Frank Bright and Dr. Jeffrey Reber, Department of Psychology
The purpose of my study was to see if there was any connection between a professor’s openness about his or her faith and the view formed of that professor by his or her students. One recent study (Reber & Slife, In Press) has shown that new undergraduate students appear to have an implicit bias towards faith as a source of knowledge, but those later in their undergraduate career have shifted their bias towards reason being a better source of knowledge. If this implicit prejudice is true then it could follow that if a professor was open about their faith, students may hold an implicit bias against that professor and their skills as a teacher.
The bias shown in the previously mentioned study, and the bias I was investigating in my study both fit into a phenomenon that Dr. Reber and I have labeled as faithism. Faithism can be defined as any bias or prejudice, either implicit or explicit, for or against a person based on their faith. This bias can be positive or negative. A positive example would be when someone is aware that another individual is a person of faith, and then holds a higher standard for behavior from that person, even if that higher standard may be an unfair one. A negative example would be when an individual knows that another individual is a person of faith, and then assumes that the person of faith is less intelligent.
My study focused on the possibly negative aspects of faithism, and wanted to see if a negative bias existed in students’ opinions of their professors. To determine if this bias exists, 90 participants were separated into one of three (3) groups. The first group read a brief professor biography. The second group read the same biography with a line added declaring that the professor was a person of faith and their faith informed the professor’s work as a professor. The third group read the same biography but the added line stated that the professor was an atheist and felt that faith had no place in the classroom. They were then asked 9 questions rating the professor in areas such as credibility, trustworthiness, and ability.
After analyzing the data, no significant differences were found between the groups. There are several factors that may have contributed to these results. The first of these factors is the study protocol itself. The independent variable consisted of a single line in a short biography and may have been easily overlooked by study participants. In future iterations I would include questions asking the participants what they believed the purpose of the study was. The second factor is that the majority of participants were students at Brigham Young University. Students at BYU are used to professors being individuals of faith, and as a result they probably don’t consider it an important factor when developing opinions about the abilities of their professors.
This second factor is important to consider when taken in the context of BYU’s Mission Statement and Aims. The Aims of a BYU Education states that “BYU seeks to develop students of faith, intellect, and character who have the skills and the desire to continue learning…” So while it may at first seem disappointing that no significant differences were found, the results of my study are actually encouraging. It appears that at BYU, students are taught in an atmosphere that encourages making their faith an integral part of their education. As a result, BYU is able to fulfill its academic missions.
Even though no significant results were found, I was able to present my work at the 2012 Annual American Association of Behavioral and Social Science Conference in Las Vegas, NV. There I was able to open a dialogue with professors and other students of the social sciences. We discussed what implications this research may have not only for the field of psychology but academia as a whole. I gleaned from this dialogue, suggestions for future iterations of my research, and learned about concerns professors might have with the expectations that could come from openly expressing their faith. Overall the conference was a great experience, and the lessons learned there will help my future research.
In conclusion, this research experience was enlightening. I learned the importance of working with a mentor. I learned how important planning is in any study or academic pursuit. I also learned that sometimes a study doesn’t yield the results one is expecting. These lessons and many more will continue with me throughout my academic career.