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PSYCHOLOGY ASSIGNMENT LETS STUDENTS BREAK THE RULES
STANFORD -- Stanford University sophomore Gemma Rowley dressed as "an extremely unfashionable tourist," with white shoes, long black socks, tartan shorts, an ugly Hawaiian shirt and huge flower earrings.
Junior Brian Bedell shaved his head, rented a monk's robe, and sat cross-legged in a trance for three hours at the Stanford Shopping Center. And sophomore Mark Byer just smiled all the time, "like the Joker in Batman," to the extreme discomfort of his friends.
Psychologists call such odd behavior "deviant." In Felicia Pratto's introductory course on social psychology, though, it's not only deviant - it is required.
Each winter, Psychology 121 offers about 100 Stanford students an overview of current research on attitudes and persuasion, social influence, conformity, altruism, norms and roles, aggression, and the psychology of good and evil.
A central theme of the course is the power of social rules or norms - even in a part of the country where, it seems, almost anything goes.
"It's certainly not impossible to be deviant in California," said Pratto, an assistant professor of psychology and expert on emotional influences on perception and attention.
"Even small things, like standing a little closer than people are used to, can make people feel very uncomfortable. We really do have a lot of social rules."
To let students experience the power of these norms for themselves, Pratto asks each to pick a particular social rule and break it for a whole day, then write a paper about their experience. The only requirements are that they can't harm anyone (including themselves), and they can't tell anybody why they are behaving strangely.
While some students react to the assignment with horror, others relish the chance to be noncomformist for academic credit. And they are endlessly inventive, Pratto said.
"I had one student last year who decided he was going to eat like a dog - without using his hands - for a day," she said. "No one in the dorm cafeteria wanted to look at him. His friends were very embarassed."
Another student paid for everything with change wherever she went, to the consternation of those in line behind her. Still another walked backward while playing at the Stanford Golf Course.
One of the more memorable projects, Pratto said, involved a student who announced to his fellow fraternity members that he was gay.
"The brothers were not amused," Pratto said. "They even had a serious discussion about whether gays should be allowed in the fraternity."
Another fraternity student simply decided to study on a weekend night.
"Needless to say, this did not go over well in the house," the student wrote in his assigned paper. "I was called a nerd for wanting to study and not go out and party. The other members kept attempting to pressure me into partying instead of studying. After this didn't work, some even began to avoid me."
Many students made changes in their physical appearance. One male student wore a plastic barrette in his hair, which his friends promptly tried to pull out. Another student, usually a neat dresser, went to her campus office job with clothes torn and disheveled. Her supervisor asked if she was feeling all right.
"That was one of the kinder responses," Pratto said. "Usually people don't want to make eye contact with a deviant person, or they will completely ostracize him or her."
Byer, the smiler, managed to make quite a few of his friends angry with his deviant behavior.
"Their first reaction usually was, 'What's wrong with me? Do I have something on my face?' Why are you smiling at me?' It was as if I knew something and they didn't," he said.
For Rowley, the tacky tourist, the assignment offered insight into the way other "different" people, like those who are homeless or disabled, might feel.
"The main thing I noticed is that when you're the person breaking the norm, you tend to forget that you look so different - until you see other people's reactions," said Rowley, who is now doing a research paper on social reactions to disabilities. "The assignment really helped me to feel what it's like to be considered an outsider."
Pratto, who has been teaching the course for two years, says the hardest part for students is staying in character for the whole day. Still, she said, the assignment is a valuable teaching device: It not only shows students the power of norms, it also forces them to be more careful observers - an essential skill for anyone who wants to understand the workings of the mind.
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