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The acquisition of beliefs that promote subjective well-being.

Adaptive human learning involves self-instruction and individually determined self-education. When human learning is restricted to the most viable options in the process of belief acquisition, subjective well-being is likely to be promoted. Useful learning is imparted through the right kind of socialization, formal education, informal and incidental learning, and psychotherapy. In each domain the function of external instruction is to foreclose dysfunctional options. This clears the way for functional self-instruction. Informal learning has always been most important. Modern life, however, is making invalid options too numerous and seductive, often initiated by the mass media. A merger of formal and informal instruction and learning is probably becoming indispensable to the acquisition of functional beliefs capable of promoting human happiness.


The beliefs that underlie the selection of goals, means to goals and the evaluation of action outcomes, are acquired by people in America through the integrated influence of genetic transmission, socialization, informal education, formal education and psychotherapy. Americans are sometimes well served by each of these modalities but more often they are not. The ultimate test is whether a belief contributes to the subjective well-being (SWB) of an individual; whether widely transmitted beliefs contribute to the average level of happiness.

We hold that there is a loose but permanent connection between individual motivation and the desire for a sustainable surplus of positive hedonic outcomes over negative ones (Hosen, Stern, Solovey-Hosen, 2001-2; Hosen, Stern, Solovey-Hosen, in press; Hosen, 1993). Acquiring functional knowledge and beliefs is part of this process.

Effective learning seems to be largely a matter of self instruction followed by regular and systematic practice. If this is true, motivation plays a central role. The teaching function may be largely a matter of foreclosing the acquisition of inaccurate and dysfunctional beliefs. This applies to elements of socialization, formal and informal education, and to psychotherapy.


Socialization is the acquisition of the competencies necessary for an individual to benefit from social cooperation over a lifetime. Humans, until quite recently, lived in close physical proximity to people they had known all their lives. Children were not socialized within one- or two-parent nuclear families, in private, or among largely anonymous neighbors. Norms, values, skills and interests were organically transmitted. Younger children learned from adults and older children. Work was performed by adults in the presence of children and adulthood began earlier. Socialization was an organic part of life.

Gopnick, Metzloffand Kuhl (1999) have shown that children from birth are programmed to seek experiences from which they rapidly acquire models of the physical world and of the humans with whom they interact. Much knowledge is already embodied in the structure of the brain. Almost any non-abusive physical and social environment is adequate (Bruer, 1999). Babies know what they need to learn and are attracted to learning opportunities.

Socialization is most fundamentally a question of the development of emotional self-regulation. An effective strategy for caring and responsible adults whose infants are predisposed to fearfulness and who wish to foreclose the possibility of such children (Kagan, Resnick & Snidman, 1988) learning chronic withdrawal, is to reward them for accepting challenge and permitting adjustment and desensitization to mild fear (Kagan, 1994). Similarly, difficult children can be denied tantrums, aggression and blaming of others, while being generously rewarded for self-control and provided opportunities for development of prosocial attitudes (Lykken, 1999). Dominance can be denied them but leadership could be encouraged. If denied opportunities to be rewarded by impulsivity, unwarranted anger, aggression, and unjustified fear, they are better equipped to learn constructive ways to meet their needs Children presumably acquire those functional social and task skills most consistent with their tastes and aptitudes when dysfunctional alternatives have been foreclosed.

Later Socialization: Incidental and Unintended Learning

School age children may be subject to peer socialization or even to adult school influence. Our society is too heterogeneous to provide uniform cultural standards of morality and social behavior so what was once transmitted through schools and community organs is now more properly called incidental (often unintended) learning. It is encouraged by the American habit of segregation by age and by the invention of adolescence. Physically mature humans with little access to productive work have an opportunity to imitate adults in the least productive way; to avoid the task of developing skills and abilities having long-term usefulness; to partake of adult recreation without being held accountable (Csikszentmihaly, 1981; Csikszentmihaly & Larson, 1984). Identity and status may depend upon the display of fashionable modes of dress or attraction to a particular style of music, all of which have great commercial value and are heavily marketed through organs of entertainment.

Incidental/Informal Learning of Culture Through the Mass Media

Grossman & DeGaetano (1999) cited studies by Williams (1986) on the effects of the introduction of television for the first time into a small Canadian town remote from population centers. Systematic recording of children's playground behavior showed a significant increase of aggression two years after the introduction while two control groups (similar towns that had had television for years) showed no changes. Similar results were found among adults. The implication is that the absence of social interaction impedes the development of self-control. It is also possible that children who watch television for prolonged periods may also be those who have the fewest social skills and poorest emotional regulation to begin with and they avoid subsequent practice.

