Cell Phones in Classrooms

This is an essay I wrote on 2014-11-17 for EDF 6155: Lifespan Human Development & Learning, a graduate class at University of Central Florida.

Richard Thripp
EDF 6155 Module 6 Discussion Post, “Research”
17 November 2014

Cell Phones in Classrooms — Richard Thripp
Richard Thripp
Research Topic: Cell Phones in Classrooms

Article 1: Baker, W. M., Lusk, E. J., & Neuhauser, K. L. (2012). On the use of cell phones and other electronic devices in the classroom: Evidence from a survey of faculty and students. Journal of Education for Business, 87(5), 275-289. doi:10.1080/08832323.2011.622814


This study investigated the perceptions of college students and faculty regarding cell phone, laptop, and MP3 player usage in the classroom. The research questions involved assessing these perceptions and whether they differed between students and faculty members, and by demographic characteristics. A questionnaire with 55 questions was distributed to students and faculty in three universities—one (each) in New York, North Carolina, and Texas. 978 completed surveys were received, of which 882 were from students and 96 from faculty members. 85.9% of the students were undergraduates and 14.1% were graduate students. Most of the students and faculty were from business programs. There were about 60% males, 40% females, and most faculty were over 40 while most students were under 23.

The questions entailed multiple-choice and Likert scale responses to questions mainly about what is appropriate in the classroom, device usage patterns of the subjects. Students were found to be much more accepting and open to technology use in the classroom compared to faculty. Graduate students were less welcoming of laptop usage in the classroom, and males were generally more accepting of technology usage than females. Students used their cell phones far more than faculty, but faculty spent more time on computers, perhaps related to their work. Both groups highly disapproved of MP3 player use in the classroom, while cell phones were much more accepted. While students agreed that no devices should be allowed to be used during exams, they were very much against having to turn in their cell phones during exams.

Article 2: Maguth, B. M. (2013). The educative potential of cell phones in the social studies classroom. Social Studies, 104(2), 87-91. doi:10.1080/00377996.2012.655347


This article examines findings from studies regarding usage of cell phones in social studies classrooms, and suggests applications of text messaging as a participation tool in the classroom. While not explicitly defined, it appears Maguth is focusing on junior high and high school students from his frequent mention of teenage youth and their habits. Research indicates that social studies are particularly uninteresting or ill-presented for many students, and thus the author proposes integrating text messaging as a tool for looking up information, receiving student feedback, and instructor announcements. Three web services are suggested, specifically for being free, user-friendly, and having educative potential (according to the author): Google SMS, Joopz, and PollEverywhere.com, which allow students to request information by text message, teachers to send announcements to students, and teachers to conduct interactive, live polls via text or Twitter message in the classroom, respectively. Research shows that text messaging has greatly increased in popularity, especially among youths—for this reason and others, Maguth argues that effective teachers must integrate cell phones for effective student learning and a “fun, relevant, and engaging” classroom experience.

Summary of Findings:
Topic: Cell Phones in Classrooms

A message from both articles is that younger people favor technology more—this is revealed in the permissive attitudes toward cell phone and laptop usage among college students compared to faculty (Baker, Lusk, & Neuhauser, 2012), and in the observation that secondary schools typically ban cell phones, even though students want to be able to use them (Maguth, 2013). Both articles cited studies finding that mobile devices disrupt learning when they are intrusive or disruptive, but found that silent usage can be useful and educational, such as when it involves note-taking or looking up relevant information. Further, Maguth proposed that technology activities can be made part of the lesson plan and lead to positive results.

