Doctor Fox Effect

WC Fields by Nick Reekie

The Dr. Fox effect states that even experts will be fooled by a nonsensical lecture if it is delivered with warmth, liveliness, and humor. A 1980 study found that the perceived prestige of research is increased by using a confounding writing style, with research competency being positively correlated to reading difficulty.

The original experiment was conducted at USC School Of Medicine in 1970. Two speakers gave lectures to a classroom of psychiatrists and psychologists on a topic the attendees were unfamiliar with (‘Mathematical Game Theory as Applied to Physician Education’). The control group was lectured by an actual scientist and the other by an actor who was given the identity ‘Dr. Myron L. Fox,’ a graduate of Albert Einstein College of Medicine.

In the first half of the study the actor was instructed to teach his material in a more monotoned and inexpressive voice. This lecture was then compared to the control lecture by the scientist. After the lectures, the students were tested on the information they had learned and the students who attended the lecture taught by the scientist learned more about the material, and performed better on the examination. However, when both ‘Dr. Myron L. Fox’ and the scientist both presented their material in an engaging, expressive, and enthusiastic matter, the students rated Dr. Fox just as highly as the genuine professor. This lack of correlation between content-coverage and ratings under conditions of high expressiveness became known as the ‘Dr. Fox Effect.’

In a critique of student evaluations of teaching, professor of law Deborah Merritt summarized the Dr. Fox Effect as it was observed in the first experiments: ‘The experimenters created a meaningless lecture on ‘Mathematical Game Theory as Applied to Physician Education,’ and coached the actor to deliver it ‘with an excessive use of double talk, neologisms, non sequiturs, and contradictory statements.’ At the same time, the researchers encouraged the actor to adopt a lively demeanor, convey warmth toward his audience, and intersperse his nonsensical comments with humor. … The actor fooled not just one, but three separate audiences of professional and graduate students. Despite the emptiness of his lecture, fifty-five psychiatrists, psychologists, educators, graduate students, and other professionals produced evaluations of Dr. Fox that were overwhelmingly positive. … The disturbing feature of the Dr. Fox study, as the experimenters noted, is that Fox’s nonverbal behaviors so completely masked a meaningless, jargon-filled, and confused presentation.’

An update of the original study found that although the students with a charismatic teacher enjoyed the lecture more, they reported that they had not actually learned anything new. This is in contrast to the original study which argued that people attending the lecture actually believed they were learning new material. From their research they were able to reason that an enthusiastic speaker may entertain an audience, but much more is required to be a successful teacher.

In a study at the US Air Force Academy, students were randomly assigned to professors, to eliminate the chance of good students receiving better professors. These professors were then given all the same syllabi, curriculum levels, and final exams so the difficulty was even across the board. There was also a follow up course given to the students to test the value of deep learning that the students received. These professors taught introductory calculus to a group of over 10,000 students to achieve the proper information. When the evaluations came through, the professors who were less experienced and less qualified had the best evaluations and best performances on the final exam. However the students who attended the examinations given by the more qualified and experienced professors did best on the follow up examination. This brought speculation that the professors who were more experienced taught more of a broad manner of the material to produce a deeper understanding. This became obvious in the follow-up examinations. The results showed that the professors who instilled a deeper meaning of the material appeared worse on the initial exam and evaluations, but in the long run received better academic standing. This finding calls into question the validity of student evaluations.

The ‘Halo effect’ shares similar qualities to those of the Dr. Fox effect in relation to student evaluations of teachers. It is a cognitive bias in which our overall impression of a person influences how we feel and think about his or her character. For example, attractive-looking people create a halo effect in which we perceive them as kind, smart or successful, but it may not be true because their attractive appearance clouds our judgment of their performance capabilities. In one study examining halo effect on student evaluation, there was a higher rating for teachers who provided more nonverbal immediacy, but the study also found out that a higher evaluation of teachers was related to a greater halo effect. In the Dr. Fox effect study, a similar effect was found when Dr. Fox presented the lecture in an expressive manner.

Instructor personality is one factor that has been shown to affect course evaluations. For example, in one study examining the big five personality dimensions, teachers who were perceived to be more extroverted, open, agreeable, and conscientious were evaluated more favorably, whereas teachers who were perceived to be more neurotic were evaluated less favorably. Although some traits, like a teacher’s leadership, consistently predicted course evaluations, other traits varied by type of course. For example, a teacher’s sociability positively predicted course evaluations in introductory psychology courses, but not graduate psychology courses where students prefered a more rigorous professor.

Charisma or popularity of a teacher might also be a factor that contribute to teacher effectiveness and teaching quality. Charisma meaning the attractiveness or charm that can attract others to like them. In one study that examined the assessment of charisma as a factor in effective teaching, charismatic teachers tend to receive good student evaluation and also perceived as having more sense of humor, being more helpful, encouraging, knowledgeable, sympathetic and other traits that are considered charismatic. Teachers that are perceived to be more charismatic offer explanations, answer questions by students, vary their teaching methods, and are also interested in and express concern for their students and their learning progress.

The fluency of a lecturer when delivering teaching materials can contribute to the effectiveness of student evaluation of a teacher. Fluency is described as standing upright, maintaining eye contact, and speaking fluidly without notes. Disfluent lecturers slump, look away, and speak haltingly, needing to refer to notes. Fluent teachers are prepared and well organized received higher ratings, but fluency has a lesser effect on actual information learned. Nonverbal behaviors often affect students’ subjective feelings about a lecturer. Teachers that show more positive nonverbal behavior increase the immediacy between students and also contribute to higher student rating. For instance, teachers with higher rating by student were more likely to express behavior like smiling, walking around, head nodding, and touching upper torsos whereas low rating teachers are more likely to touch their head, head shaking rather than nodding, and sitting on a chair.

The way that teachers present themselves or the attire they wear when teaching lecture can be a factor on student evaluation of teacher. For example, teachers were perceived to be more competent, organized, prepared and knowledgeable when they dress formally with a coat and tie but they are also presumed to be not receptive to students needs and low in student-teacher interaction. When teachers dress casually with collar-button shirt and jeans, they are perceived to be more friendly, flexible, fair and open but not as competent. From another study about predicting teacher evaluation from physical appearance, attire and appearance may be a factor influencing rating of student but the effect will somewhat diminished when there are others more important and significant information provided. For instance, the study found out that unattractive voices dilute the effects of attractive faces of teachers.

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