Eron and Huesman (1984) found that seriousness of crimes for which men and women were convicted, age 30, was highly correlated with time spent watching television at age 8, controlling for baseline aggression, intelligence and socioeconomic level. This also predicted the severity with which these adults punished their own children and the degree of aggressiveness of their children. The subjects were 875 children living in a semi-rural U.S. area. While the authors attributed the aggression-television correlation to learning, it is more likely that preoccupation with the fantasy world of television was a symptom of maladaptive personality features and life adjustment quality that pre-existed television. Time watching television may have been a proxy for shared parent-child genetically influenced maladaptation.

Grossman suggests that: 1) the rapidity of stimulus presentation through television for children makes real life seem boring; 2) makes desensitization to such stimulation adaptive; 3) is far more likely to seem real and emotionally important when the child is young. He cites a study by Drabman and Thomas (1974) which found that 10-year-old children experimentally exposed to television crime drama were more tolerant of experimentally simulated violence (which they believed was real) than children who had been shown a televised baseball game in the experiment. Grossman holds that television and film characters that trade in violence are depicted as admirable 40% of the time.

Grossman, who is a consultant to law enforcement agencies, a professor of military science, former West Point psychology instructor and former combat commander in Vietnam, believes that humans have a natural aversion to killing other humans. It must be offset by desensitization and operant conditioning. This is supported by Chang (1998) in her descriptions of the initial reluctance of Japanese soldiers to commit atrocities in Nanking, but culminating in incredible subsequent brutality. Grossman found simulators used to train state police and special forces in rapid response firing of guns available in video arcades (without the restraint training that police get with simulators).

To the extent that mass media serve an unintended socialization function, it is likely to substitute for interpersonal learning, acquisition of interpersonal skills and the development of the empathy necessary to formulate valid models of human behavior (applicable to understanding oneself and others).

Desensitization to violence; clumsiness in attracting and maintaining friendships; the development of an illusory sense of independence; the belief in one's entitlement to happiness without effort or knowledge of human nature; these are possible (but not certain) results of mass media substitution for organic human contacts. None of this is regularly foreclosed to adolescent learning because it is a result of decentralized decision-making not intended to serve a constructive socializing objective. The commercial value of mass media depends upon successfully diverting attention from competing tasks and amusements.


Socialization, in the American culture, does not sufficiently discourage or foreclose the crime of rape. The attitudes and values that govern the amount of coercion and force a man may use to reach the goal of sexual intercourse with a woman are not uniformly held or acquired by American males. Men and women tend to be unequal in physical strength; equality would render the question moot. Parrot and Bechofer (1991) found that the view that male-female dating relationships are adversarial was present among males who had committed acquaintance rape or used superior physical power to restrain women from resisting intercourse. This view did not prevail among other males. Among males in general, female arousal was viewed as a justification for sexual coercion. Situational and personality factors play a role but are not independent of attitudes and values. Most rapes in the U.S. are perpetrated by acquaintances. Many rapes by strangers are by gangs of males, suggesting the effects of imitation and group support as disinhibiting.


Each of the authors has extensive familiarity with the literature and practice of psychotherapy and one author (Hosen) served ten years as a psychotherapist (primarily group psychotherapy) and an additionl five years as a college instructor in counseling. Successful psychotherapeutic applications influence an individual's decision-action sequences beginning with desire and ending with outcome evaluation. Only four therapist-researchers have offered perspectives that we find to have sufficient merit to mention. These are described below.

Omer (1994) describes paradoxical tactics. He accepts the client's goals or explanations of unhappiness, however maladaptive or unrealistic, and follows them so thoroughly that the client gradually detaches from them and finds more satisfying actions and beliefs. An example from Hosen's practice involved a woman who vehemently denied that she was alcoholic, despite having been charged with eight DWIs, but agreed with the therapist's suggestion that they work on her "driving" problem. They together explored ways she could drink after work and get home without driving. The therapist made eight reasonable suggestions, all of which the client judged impractical, given her actual circumstances (realistically). The therapist apologized for having failed to find a solution; the only remaining options were penitentiary time or abstinence. She chose abstinence and sustained it. The result, if successful, permits the client to abandon a persistent bias and to consider other risky options to reformulated goals.