Baker et al. (2012) focused on college student and faculty perceptions through self-reports, as an investigation of what different people find acceptable, annoying, or disruptive, and their usage habits themselves. They found that students approved of cell phone and laptop usage in many more situations than faculty, though it could not be discerned whether this was a function of age (younger or older) or rank (student or faculty) since these variables could not be manipulated or separated. Maguth (2013) presented opinions about the role cell phones should play in the public school classroom, and detailed three SMS (short message service, also known as text messaging) services that can be put to use by the instructor for student polls, distribution of announcements, and web searches. A compelling argument for using text messages rather than email is that the percentage of teenagers using text messaging to contact friends outside of school on a daily basis increased from 27 to 54 between 2006 and 2009, while other mediums have remained flat or, in the case of email, significantly declined (Lenhart, 2009, as cited in Maguth, 2013, p. 88). However, a large barrier to entry in secondary school is that parental consent is required to collect student phone numbers and send them text messages—one reason for this is that billing charges may be incurred (Maguth, 2013, p. 89).

In general, determining appropriate use of technology and enforcing rules is a formidable challenge—this is shown in both articles by the recurring theme of disruptive off-task usage of mobile devices. However, both articles conclude that an outright ban on cell phones is an inferior solution (except during exams), both because there are legitimate and helpful uses of cell phones in class, and because “digital natives” (operationally defined by Baker et al. as individuals under the age of 25) view cell phones as an extension of themselves, unlike older individuals. Therefore, prohibiting cell phone usage can have negative implications for a student’s affect and instructor perceptions, though both articles recommend setting rules and policies to limit unhelpful usage (Baker et al., 2012; Maguth, 2013).


I was surprised to learn about Google SMS and had not used or heard of this service before. One can use it to send messages to Google requesting information such as stock prices, definitions of words, maps, etc. The reason I find this particularly enticing is because my phone has limited data access which does not work much of the time (I am not sure if my phone is defective or if it is due to having Metro PCS as a carrier, which is a low-cost, budget carrier). However, I can send and receive unlimited text messages and have no problems doing this unless I am in certain buildings or rural areas.

A significant problem with research in this area is the fast pace of technological development. Cell phone usage habits among teenagers and emerging adults are constantly changing due to new applications (“apps”) being deployed and gaining popularity, and due to new phones with new or improved capabilities being released. Thus, the information in these articles already feels dated—consider for example that Baker et al. (2012) set out to survey opinions on usage of cell phones and “other electronic devices,” but completely omitted tablet computers. In 2014, I would consider tablet computers in the classroom to be much more relevant and important than MP3 players. Another problem is classifying and considering different devices in the same category—a laptop computer with a 17.3” screen can be far more disruptive than one with an 11.6” screen, for instance, but Baker et al. gave no notice to this factor. Thus, scholarly research of the impact of mobile devices requires a faster pace than most other fields.

The Graduate School Gambit

This semester, having started graduate school in the Applied Learning & Instruction M.A. program at University of Central Florida, an understaffed and somewhat obscure program in the College of Education and Human Performance, I have enjoyed almost universal support and encouragement from family, friends, and acquaintances when education comes up in conversation. However, to say this is a reliable indicator that one has made the best decision, or even a good decision, is dubious at best. While I am happy with the decision to invest $15,000 of my family’s money and perhaps 2500 hours of my time in becoming educated through the structures, procedures, and recommendations made by the instructors of the classes I take in this program, as well as eventually learning how to conduct scientific research, that does not necessarily mean I could not learn the same skills or better skills elsewhere, both at less cost and with more efficiency.

In sum, my undergraduate education in psychology and various elective classes was fully paid for by the state, since it was subsidized by the federal Pell grant program and other tax dollars, the Florida Bright Futures scholarship program, and several other grants and scholarships. Living in Florida, I can never sympathize when people talk about the perils of going into debt to pay for their Bachelors’ degrees, since community colleges and state universities are a viable option and of a lower cost here than in many other states. However, I am receiving no financial aid or scholarships for my graduate classes, and must also pay nearly double the undergraduate tuition per credit hour. Considering graduate school is much more costly and difficult to find grants or scholarships for, it is reasonable to consider graduate school a gambit, meaning “a calculated move” or “something done or said in order to gain an advantage or to produce a desired result.” This implies the quite real probability that the gambit will fail, either subtly or spectacularly.

