Bridget Zagrobelny has heard that first impressions matter. But the University of Mary Washington freshman decided on a different strategy for making friends in college.
“We’re prone to judging others too quickly,” she said, “so it’s important to tap the brakes in our brains when we meet new people.”
She gained that insight after watching Living on Autopilot, an episode from the PBS Hacking Your Mind series exploring the mental processes at play in rational versus quick decision making, as part of this year’s Common Experience. Launched in 2015, this shared academic milestone gives incoming UMW first-year students the chance to engage in critical thinking and college-level discussions with professors, staff and peers as soon as they arrive on campus.
“We hope to challenge them to think about the material in new ways, learn about themselves and connect with their classmates,” said Assistant Professor of Biology April Wynn. As the First-Year Experience director, she oversees a variety of initiatives, including first-year seminars, living and learning communities, and peer mentorships, all designed to help freshmen successfully transition to life at Mary Washington.
Junior Audra Young, a student member of the Common Experience committee, said the first-year program helped her feel more “relaxed and familiar” with her fellow students. “We weren’t total strangers on the first day of classes.”
In the past, books and plays like Tara Westover’s Educated, Margot Lee Shetterly’s Hidden Figures and the Tony Award-winning musical Dear Evan Hansen have been distributed to students at Orientation. But holding the event virtually during COVID led the committee to explore alternative formats to the written word, Wynn said. Last year, freshmen listened to podcasts about pandemics and civil rights activism of the past and present.
The committee’s top selection for this summer, Living on Autopilot illustrates how people frequently employ the “fast-thinking” part of their brains to make quick and easy decisions. Shaped by habits, intuition, emotion and implicit biases, these snap judgments can often lead to mistakes, discrimination and even manipulation by advertisers, politicians and those who seek to spread disinformation.
The episode teaches students how to hit pause and use slower, more reasoned thinking, said Wynn, who also assigned a series of online implicit association tests that can help reveal our own latent attitudes and beliefs about various groups of people.
Freshman Kayleigh Dugger said she was surprised to learn that even young children make predictions about a person’s character based on trivial factors such as facial features and body language. “I found it really interesting learning about how the human mind works.”
Last Friday, first-year students joined UMW faculty and staff facilitators to discuss the video. Excited to delve into topics that weren’t covered in her high school classes, Zagrobelny said she enjoyed hearing what others had to say, as well as sharing her own thoughts.
“Perhaps if we can collectively make the decision to slow down and think,” she said, “we can better ourselves and society.”