Burns (1980, 1989) believes that thoughts determine feelings and that many people are bombarded with negative thoughts and poor self-evaluations. His cognitive-behavioral techniques involve client experimentation to check the reality of maladaptive beliefs; eliminating phobias through desensitization; inquiring (for example) about how difficult withholding aggression would be if deliberately considered prior to maladaptive aggressive action. Burns has available 50 or so techniques and exercises; he counts on one working well enough to eliminate dysfunctional beliefs. He finds that, on average, the first 15 cognitive techniques fail and the 16th works.

Burns' research has shown that therapists are incapable of assessing the productivity of a session with a client (as judged by the client) at better than chance levels of accuracy. His clients often suffer anxiety of unknown origin that actually arises from some seemingly unrelated life segment that is troubled. Burns states that he can almost never identify the source, but he can induce clients to successfully do so and the anxiety is usually eliminated by solving the masked problem. It is not unconscious material; the client simply has not attributed causality to it.

Burns has an unpretentious style; he helps the client help herself. He refuses to accept clients who won't do reality-testing homework between sessions. He doesn't believe that simply talking about problems has curative powers. He believes cognitive techniques can be used effectively by some people some of the time with a therapist. We don't agree that thoughts cause all feelings but his style does not depend on this dubious thesis.

Basch (1980, 1988, 1992) seeks to manage the things he says and does with clients because he believes clients derive great informational value from his incidental verbal and nonverbal actions. He wants them to construct mental models as partial reflections of their readings of his approval or disapproval; his indications of whether they are getting the effect they want from their actions. His theoretical perspective is a blend of information processing and psychodynamic therapy.

Heitler (1990) cites experimental research based on game theory indicating that cooperative responses tend to attract reciprocal cooperation after a trial period when the goal (highest payoff) is to maintain ongoing relationships. In most such experiments, there is a modest near-term risk of being exploited but cooperative responses usually result in a more stable long-term equilibrium. Her style is to train couples or other clients and groups to negotiate their conflicts by having each give up a less important outcome to get a more important compromise outcome. This assumes that their desires are partially complementary rather than totally conflicting. She wants to encourage negotiation of viable relationships by training people to seek positive sum outcomes. Part of this process is to avoid blaming and verbal attacks. Instead, one partner describes the effect the other partner is having on her (or him), thus providing feedback to the first partner who must decide if the result is what she (or he) actually wants.

The four therapists cited seem to share certain tactics. They model behavior that they believe effective, not as a gimmick, but as a normal way of interacting with clients who are sensitive to being treated as worthy of respect. These therapists put out constructive non-verbal communications. They also believe it is experimentation and practice, even if initially unpleasant, that will change client SWB over time. They depend on clients generating constructive feedback themselves. They also seek to rapidly foreclose the opportunity for the client to continue utilizing maladaptive tactics and seeking permanently elusive goals. They don't enable futility.

In summary, when therapy works well it is because the therapist has made unbiased information inescapable to the client. The therapeutic relationship itself is a source of information apart from its directive aspects.

Formal Education

Effective socialization and psychotherapy ideally serve to provide information that results in unbiased predictive models and the potential for developing suitable goals and cost-effective means. Formal education can be particularly directed to developing causal models in domains in which experiential learning is insufficiently effective. It can transmit specific models in which cues become independent variables and various actions can be shown to have systematic outcomes. It can also enhance facility in using predictive models, in general, to be applied to an individual's choice of content in the future.

The skilled use of systems of symbols that can be economically manipulated is an important objective. The use of words, numbers, mathematical symbols, etc., permits problems to be solved without being in the physical presence of the content of the problem. What is missing in contemporary U.S. education is any understanding of the concrete reality to which the symbols must ultimately refer.

Formal Education Is More Formal Than Education

Formal education can logically serve only two legitimate functions. One is specific learning relevant to a real world that is necessary to achieve a goal. If successful, it serves to reduce uncertainty and error. The second is to enlarge the student's portfolio of transferable abilities and generalized attributes which must be kept primed with regular practice. This enhances effective future problem-solving and self-instruction.

The constraints that constitute barriers to these goals, particularly for students subject to compulsory education, are formidable. We offer the following sequence of generalizations:

1. When people are offered instruction in something relevant to their well-being, they tend to pay attention. Otherwise they don't.

