Blue Eyes / Brown Eyes

By | April 7, 2008

I’ve been sitting in on Robert Kraut‘s online communities course. He’s a visiting lecturer from CMU with a background in social psychology, and consequently, the course is heavy on theory and empirical studies. In it, he discusses how theories of social psychology can help us understand and build online communities.

So far, we’ve covered community structures, motivations for contribution and ways of encouraging it, the ways in which newcomers assimilate into the community, and the ways in which relationships can form within a community. We’ve also talked a little about groups within communities, for example as sources of motivation and social loafing, shared identity and discrimination.

Recently, while talking about the last of these, discrimination, someone mentioned ‘Blue Eyes / Brown Eyes’, a lesson taught by a teacher, Jane Elliot, to classes of 3rd graders in Iowa during the years following Martin Luther King’s assassination. In it, she teaches them about discrimination by dividing them into brown and blue eyed groups, then praising one group and criticizing the other.

On the first day, brown eyed students are told they are slow and unruly, and blue eyed students that they are smart and well behaved. They are given extra time at recess, and extra food at lunch time. On the second day, the criticism is reversed, and blue eyed students are discriminated against. She even makes each group wear cloth collars to make it easy to tell them apart. The effect on students and their behaviour is really quite interesting – playground fights break out and test performance varies depending on the role each student is currently in. Finally, at the end, she explains things, then goes on to discuss the experience and relate it to racism.

For one class, in 1968, the whole experience was filmed. Then, 15 years later, most of them attended a reunion with Ms Elliot where they watched this footage and discussed it with her. They cited it as a source of insight for their adult lives, and called for similar lessons to be taught at other schools. This footage was then combined together and broadcast on PBS in the 1980s. The program is avaiable in parts to watch on the PBS website. If you’re at all interested in group behaviour, discrimination and social identity, you should watch at least the first and third segments – find it here.

Aside from obviously interesting content, I also found it interesting to think about the reactions such a lesson would draw from today’s parents. According to the documentary, no parents complained about the lesson throughout 15 years of it being taught, and the students universally considered it extremely valuable. Yet, I’m convinced that were someone to try this today, they’d be leapt upon by a combination of bleeding hearts and conservatives.

I hope I’m wrong about that, but it certainly seems like the sort of reaction to expect today. I’m not sure what larger theme I should take away from that observation – probably something about the way in which the quest for security both intellectual, physical, and moral could lead us into blindness and eventually the same old injustices.

Anyway, an interesting documentary, well worth a look.