Excuse me sir/madam, ... does it quack like a duck?

Tue, 22 May 2007 Source: Asigri, D. Z.

A personal student of mine during a tutorial session quite recently asked me an intriguing question - “…but, Daniel, why do most of the students like and enjoy your teaching approaches?” With smiles from both of us I replied, “…why this question…?” The student instantaneously said, “…really, I have been meaning to ask you for a long time now - please, just tell me…”. My mind obviously began to wander for a while, naturally. This very brief silence gave me the opportunity to re-think what I had to say (as Professor Van Maanen, 1990 would concur).

I was imagining that my student wanted to know how I felt about the comments made regarding my attitude towards learners and how I do my job as a lecturer - as simple as that! One cannot have immediate access to his/her thoughts, but I heard what the student had said. I have good reason to believe that the behaviour of this student represents her true feelings. Her behaviour is the most critical determinant in her knowing what she believes about me - Daniel!

I am still in hot pursuit as to how best I can find suitable answers that it is hoped might satisfy my student. If we have to guess her true opinion, we probably would not know what to say. One might choose the normative opinion on the issue ( i.e., what most people think) but hold it with little confidence. In short, we discussed about the way I think people act toward the other…

What made this interaction intriguing was the unusual twist of the notion of ‘Self-perception theory’ as psychologists would argue. My understanding is that ’Self-perception’ is the believe one holds in himself. It may seem comforting to think we have direct knowledge of our own attitudes and beliefs. Hold on a minute! Let us look at a hypothetical situation as borne from my village - Worikambo within the Garu/Tempane District in the Upper East Region following my recent visit home.

Consider a cousin of mine I invited for a local alcoholic drink called ‘pito’- a product of sorghum. He thinks, ‘I must like ‘da-komnim’, i.e. a well fermented ‘pito’ before supper. This is indicative of his attitudes by examining his behaviour. If he drunk the ‘pito’ (da-komnim) the well fermented alcohol, he must like the ‘pito‘ - ‘da-komnim’. This belief process works, provided we have no reason to doubt it. We doubt it when we suspect that my cousin’s behaviour was being manipulated by certain elements within the environment we were in.

Thinking back to my cousin drinking the ‘pito’(da-komnim), I may not only recall that he drunk the ‘pito’ but I now recall that he was craving to drink, the ‘pito’ the only alcohol available. He drunk the ‘pito’ tells me very little about my attitude toward the ‘pito’. Now that my cousin is asked what his attitude is, the best he can do is to infer his attitude towards the pito ‘da-komnim’ (fermented pito)!

From this scenario, we can see that all of us have some attitudes about which we are very clear and certain. One does not need to use his behaviour to interpret ones attitudes. Ask me if I love my mother Ayumah, I do not have to use an inference process. I know I do; I do not have to scan my behaviour to make my best guess about my feelings. However, the views of many psychologists suggests that most of our attitudes are not that type.

On the other hand, when asked about our opinion toward most political issues such as how our economy is managed in Ghana today, we engage the very same process to infer our attitudes as we use to infer the attitudes of others. First, one would look at his/her behaviour, watch out his/her surroundings, before making out her/his self perceived views - founded or unfounded political accusations and or praises against supporters of the opposite political party. He may to some extent be right or wrong. The effect of such inferences leads to the notion of ‘fundamental attribution error’ and permanent damage in human relations. Furthermore, we all make assumptions in our daily life but we have to learn to avoid making ‘damaging’ assumptions which can be life threatening because of individual differences.

Whilst I was on a visit in North America not long ago I was ‘glued’ to the television one early morning watching an interesting programme on political issues and comments. From Hilary Clinton, one time first lady in the USA she said that, ‘If it looks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then it’s a duck.’ This statement gives one food for thought in relation to our current political climate and the individual political party’s clamour for support and votes.

Asigri, D. Z.
Senior Lecturer
Practitioner Research Middlesex University

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Columnist: Asigri, D. Z.