2. Students almost never know why they are being taught a particular topic or subject. This diminishes the chances that it will be perceived as relevant to well-being.

3. Students like working within a group if the task is not one that requires a group but can be done within a group. If it is designed only for a group, they are indifferent. Groups have a natural attraction to humans which is often neglected to encourage competition.

4. Students are generally avoidance-motivated; they desire to avoid errors. They wish to avoid "non-As" or "non-A & Bs" or avoid "lower than C," etc. The goal is to win designation by an arbitrary symbol assigned by an arbitrary process which has no genuine positive goal to provide validation; only social approval is offered.

5. If students are asked to solve complex, real-world problems; are not given questions whose answers can be memorized; are given questions that are too complex to permit cheating; with questions to be answered in a written version with an individual oral follow-up exam; they will give sophisticated answers or they will attempt to because they have been given no way out.

6. The stimulus situation for real world problem-solving should be that of an actual practitioner. This requires correct answers or realistic approximations. The exception would be abstract tool acquisition such as arithmetic, reading and drawing. This gives direction to the complex exams described above.

When these conditions exist, the development of functional knowledge and beliefs is possible. At present formal education has less influence than informal education (incidental learning) on living skills.

Realities of U.S. Formal Education-Primal, Level

Comparative studies between arithmetic instruction in the first and fifth grades in American, Taiwanese, Chinese and Japanese schools indicates a dramatic contrast both in achievement and teaching styles in which U.S. teachers and students finish last (Lee, 1998). The differences in arithmetic are small in early grades and widen steadily over time. Whatever early basis for later learning is involved, it is more poorly established in American children.

The teachers in these studies (there were many) varied in their training. Japanese teachers are trained by other teachers on the job, as well as in academic classes and there is group responsibility for teaching (say) first grade. American teachers are far more likely to have advanced degrees than the Asian teachers (some of whom don't have bachelor degrees). American teachers are exposed to passive in-service lectures while Japanese teachers constantly collaborate on in-the-moment issues. American teachers believe themselves to be isolated, inadequately trained, unsupported by staff and burdened with long hours of teaching and administrative tasks. The Asian teachers, particularly Chinese, spend less time in class than Americans and more time in preparation, casual student contact and in contact with other teachers.

Although there is more stress on rote learning in the American sample, fewer American children could directly retrieve sums, products, etc., than in the Asian samples. So the emphasis on memorizing procedures results in neither thoughtful analysis nor accurate memory.

Geary, Hamson, Chen, Liu and Hoard (1998) found that Chinese 12th graders matched for IQ with American 12th graders, outperformed the Americans dramatically on measures of secondary school level arithmetic computation and reasoning. Young Chinese adults also outperformed a sample of Chinese with an average age of 66. The elderly Chinese were roughly comparable in arithmetic skill to an American sample (average age of 73). The aged Americans, however, had arithmetic skills unexpectedly equal to American 18 year olds, even though their spatial relations and perceptual skills had slowed. The authors infer that this is evidence of deteriorating American education in quantitative skills.

Realities-Secondary and Occupational

Thurow (1999) states that the performance of American students in science and math, based on exams given to secondary school students in many countries, is mediocre by international standards. He describes the lower two-third of the American work force as the least educated among comparable workforce segments in economically developed nations.

Thurow holds that acquiring occupational skills is accomplished in Europe through apprenticeships and other types of worker training by employers. Asian employers provide long-term employment which makes employee investment in learning new job skills rational since their future employment is more certain.

In the U.S. businesses use more temporary employees so there is no incentive to invest in a worker who won't be there to use the skills acquired. Many U.S. jobs held by humans are performed in Europe by mechanical systems (cashier at a parking lot, for example) so low pay, dead-end work is all that needs to be provided to Americans when there are machines as alternatives.

In the U.S. inferior primary and secondary education leads to mediocre colleges which leads to grad schools that are nonexistent in the rest of the world. It is grad schools that attract foreigners who then supply much of America's technical, engineering and scientific talent.

Perversity in Education, American Style

Maher (1993) investigated the reasons why neonatal nurses failed to take precautions against exposure to HIV. They had been required to attend lectures providing relevant information about HIV transmission. Maher found that the failure to wear gloves was not clearly related either to ignorance about consequences nor tolerance for risk as a trait.

