Why People Are Obsessing Over This Psych Professor’s Tricky Extra Credit Question

Jenna Birch
Contributing Writer

One of the last questions this psychology professor posed to his class may have been the most profound of the semester, digging deep into the moral framework of our culture.

In early July, a University of Maryland junior decided to show the Twitterverse an extra-credit question he was asked on a final psychology exam. Since, it’s been shared and favorited thousands of times.

Who was the mastermind behind this head-scratcher? Dylan Selterman, PhD, a lecturer in the Department of Psychology at Maryland, who fessed up to the question with this tweet:

Selterman told USA Today College he first heard the question back when he was an undergrad at Johns Hopkins University. The dilemma was actually written about in a psych journals 25 years ago, and points to a concept called the tragedy of the commons.

“The tragedy of the commons is basically a dilemma between doing what’s good for you as an individual versus doing what’s best for the group” the prof said. “Now it stands to reason that people behave selfishly. But if too many people behave selfishly, the group will suffer…and then everyone in the group individually will suffer.”

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Selterman says he started asking the question to his classes back in 2008. So far, just one group of students has received the extra credit. He thinks most of the students opt for six points with FOMO (a.k.a “fear of missing out”) or “go big or go home” mentality.

Psychologist Karla Ivankovich, PhD, an adjunct professor at the University of Illinois, Springfield, says this question is particularly perfect for the millennial generation.

“This generation has been encouraged to be in touch with their emotional intelligence more than any other in the past, yet they’re also the most individually and egocentrically-driven generation ever. They’re the ‘selfie’ generation,” Ivankovich tells Yahoo Health. “It’s always a good idea to challenge with questions like these, where you are forced to consider someone other than yourself — even for a moment.”

Ivankovich says it’s important to understand the results of self-serving attitudes, especially within the younger generation. “Much of this falls into line with both Piaget and Kholberg’s stages of moral development, which address how individuals justify their actions if placed in similar moral dilemmas at various stages throughout the lifespan,” she explains. “The younger you are, the less likely you are going to be to consider what is good for the group. This is typical of adolescence, where egocentrism is a central factor in decision making.  

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“When you think no one is watching, left to our own devices, you are more likely to serve your own interests,” she continues. “If there is accountability, the chances are greater for a group consensus.”

Ivankovich says questions revolving around the tragedy of the commons and similar concepts have been adapted many times, with many different variations, all aimed at the same central idea: if we don’t work together for common good, we all lose.

One adaptation that speaks to the same central principles is a dilemma often posed in counseling and psychology courses. It goes a little something like this: “You are stranded on an island, and there is a boat, and it’s only so large,” she says. “One person must be left behind, and you cannot come back. What happens? Who gets left behind, in order to save the group? What do you do?”

This is a common ground question, says Ivankovich, helping people relate and empathize with one another. “People will ponder for hours, a million ways to get people on the boat or how you determine who will essentially die,” she says. “There is no right or wrong answer, but shows the process of moral development in a group made up of individuals.”

So, how would you answer that extra-credit question? It’s worth pondering, if only for a minute or two.

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