Typically, people talk about the perils of education in terms of dollars lost—due to the wasted time and money that could have been spent working and advancing one’s career. However, just because you could be working during the time spent on graduate school does not mean such work would be emotionally fulfilling or lead you where you want to go. Particularly with the meta situation of going to college to become an educator, such education has a large extrinsic value, since it is an artificial prerequisite of being an institutionalized educator. This extrinsic value should not be dismissed, because being part of an institution gives one authority, credibility, resources, connections, and higher pay than the majority of self- or independently employed people.

Like a courtship, graduate school should be entered without expectations or attachment to preconceived opinions about what “should” be. It is very different from any other product one would typically purchase. It is also somewhat different from undergraduate education because less hand-holding and incompetence is expected. In many ways, you are expected to be in charge of your education and to exhibit the required attention and self-discipline. Therefore, for fields that do not require special access afforded by a university (i.e. to laboratories, patients, or equipment), such as liberal arts, “soft” sciences, and most computing fields, self-education or education through alternate means can arguably be of equal or greater effectiveness. One could merely read Wikipedia articles (including referenced works) and get as much of an education as graduate school. It is not unthinkable for one to have the rigor and self-discipline to create agendas, assignments, schedules, deadlines, and exams for oneself. One could even solicit subjects and conduct survey research with ease. Unfortunately, even with the rise of free online courses, few people have the willpower to follow through with such plans. Consider that college attendees, with endless sociocultural pressure to persist, drop out in droves—it is not surprising that self-education might be even more difficult. Thus, many students going to graduate school are merely paying for their lack of willpower!

In American culture, being unemployed is unacceptable, but being an unemployed college student garners one instant praise and universal acceptance. While it is easy to fake being a college student, for the honest student who seeks a degree largely for feelings of wisdom, competence, or superiority, social acceptance should be no more than a tangential issue. If you value your individuality, choosing a subject you are interested in is important and should take precedence over what your family or peers encourage you to study. However, developing or losing interest in a field can easily happen after beginning one’s collegiate studies. To say that it is important to figure out what you want to do ahead of time may be a misnomer—knowing you are going down a wrong road often requires traveling part of it. Pursuing any interest is a gambit, but is usually preferable to inaction.

My purpose with this essay is to superficially acknowledge the wide variety of educational options available, and to recognize that graduate school is not necessarily better or worse than other options for the reasons that are commonly parroted. Elevating the importance of introspection and self-inquiry is a marker of narcissism and an easy way to get out of doing real work—graduate school is particularly effective at debunking the value of opinion and educating one to value rigorous and empirical analysis. Unfortunately, there are also a lot of nebulous theories and cults of personality that counteract this phenomenon. Professors command unnatural respect—they are rarely heckled or ridiculed like a cashier at Walmart or McDonald’s, even though they should technically be equivalent to employees (or at least independent contractors) of the students. This is probably because colleges and universities are in the peculiar situation of being paid by you to make sure you learn—which returns to my argument that higher education is a substitute for willpower. The archetypal college-dropout millionaire perennially reminds us that college is for weak, uninspired, boring individuals. The middle road is far less sexy; it is easy to draw inferences from outliers. We cannot say whether successful college dropouts would have succeeded just as much or more had they completed their college educations, though it is fun to bash education.

I will close with the idea that graduate school, like many gambits, is pursued most frequently by individuals who need it least. Many of the people going to graduate school are already relatively educated critical thinkers. They are perfectly capable of contributing to society with their current education and even being financially and emotionally fulfilled, yet compete for slots in graduate programs out of greed and avarice. I will not delude you into believing this greed is for money—it is far more likely for status and prestige. The title of doctor is coveted and bandied about by people who are not medical doctors, despite this being the overwhelming mental association among outsiders or laypersons. Universities are complicit in their greed for state funds, federal funds, and tuition dollars. Like the housing and precious metals markets, higher education is becoming ripe for the slaughter. Although it is obvious that learning can still take place and value reciprocated in such an environment, it is harder to discern when diminishing returns will turn a gambit into a crapshoot.