Rather, it was the perception by nurses that they could not execute their duties skillfully using gloves that muted their sense of touch. Detecting pulses and inserting IVs require delicate fine motor activity and much information is derived from sensations in their fingertips. The pace of work interfered with their efforts to take precautions.

A larger staff would have permitted working in pairs, with one nurse gloved and the other assisting ungloved with less exposure. This was deemed too costly. An alternative, thinner protective gloves, was not available. Nurses were burdened with conflicting objectives: protecting their own health or protecting the babies' health. It is likely that inertia prevailed and the useless lectures continued without regard to effectiveness. Credentialing is big business. Worthless costly education trumps no education.

In a similar vein, Goleman (1998) reports that corporations, seized with the gimmickry of the marketers of"emotional intelligence" training, waste vast resources because emotional intelligence must be promoted within the daily operation of a company, not as an academic exercise. This aversion to managerial inconvenience is a marketer's dream. Corporate management is fertile ground for the effective marketing of "pop psychology."

Ideology and Education

The election of a state school board by voters in Kansas in late 1999 led to a prohibition of the teaching of "evolution." This was both perverse and ironic. Science teachers protested that existing textbooks used the prohibited "word" and thus couldn't be retained. We can only imagine how naked they felt, stripped of their multiple choice tests and easily memorized textbooks. This is perverse.

The Christian fundamentalists who won the election presumably wanted a fair hearing for the "creationist" position which they interpreted as incompatible with "evolution." They depended on the "Bible" as a source of wisdom. Good choice but not for the reasons they offered.

A creative solution would have been to present the questions that a valid thesis would be expected to answer. Then the data from comparative anatomy, fossil descriptions and the known modes of reproduction among different organisms would have suggested natural selection as an explanation. The attentive student would have "discovered" it. A sincere effort by the teacher to present a creationist view probably would have conveyed the hollow, incomplete and irrelevant nature of the thesis.

Science, skillfully presented, speaks for itself. Motivation, in this situation, would manifest itself in attentive questioning of the meaning of the data. This requires effort. The scientific answer will reduce uncertainty if valid. If empirical support is not convincing to a student, she would have simply learned it rotely, if at all, under the old regime.

The Christian fundamentalists didn't want to teach "the" Bible. They wanted to teach their interpretation of the King James mistranslation of the book of Genesis, originally written in Hebrew. The Biblical alternative would require, in the interest of authenticity, that the students read the Hebrew Bible. This is ironic. Would they be given multiple-choice exams in Hebrew, thereby generating a huge potential market for cheat-sheets?

The Hebrew Bible, of course, is hardly history. A written Hebrew language emerged for the first time many centuries after the events the Bible purports to describe were believed to have occurred. Most people can't remember what they had for lunch yesterday so a thousand year memory would be notable. Furthermore, modern archeology has failed to uncover even a fragment of an artifact that would establish that Moses, King David, King Solomon, and numerous Hebrew slave escapees from Egypt ever existed (Finkelstein and Silberman, 2001).

In any case the fundamentalists were defeated in the next election.

Informal Education

Informal or incidental education refers to the acquisition of models or rules that are not clear cultural-social imperatives nor are they learned in a school for credit. This can include self-instruction, incidental learning or reactive learning. Example: Since 1996, public assistance payments to mothers of dependent children have required the mother to accept employment (with on-the-job training) or to enroll in a job-training program. Welfare mothers who obtain employment are still eligible for food stamps, child care, and may also receive an income supplement through the earned income tax credit. In three years welfare rolls were reduced by 50% (from 5 million to 2.5 million).

Of the original five million families, roughly 55% of the mothers have been able to keep steadily employed over two or three years; 50% have held full-time employment for at least part of the three years; 67% have worked at least part-time or temporary jobs. Roughly 33% left the rolls to avoid the hassle of looking for work and of being closely monitored and sometimes harassed. Some moved in with men who helped support mother and children. Others moved in with relatives (Besharov & Germanis, 2000).

The welfare applicants learned one or more of the following: 1) They were not legally entitled to be financially supported by taxpayers; easy access to public funds was foreclosed; 2) getting and keeping a job was stressful, a stress level some could tolerate and others could not (some got sick, could not keep up with work assignments, suffered serious depression and/or anxiety and/or drug and alcohol craving; 3) some welfare workers would aid them (many are inexperienced and insecure people) to find and hold jobs by offering encouragement and by facilitating their requests for child care and such; 4) some welfare workers acted primarily as harassers, not providing facilitation as the program was designed to provide, in order to have a record of stinginess toward costs to advance their careers.

