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Sample Thought Experiments

Following are examples of thought experiments that can be used in a classroom, as part of an Emotional Imprint curriculum, or in any classroom interested in developing empathic understanding, social-emotional learning, or anti-bullying work. They can be adapted for different age groups or used in teacher-training programs.

#1: Your Sand Castle is Crooked”

Elementary School:  Imagine you’re in a kindergarten playground and your classmate walks by and says, “Your sandcastle is crooked.” 

How does that make you feel? 

Why might that person say it? 

What if the classmate was your best friend?  Someone you didn’t know or care about?  Someone you’re competitive with?

Have you thought or said similar things to other people, or wanted to?

What are the different ways you might respond?

There are lots of different ways to respond, but the best choice depends on the reasons why the person said it.  You can’t really ever know the reasons, but here are some possibilities to think about:

What if your friend has autism or Asperger’s syndrome?  Those are developmental differences that result in a person not being able to read other people’s feelings very well. Maybe for this friend, it was just a statement of a fact, like “the sky is blue.”  It’s hard to get mad at that, isn’t it?  In a case like that you might want to just nod and say something like, “Yeah, I guess maybe it is.  Want to help me fix it?” 

Do you know people who like things to be absolutely perfect?  What if your friend is someone who gets anxious when she sees things that aren’t perfectly symmetrical?  Maybe she didn’t mean to hurt your feelings, but it made her nervous to see the sandcastle tipping over.

What if you loved your sandcastle and thought it was beautiful?  What if you also thought it was crooked?  What if it was very crooked, but you won first prize in a contest because you were the teacher’s favorite student, or because the judge was friends with your father, and your friend was calling attention to that fact? What if the child who said it had just been humiliated by his own father and was trying to turn the tables so he could feel better? Can you think of other reasons why a child would say that, and different ways you might respond? When should you call the teacher? When would it be OK to get really mad and say it?

#2 “Your haircut is ugly!”

Your friend texts you, “Your haircut is weird; you should sue that hairdresser.”’ 

For homework, write two emails and two in-person conversations that illustrate the dynamics we’ve been discussing. Differentiate the responses of a person who uses intellectualization and isolation of affect from one who is aware of his emotions and feels hurt and angry. What if the person who got the haircut loves it, or what if that person agrees that the haircut is unattractive and feels embarrassed? In one of the dialogues, distinguish between a person who might not fully realize the impact his statement has on you vs. another person who’s aware but seems not to care or seems to want to provoke or hurt you. The best grades will go to the most in-depth conversations, resolved in a way that seems most emotionally accurate. It doesn’t matter if they have happy resolutions or less happy ones, as long as they sound like they’re real.

#3 “It’s supposed to rain today.”

A new friend – at least you think she’s a friend – invites you to her home for the first time.  That morning you call for directions and s/he says, “It’s supposed to rain later, so you probably shouldn’t take the train all the way to my house today.”  You reply that you’ll be sure to bring an umbrella, and s/he says “My mom says it’s probably not a good idea today.”  You say “OK…” but feel bad about it.  Why did s/he say that?  Write two different dialogues, in person, email, or one of each, where you try to understand what the underlying issues are and resolve the tension. Remember, it doesn’t have to be a happy resolution, just a real one.

#4: Extreme Makeover

A family in the same socioeconomic group as you wins “Extreme Makeover, Home Edition.” The show builds them the best house in the neighborhood, pays off their mortgage, and the kids all get free college tuition. Write three scenes between any of the family members and their friends or classmates – one of them immediately after the show, one a year later, and one ten years later.  Discuss the defense mechanisms each of your characters used, and how the other person responded to them. Then write a two-page paper summarizing your ideas about how an experience like that might impact people for better and for worse.

#5: Class President

You’re running for class president, struggling hard to be true to yourself, the school, and all of your classmates who have different needs and desires. One day someone asks you a question about changing the cafeteria menu. Changing the cafeteria menu is not one of your priorities, but you find yourself responding, “I understand your feelings about the menu, but honestly, the people who think it’s unhealthy are free to bring their own or go out for lunch, aren’t they?”  Your family lives comfortably, but a lot of students at your school are on the free breakfast and lunch program because they can’t afford even the regular cafeteria food, so the accusation of “Prejudice!” headlines the next day’s school paper.  Are you prejudiced?  How might you respond?  Write a response for the next edition of the paper, illustrating your ability to be true to yourself, true to your classmates, and win the election if possible.

#6: “I’m Going To Be An Actor”

Your friend’s dream has always been to be an actor, and he’s excitedly making plans to attend acting school after graduation. You’ve seen him perform in several school plays and you can tell that he’s talented, but not that talented. You’ve even noticed other students laughing at him behind his back. You’ve hinted by asking about backup plans, but he says he’s determined to make his dream into reality no matter what the obstacles because he knows he has the talent and drive to do it. Should you say anything more direct? What conditions would lead you to decide to speak to him honestly or not?

#7: Hating Hatred

On October 11, 2007, a front-page article in the “New York Times” began, “A House committee voted on Wednesday to condemn the mass killings of Armenians in Turkey in World War I as an act of genocide, rebuffing an intense campaign by the White House and warnings from Turkey’s government that the vote would gravely strain its relations with the United States. The vote by the House Foreign Relations Committee was non-binding and largely symbolic, but its consequences could reach far beyond bilateral relations and spill into the war in Iraq.”  The same day, the headline of the newspaper AM New York read, “Rallying Against Hatred,” a reference to the noose found on the door of a Columbia University professor. Question: Is it possible to hate hatred effectively? Discuss this, with reference to individual and group dynamics, as well as issues relating to language and the way word-symbols frame and concretize meaning.