Incarceration and Accidental Death in Early Adulthood

This is a discussion post essay I wrote on 2014-10-26 for EDF 6155: Lifespan Human Development & Learning, a graduate class at University of Central Florida.

Richard Thripp
EDF 6155 Module 5 Discussion Post, “Issues & Stages of Development”
26 October 2014

Richard Thripp     Grade Contract A
Stage of Development: Early Adulthood
Issues to be addressed: Poverty and incarceration, accidental death

(1) Issue: Poverty and incarceration


While adolescents with late-onset delinquency typically do not continue their criminal activities into adulthood, boys who have violent tendencies at a younger age are more likely to live a life of crime with periods of incarceration (Berk, 2010, p. 425). Like reckless behavior, violent crime is primarily perpetrated by males—the minority of female adolescent arrests for violent crime typically involve mere simple assault (p. 424). Teenagers growing up in poor neighborhoods are more likely to commit crimes and have exposure to drugs, firearms, and gangs; this threat is further magnified by low-quality education and bad family relationships (p. 424).

From the mid-20th century to the early 21st century, the incarceration rate in the United States has increased from 0.11% to 0.74% as of mid-2005, a nearly sevenfold increase (Apel & Sweeten, 2010, p. 449). This gigantic increase is not correlated with an increase in crime, but rather “net widening” policies that result in imprisonment of offenders who previously would have received probation, and harsher sentences for less dangerous crimes (p. 448-49). Incarceration is having a profound impact on emerging adults, particularly on poor black men, who are given little leeway to “experiment, rebel, and misbehave” compared to privileged youth, and find themselves being imprisoned at an unfairly high rate (Comfort, 2012, p. 311). Being that contemporary culture downplays marriage, parenthood, and careers as markers of adulthood, for an increasing segment of the population, incarceration is filling this void and is arguably replacing college as a period for finding oneself. Despite being subjected to depressing and limiting environments, young prisoners with release dates often look forward with greater hope and optimism than their older cohorts, consider their incarceration a time for personal reflection and planning a better life, and even maintain loving marriages and long-term relationships while behind bars (Comfort, 2012).

Some factors are correlated with both poverty and risk of arrest, such as dropping out of high school, being unmarried, and lack of gainful employment (Bender, Tripodi, Aguilar, & Thompson, 2010). However, the belief that incarceration ruins one’s job prospects may not be based on actual evidence—Apel and Sweeten have suggested that negative employment outcomes may be based more on the resulting gap in employment history, and that for emerging adults, incarceration may actually be associated with higher income in the short term (2010, p. 468). However, in the long term, ex-inmates were found to have a $4000 to $5000 deficit in annual income, which was a difference between 14 and 18 percent, and in the short term they tended to work more hours at slightly lower wages. Critically, they found that ex-inmates were much more likely to be unemployed by choice, despite having little trouble finding work after their release (this evidence was based on self-reports). Further, the negative effect on securing employment following release typically persisted for only four months. In summary, the stigma surrounding incarceration may be less important to employment prospects than common discourse indicates; a lack of desire to participate in the workforce might be more to blame.


Apel, R., & Sweeten, G. (2010). The impact of incarceration on employment during the transition to adulthood. Social Problems, 57(3), 448-479. doi:10.1525/sp.2010.57.3.448

Bender, K., Tripodi, S., Aguilar, J., & Thompson, S. (2010). Predicting arrest in early adulthood: The relationship between internal and external sources of control. Social Work Research, 34(1), 58-64.

Berk, L. E. (2010). Development through the lifespan (5th ed.). Boston: Allyn & Bacon.