About one-third learned that working produced a better life and higher SWB than not working but receiving financial assistance. Another one-third found it harder but equally satisfying. One-third experienced it as an unhappy, difficult life, worse than financial dependence without work.

Most of the above represents reactive, informal learning or forced self-education. In some cases, with helpful welfare workers, the processes resembled cognitive-behavioral psychotherapy. Politicians learned that some voters will support a welfare program if the recipients are believed to be trying to help themselves.


In 1925 Tennessee enacted the Butler Act which prohibited the teaching of any theory that denied the Divine Creation of humans and it defined evolution as doing so. The town of Dayton, Tennessee was the first to bring a case, largely as a perceived means of gaining attention and improving business by attracting spectators (Ginger, 1958).

The popular 24-year-old football coachbiology teacher, John Scopes, a patently wholesome church-going Christian, was charged. The defense legal team was led by the famed (and, to some, infamous) Clarence Darrow and other attorneys provided by the American Civil Liberties Union. Most of the prospective jurors had never heard of "evolution" until the indictment. Crowds were attracted by their curiosity about the putative evil embodied in the prohibited teaching. The judge refused to admit scientific testimony or to consider the possible compatibility of Creation and evolution. He did permit the reading of statements written for the trial by distinguished scientists and educators who were also Christians, with the jury not present. The defense team rented a house and had speakers to entertain local citizens who were welcomed at open houses.

There was much incidental learning and unintended education by local citizens and by those central to the spectacle. Some of these were: 1) Butler (the sponsor of the Butler Act) proved to be a likable, active middle-aged man who enjoyed life and who wanted the scientific testimony admitted for its educational value, a contrast with the stereotype of a bigot; 2) the defense team was friendly and not contemptuous of poorly educated rural people and came to be well-liked by locals (it transcended religious preferences), another unpredictable outcome; 3) spectators came to realize that a trial is a drama, not a quest for truth, with a performer like Darrow, and otherwise is a wrangling between lawyers over technicalities, boring beyond belief (when Darrow successfully pleaded to a charge of contempt, the audience broke into cheers); 4) the jurors, religious and poorly educated, proved somewhat open-minded since they had not previously heard of "evolution," a surprise to many; 5) a rabbi named Rosenwasser (at the open house) who was fluent in English, German, Hebrew, Hungarian and Yiddish and could competently translate Latin, Greek, Chalaid, French and Italian, demonstrated the art and science of translation by rendering portions of the Hebrew Bible into German (providing a number of plausible translations) and then translating the German into English, again with numerous potential German-to-English possibilities. He concluded that the Old Testament does not say "create" but rather"to set in motion." "Adam" should be rendered "any living organism containing blood." Hence, no incompatibility.

In general people who were curious about evolution listened to the testimony. It was easier than reading and was in a human context. Persons who were suspicious of outsiders found less basis for their concern than expected. Intellectuals discovered less genuine bigotry than expected by not provoking defensiveness. What they did not learn is the concept of vagueness and its relation to constitutionality. This was the difficult lesson.

The Butler Act did not simply prohibit teaching evolution or mandate the teaching of creationism. It prohibited contradicting creationism which provided confusing directions to anyone wishing to comply with it. Such a law is constitutional on the grounds of vagueness. This is a difficult concept, more appropriate to formal instruction than to informal acquisition. The local citizens did not learn this constitutional principli in part because the judge did not invoke it. They did informally learn, however, that elected judges tend to interpret the Constitution as their constituents wish.

Inadequacies of Informal Learning

Kopel (2000) describes an event that occurred on April 20, 1999. Two students entered the Columbine High School with guns after the school security officer exchanged gunfire with them, distracting them and thus preventing the shooting of two nearby students. A teacher called 911 from a library phone and was told to keep the students in the library and wait for the police to arrive. Police began to arrive within minutes but were ordered by their commander not to enter. The sites of the killings were within 20 feet of an exit door but the police were too cautious to enter. The two killers were given 40 minutes of shooting time, even as the events could be heard on an open 911 line and SWAT teams had long since arrived. They finally entered at the remotest point from the shooting two minutes before the killers committed suicide. So many students in the school had cellular phones that they could have directed an entire battalion without sacrificing safety. Students who got out and who tried to give information to police about the weapons being used were ignored. After the killers had been dead for an hour, the police worked their way to the sites of the killings, leaving one teacher to bleed to death who could have been saved.

