Big Lessons from Little Things – Marc Wilson

This Victoria University alumni lecture from Marc Wilson caught my attention for it’s focus on adolescent well-being. This was a VUW inaugural lecture – a previous one I’ve attended from Victoria Green on bullying is reflected on here. I came away with a lot to reflect on – why I didn’t take psychology at University, and a range of information that I believe relates to teaching.

Wilson’s sprawling lecture began by working through the usual suspects of social psychology, which offered both a historic perspective on the learning area and an introduction to the types of the authoritarian (bad people do bad things), the new authoritarian (submit to authority or you should be punished), the machiavellian (unemotional and detached), the social dominant (hierarchy, structures, developed to maintain social dominance orientation) and the psychopath (limited empathy: primary – no fear of authority or punishment; secondary – impulsive [prisons largely full of secondary psychopaths]).  He made connections between personality types and attitudes towards vegetarianism noting the new authoritarian and the social dominant eat more meat and predominantly vote right wing. He made connections with prejudice, sexism and discrimination.

The point this came to was the importance of emotion. As people become older, they have less emotional recognition. Your social dominant orientation (SDO) can be used to predict your social and political attitudes, therefore: what is the role of educators in teaching empathy and emotional intelligence?

This is where Wilson connected his study of adolescent wellbeing, which has focused on self-harm. He asked: “why would people hurt themselves?” The EAM (below) helps to explain this, but the concerning part that Wilson expressed was how some youth find that self-harm works.


EAM source

Importantly, the study showed conclusively that teachers’ concerns that surveying students, or raising self-harm does not have a negative impact – self harming activity does not increase from talking about it.

Various findings from Wilson’s research were summarised – the sprawling nature of the work makes it difficult to summarise. The Youth Wellbeing Study site offers a brilliant hub of the research and the outcomes including some really lovely work with different media forms like graphic novels. I was left thinking about the important of more guidance education for teachers around this area. Teachers are the front line of these issues, perhaps even more so that parents because we are nearby for a lot of their in person peer-to-peer interaction. How informed are teachers about the latest thinking in this area? How capable are we of recognising a student in need? And do we understanding self-harm and suicide enough in order to have appropriate conversations around this which aren’t stigma-enforcing or harmful? The heart of the lecture was the importance of emotion – something we could all do with better understanding of.


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