Comfort, M. (2014). “It was basically college to us”: Poverty, prison, and emerging adulthood. Journal of Poverty, 16(3), 308-322. doi:10.1080/10875549.2012.695923

(2) Issue: Accidental death


Reckless behaviors are much more frequent among males, especially in early adulthood. Alcohol frequently causes or is correlated with crime and unintentional injuries; 2 in 5 fatal motor vehicle collisions involve alcohol, and its links to violence and police activities are quite strong (Berk, 2010, p. 445). Alcoholism is also much more common among males, which is another reason why males are more likely to unintentionally injure themselves and injure other people, with or without intent. Sadly, motor vehicle accidents account for nearly half of all deaths among 25 to 44 year olds in the United States, greatly eclipsing cancer or heart disease (p. 439).

A Swedish cohort study of 49,411 males who were drafted in 1969 and 1970 between 18 and 20 years of age, given mandatory questionnaires about family background and behavioral factors, and assessed for injury mortality 35 years later produced interesting findings (Stenbacka, Leifman, Dalal, & Jansson, 2011). Accidental deaths in general were far more common among young Swedish men who reported alcohol use, mainly in motor vehicle crashes, but also due to drowning, fire, falling objects, or intoxication itself (p. 233). Conduct problems and incidents with police were the other two factors linked most strongly with injury death (p. 234). Early police contact was highly correlated with death by single vehicle accidents (p. 230), which may indicate a relationship between delinquency and reckless driving. In total, 485 men (0.98%) died due to unintentional injury over the 35 year period, which was 18% of the total deaths during the period. Nearly 60% of the 485 men died in car accidents, which is a testament to the great risks involved in driving or being a passenger in a small automobile.

Adolescents and young adults speed, run red lights, make illegal maneuvers, and drive while intoxicated or permit themselves to be the passengers of an intoxicated driver much more often than older adults, which has disastrous consequences—motor vehicle crashes caused a hefty 31% of injury-related deaths in the United States in 1996, and an appraisal from 1997 found the death rate for young adult drivers was more than 200% of the rest of the U.S. population (Stiglets, 2001, p. 451). Motor vehicle crashes, drowning, and firearm deaths are all substantially more common in males than females, which might be due to socialization that promotes risk-taking as something exciting or desirable, and beliefs of invulnerability among males which are disconnected from reality (p. 450).

Risk perceptions are at the heart of decisions to participate in risky behaviors. Studies by Haase and Silbereisen of students in a middle school, a high school, and a university in Germany found that positive affect was related to lower risk perceptions in all cases, in regards to drinking, smoking, being a passenger with a drunk driver, physical altercations, and unprotected sexual intercourse (2011). Subjects in these studies watched neutral or positive affective pictures for three minutes (while listening to similarly selected music), and were then assessed with a questionnaire presenting hypothetical scenarios and asking them to rate their perceptions of risk on a Likert scale. Risk perceptions were much higher in the neutral affect condition for all age groups (13, 17, and 23 year olds). This study may have groundbreaking implications for researchers—the authors note that subjects are usually more risk adverse when completing questionnaires compared to the real world, and propose a difference in affect may be a contributory factor. If sustained by further research, these results may mean that maintaining a level head—rather than being exuberantly enthusiastic—can prevent many accidental injuries and deaths in social settings, especially among impulsive individuals.


Berk, L. E. (2010). Development through the lifespan (5th ed.). Boston: Allyn & Bacon.

Haase, C. M., & Silbereisen, R. K. (2011). Effects of positive affect on risk perceptions in adolescence and young adulthood. Journal of Adolescence, 34(1), 29-37. doi:10.1016/j.adolescence.2010.03.004

Stenbacka, M., Leifman, A., Dalal, K., & Jansson, B. (2011). Early predictors of injury mortality among Swedish conscripts: A 35-year cohort study. Accident Analysis and Prevention, 43(1), 228-234. doi:10.1016/j.aap.2010.08.014

Stiglets, C. (2001). Unintentional injuries in the young adult male. Journal of the American Academy of Nurse Practitioners, 13(10), 450-454. doi:10.1111/j.1745-7599.2001.tb00004.x

Critique of Under the Same Moon, Dark Matter [Movies]

This is an essay I finished writing on 2014-10-13 for EDF 6155: Lifespan Human Development & Learning, a graduate class at University of Central Florida.