SWAT teams are instructed to protect their own lives first since their usual targets are drug dealers; police survival is a reasonable priority. At Columbine, they were successful. No drugs were dealt; no police died, although at least 500 were present.

Kopel states that no school massacre has ever been stopped by police; one has been stopped by an armed assistant principle; one by an armed local merchant. No police at Columbine disregarded orders. No students tried to escape. All heeded official advice not to run. The killers had police records; one had been under psychiatric care; had advertised their intent to kill in class and on their web site. Officials had received complaints related to threats by the killers months before but had no procedure for utilizing the information.

Matters have changed for police policy in the subsequent year, encouraged by 15 lawsuits against law enforcement officials in Colorado. Police are now being trained to rush toward the shooting and kill the perpetrator rather than securing the perimeter and negotiating for hostages. This is the only rational approach when the perpetrators intend to die. Law enforcement officials have benefitted from the informal learning arising from the Columbine fiasco. What they have learned, however, has greater generality than principles of school security. It has to do with mass murderers generally and listening to warning.

Public Relations and Political Agendas

Is the Columbine event a fertile source of information about violence in America; about school security; about the quality of law enforcement; about the American school system; about the nature of American education; about the impact of the mass media; or all of the above?

The general public has been dependent on media presentations that reflect a variety of political agendas. The most obvious lesson should have been the ease with which two inept persons who are willing to die can commit mass murder. What if they had been trained assassins with state of the art weaponry and a well-practiced plan?

What Americans learned instead was whatever their biases dictated. Some blamed the absence of strict gun control laws. Such suggestions would affect few of the 200 million guns already in private hands. Given prevailing attitudes, impounding 100 million or more guns would require a police state. Furthermore, Lott (1998) finds that, given the massive current supply, citizen ownership tends to deter crime. By contrast, registration to deter and trace gun theft is sensible. It forces gun owners to store their weapons more carefully and to monitor their safety more frequently. Permitting teachers who are skilled in gun use to have a weapon at school seems to have little downside. Technologies being developed to identify felons and the mentally ill at a point of attempted gun purchase may prove cost effective.

What was learned about school security was that the appearance of security (like the appearance of teaching and learning) is more important than actual effective security in placating parents and politicians (DeBecker, 1999). The notion of tailoring a solution to a problem as the most cost-effective approach requires imagination and a supportive environment for innovation (Gable and Van Acker, 2000). It is likely to involve early intervention, broadly effective education and precluding rewards for disruption. This requires well trained, motivated and educated school personnel.

Schools are very much like other large dense gatherings of people for some common purpose. A densely packed population not organized for self-defense is ideal for mass murder. This describes shopping malls, tunnels for autos, high rise residential buildings, etc. Since a murderer might be someone who does not belong at the site (doesn't live in the high-rise, is not a student at a school, etc.), screening people carrying special identification cards might be cost-effective. Screening legitimate students for weapons would be valuable because a million students per year bring handguns to school (DeBecker, 1999), half more frequently than six times a year. Schools are sites of three million serious crimes a year (Gable and Van Acker, 1999). Security guards are often poorly trained. Administrators often fail to report crimes or criminals are not identified to teachers. Teachers and administrators are fearful of legal consequences of self-defense (Marvin and Mahlio, 2000). Teachers are not given systematic training, permitted to work in teams, or oriented toward systematic solutions (Guetzloe, 2000). Violence and bullying is most often low-grade and insidiously destructive, more threatening than the headline-grabbing incidents (Weinhold, 2000).

But schools, like malls, are rarely sites of murders. These acts are sufficiently rare that psychological profiling of students or shoppers will generate mostly false positives rather than true positives. This promotes harassment of innocent people who are victims of prejudice (Mulvey & Cauffman, 2001). It offers an unjustified sense of security.

A school need not resemble a mall or a crowded football stadium, however. Smaller schools; smaller classes; more teacher teamwork; more teacher familiarity with students as people; more familiarity of students with students; more cohesive student bodies accompanied by rewards for prosocial behavior; less tolerance for bullying or less ignorance of its presence by teachers and students; active learning of conflict resolution techniques; reduction of the reward value of disruption; all of these can reduce violence and coercion and enhance useful learning. Since human interdependence is a fact of "real" life, it is also part of school life and teachers would be more valuable if they could deal with real behavior, much of it problematic. Identifying students with social difficulties early and monitoring their progress systematically might reduce violence in schools as students get older (Mulvey & Cauffman, 2001). Specialized resources could be made available as needed.

