Comic Strips: Door-in-the-Face and Conditioning Examples

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Those who write/draw comic strips are often astute observers of human behavior. That makes the funny pages a gold mine for psychology examples. (Here’s another blog post I wrote about a comic strip illustrating the spotlight effect.)

Last week (February 16, 2016), Scott Adams of Dilbert fame gave us a wonderful example of the door-in-the-face technique. When a coworker’s babysitter cancels, she asks Dilbert if he likes kids. He assures her that he is not interested in watching her kids. She replies, “I was going to ask you to adopt them.” There’s the door-in-the face. Dilbert’s replies, “Absolutely not. The best I can is watch them tonight.”

One of my favorites comes from Mark Tatulli’s Lio (November 14, 2009). Lio is known for having a different group of friends than most kids. Including in his group are ghouls, goblins, and, yes, even death. In this particular comic strip, Lio loudly rips open a bag of “Monsta Treats.” In the next panel we see a monster towering over Lio, soaking him with dripping saliva. Ask students, in pairs or small groups, to identify the unconditioned stimulus, unconditioned responses, conditioned stimulus, and conditioned response. Circulate around the room clarifying as needed. Bring the class back together and identify each. Next ask what generalization would look like. And then ask what would need to happen to bring about extinction.

Hilary Price in her Rhymes with Orange comic (August 21, 2013) gave a nice side-by-side comparison of positive and negative reinforcement. In the first panel a middle schooler is working on homework, and an off-panel parent says “If you finish this homework, I will let you watch a show.” In the second panel an adult is typing on a computer, and the adult’s thought bubble reads “If I finish this paragraph, I will let myself pee.” Ask students, again in pairs or small groups, to identify the behaviors being reinforced, and then to identify which is positive reinforcement (first panel) and which is negative reinforcement (adult) and explain why.

If you have a favorite comic strip that illustrates some psychological comment, please leave a link to it in the comments!

About the Author
Sue Frantz has taught psychology since 1992. She has served on several APA boards and committees, and was proud to serve the members of the Society for the Teaching of Psychology as their 2018 president. In 2013, she was the inaugural recipient of the APA award for Excellence in the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning at a Two-Year College or Campus. She received in 2016 the highest award for the teaching of psychology--the Charles L. Brewer Distinguished Teaching of Psychology Award. She presents nationally and internationally on the topics of educational technology and the pedagogy of psychology. She is co-author with Doug Bernstein and Steve Chew of Teaching Psychology: A Step-by-Step Guide, 3rd ed. and is co-author with Charles Stangor on Introduction to Psychology, 4.0.