many convicted killers have the middle name Wayne?
  • Does the middle name cause violent behavior, or is there another cause or both?
  • When you next see a news report about a murderer, are you likely to take notice if his middle name is Wayne?
  • When you next meet a person with the middle name Wayne, are you likely to wonder whether he has violent tendencies?
Now show students the chart of homicide rates from the Bureau of Justice statistics. Ask them to consider the following questions.
  • What is the approximate total number of homicides between 1996 and 2005? (The easiest way to do this is to figure out the approximate average and multiply it by the number of years.)
  • How many people are on News of the Weird’s list of Waynes?
  • What is the likelihood that a convicted killer had the “classic middle name”?

Explain to students that one of the reasons stereotypes have such a firm hold is that we tend to notice instances that support our assumptions and ignore instances that do not. Chuck Shepherd, who compiles the list, notices every murder committed by a Wayne—they jump out at him. Other people might notice other events that support their preexisting beliefs.

Similarly, we tend to be more aware of events that affect us strongly—that are vivid or emotionally significant. We worry about these events more because they are harder for us to ignore. This is why, for instance, so many people are afraid to fly in airplanes even though they are many times safer than cars: Plane crashes tend to cause a lot of emotional and visual impact, so they stick in our minds. This is known as “availability bias”—we tend to think that events that are more available to our minds, because they are vivid or remarkable or hard to forget or because they support our beliefs, are correspondingly more likely to occur. Ask students if they have encountered any similar examples of this type of bias.

Optional Activities

Optional activity #1

To the teacher: This exercise is better suited to a large school, or a class with students who are new to the school. It will probably not be successful with students who know each other well.

Have students play a version of the game show “Identity.” Choose five volunteers, each of which should write down one of their activities, hobbies or other characteristics that their classmates don’t know about. These should be things that are significant parts of their lives — for instance, “competitive figure skater” would be a good choice, but “once had a mole removed” would not be. Collect these characteristics and write them on the board, without indicating which one goes to which student. Call on students to guess which of their peers fits each description. Each guess should be accompanied by an explanation of why they chose that person. After assigning all the traits, discuss the assumptions that went into each guess.

Optional activity #2

Have students read and discuss Shankar Vedantam’s op-ed piece “Disagree on Iraq? You’re Not Just Wrong—You’re Evil.”

About the Author

Jessica Henig earned her B.A. in history of science from Smith College and her M.A. in English from the University of Maryland. While at Maryland, she taught digital literature and rhetorical writing. Before joining the Annenberg Public Policy Center in May 2007, she worked for the National Academies Press. She has also worked for the National Institutes of Health and as a freelance researcher and editor.

Correlation to National Standards

National Social Studies Standards

I. Culture Social studies programs should include experiences that provide for the study of culture and cultural diversity.

IV. Individual Development and Identity Social studies programs should include experiences that provide for the study of individual development and identity.

V. Individuals, Groups, and Institutions Social studies programs should include experiences that provide for the study of interactions among individuals, groups, and institutions.

VI. Power, Authority, and Governance Social studies programs should include experiences that provide for the study of how people create and change structures of power, authority, and governance.

IX. Global Connections Social studies programs should include experiences that provide for the study of global connections and interdependence.

X. Civic Ideals and Practices Social studies programs should include experiences that provide for the study of the ideals, principles, and practices of citizenship in a democratic republic.

Essential Skills for Social Studies

Acquiring Information

A. Reading Skills

1. Comprehension

2. Vocabulary

B. Study Skills

1. Find Information

2. Arrange Information in Usable Forms

C. Reference & Information-Search Skills

2. Special References

D. Technical Skills Unique to Electronic Devices

Organizing & Using Information

A. Thinking Skills

1. Classify Information

2. Interpret Information

3. Analyze Information

4. Summarize Information

5. Synthesize Information

6. Evaluate Information

B. Decision-Making Skills

C. Metacognitive Skills

Interpersonal Relationships & Social Participation

A. Personal Skills

C. Social and Political Participation Skills

Democratic Beliefs and Values

A. Rights of the Individual

B. Freedoms of the Individual

C. Responsibilities of the Individual

National Educational Technology Standards

Profiles for Technology Literate Students

Performance Indicators

2. Make informed choices among technology systems, resources, and services.

7. Routinely and efficiently use online information resources to meet needs for collaboration, research, publication, communication, and productivity.

8. Select and apply technology tools for research, information analysis, problem solving, and decision making in content learning.

Information Literacy Standards

Information Literacy

Standard 1 accesses information efficiently and effectively.
Standard 2 evaluates information critically and competently.
Standard 3 uses information accurately and creatively.

Social Responsibility

Standard 7 recognizes the importance of information to a democratic society.
Standard 8 practices ethical behavior in regard to information and information technology.
Standard 9 participates effectively in groups to pursue and generate information.

English Language Arts Standards

Standard 1 Students read a wide range of print and non-print texts to build an understanding of texts, of themselves, and of the cultures of the United States and the world; to acquire new information; to respond to the needs and demands of society and the workplace; and for personal fulfillment. Among these texts are fiction and nonfiction, classic and contemporary work.

Standard 3 Students apply a wide range of strategies to comprehend, interpret, evaluate, and appreciate texts. They draw on their prior experience, their interactions with other readers and writers, their knowledge of word meaning and of other texts, their word identification strategies, and their understanding of textual features (e.g., sound-letter correspondence, sentence structure, context, graphics).

Standard 5 Students employ a wide range of strategies as they write and use different writing process elements appropriately to communicate with different audiences for a variety of purposes.

Standard 7 Students conduct research on issues and interests by generating ideas and questions, and by posing problems. They gather, evaluate, and synthesize data from a variety of sources (e.g., print and non-print texts, artifacts, people) to communicate their discoveries in ways that suit their purpose and audience.

Standard 8 Students use a variety of technological and information resources (e.g., libraries, databases, computer networks, video) to gather and synthesize information and to create and communicate knowledge.

Standard 12 Students use spoken, written, and visual language to accomplish their own purposes (e.g., for learning, enjoyment, persuasion, and the exchange of information).

National Science Standards

Science as Inquiry
Content Standard A

Science in Personal and Social Perspectives
Content Standard F

History and Nature of Science
Content Standard G