Thus preventing mass murder is not the stuff of formal learning that is narrowly tactical. Rather it should involve strategic foreclosure of anti-social behavior in schools combined with encouragement of cooperation broadly conceived. Informal and formal learning are blended. Specific instructions would resemble the universally ignored safety demonstrations by flight attendants on commercial airliners.

The most recent attempts to destroy airplanes have been foiled by passengers attacking the villain and not by mechanical screening (DeBecker, 2001). Human cooperation has worked in schools many times in recent years since students are the best source of relevant information. Informal learning has produced better school, bus and airplane security because people have learned that they are responsible for acting.

Matching Problem to Appropriate Solutions

In 1976 a French airliner was hijacked by a group of Marxists who demanded the release of Arab prisoners held by Israel (Kurzman, 1998). They were holding 107 Jewish hostages at Entebbee airport in Uganda, guarded by 7 hijackers and a Ugandan Army unit. During several days of negotiations with the hijackers, a 500 man Israeli special force (equal to the number of police at Columbine) was assembled and given two days to train. They were told that the hostages were surrounded by explosives that would be triggered if a rescue were attempted. There was a possibility that the airport had anti-aircraft weaponry. The special force used four C-130 cargo planes, loaded with armed personnel carriers, a Mercedes and someone dressed to resemble Idi Amin (the Ugandan ruler).

The special force gambled that (1) the four aircraft could make the 12 hour flight without detection and without a technical malfunction; (2) deceive the air controller by announcing itself as a scheduled arrival of an Air India flight; (3) stop at a distance on the runway and successfully lower a ramp in a high wind. (Tversky believed these steps to have had a less than 50% chance of success); (4) drive the Mercedes down the ramp followed by personnel carriers while the other three planes landed; (5) the occupants of the first plane would drive to the airport terminal to kill the hijackers and troops on guard while the others went to the army barracks where the hostages were being held and release them (betting against the threat of explosives). Success had been defined as getting 85 hostages out alive.

The first plane landed at 11:10 p.m. and all four planes were airborne by 11:40 p.m. carrying 103 out of 107 civilian hostages alive; having killed the seven hijackers and 20 Ugandan soldiers; with only the Israeli commander killed in action. It succeeded because of surprise, the lack of concern about the safety of the 500 commandos, and their prior training. The raid could not have taken place if any precautions had been taken to protect the special force. The precaution was years of preparation for military emergencies.

The Colorado SWAT teams were probably as courageous as the Israeli team and had an entire school full of students with cell phones and only two inept adversaries. The Israelis had only surprise, the right training, and a proactive strategy. The only Israeli soldier to die was the commander; the Colorado commander did not put himself in danger. Later, he attempted to cover up the details.

Here the lesson is the value of proactive risk-taking based on training and rational objectives. The definition of success differed in the two situations. One was routine avoidance; the other was the value of a transcendent goal. Both rested on formal instruction and training but only one was appropriate.

Intifada II: Lessons for Americans

The edge the Israelis gained in 1976 has since been lost. The suggested strategy of making American schools and teachers better and more personal to contain violence has been ignored by Israelis in maintaining their own security. Greed and fanaticism among some Jews and Arabs in Palestine has prevailed over conciliation and mutual respect. As of 4/1/2002, both Jewish and Arab Palestine are killing fields. Perhaps Americans can avoid the ravages of destructive fanaticism since we, like the Israelis, have no defenses against suicide killers and bombers either. So far, however, terrorism in America has simply been turned into commercially profitable political, economic and media spectacles. It has become the ultimate marketing device. Comon sense has been lost.


A blend of informal learning, essentially self-instruction, can work best when formal training and instruction forecloses non-sensical or careless options, as with school efforts to instruct students in human nature and human interdependence. The mass media, by contrast, emphasizes the improbable for shock value. The future value of informal learning for achieving personal happiness, in our atomized society, is now questionable.


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Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Dina Solovey-Houston, 4310 Dulavy, Suite 224, Houston, TX 77006. Email:
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Author:Stern, Louis
Publication:Journal of Instructional Psychology
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 1, 2002
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