Richard Thripp
EDF 6155 Module 4, “Critiquing the Media”
13 October 2014

Name: Richard Thripp
Grade Contract: A

Media # 1

  1. Media type: DVD
  2. Name of book/dvd/etc: Under the Same Moon (2008)
  3. Stage of Development: Middle Childhood
  4. Issue(s): Separation from parents, death of grandmother, immigration
  5. Summary:

Under the Same Moon is a film about a nine year old boy named Carlitos and his journey from a small Mexican village to Los Angeles, to find his mother Rosario who has been illegally living there for four years, performing janitorial work while sending money home to Carlitos’ grandmother, whom he lives with. The title of the film comes from a statement his mother often makes on the phone to provide assurance that they are not as far apart as they think. When his grandmother dies, he decided to use his $1200 in savings to sneak across the border and locate her based on the return address from one of her letters. He runs into many challenges, such as the car of the couple smuggling him across the border being confiscated and resulting in him losing the remainder of his money and having to hitchhike to Los Angeles. He meets his father in Tuscon, who says he will pay his bus fare, but then mysteriously disappears like he did when Carlitos was a toddler. Carlitos’ self-reliance results in him making friendships and avoiding threats on his journey to his mother. Meanwhile, she is debating returning to Mexico to find her son, and considers marrying a suitor to get her green card, but backs out at the last minute. In the end, an initially unwilling friend made on the road (Enrique) ends up sacrificing himself to the police so Carlitos can get away. Given that the return address on Rosario’s letter is merely a post office box, Carlitos uses his memory of her detailed description of the surroundings at the phone booth she calls him from at 10 AM each Sunday morning to find her in downtown Los Angeles while she is making the phone call.

  1. Critique:

Carlitos is highly industrious—he is confident he can find his mother and does not stop taking actions to get there. He is not pessimistic and does not succumb to feelings of inferiority, the flip side of Erikson’s dichotomy for middle childhood (Berk, 2010, p. 330). However, the psychological issues resulting from Carlitos’ separation from his parents and him witnessing the death of his grandmother are not adequately recognized. Furthermore, the accurateness of the portrayal is limited: Under the Same Moon presents a highly sympathetic viewpoint to illegal immigration and underestimates the difficulty a nine-year-old illegal would have in making such a journey—for instance, he even secures employment for himself and Enrique at a small restaurant while traveling, which is unusual and a violation of labor laws in contemporary America (Bergman, Dreyfuss, Selim, Villalobos, & Riggen, 2008).

Cabaj, McDonald, and Tough (2014) have found that positive motherly interactions in a child’s first five years are correlated with better behavioral outcomes and resilience in middle childhood. Given that Rosario did not leave Carlitos until he was five, this may be an item of evidence in support of his resilience. Milrod et al. (2014) have found that separation anxiety in childhood has long-term negative consequences in adulthood, while healthy attachments have robust, positive outcomes. Since Carlitos had a good relationship with this mother even by long-distance phone communication, had his grandmother to rely on for emotional support, and had an abandoning but non-abusive father, he seems poised for good mental health through this stage of life and the future. Thus, there is at least some research in support of cheery optimism coexisting with Carlitos unfortunate circumstances.

Based on the logic, problem-solving, and language abilities the character of nine-year-old Carlitos demonstrates in this film, he may be a gifted child. Burke (2009) finds that gifted children need emotional support to cope with grief just as much as other children. She also proposes that grief does not just come from death, but from a gamut of issues, many of which Carlitos faced. Though there was a lack of realism and accurateness in his portrayal—it would have made more sense if he was several years older—it is somewhat plausible that he could have delayed grieving and deferred his needs for emotional support in anticipation of being reunited with his mother, who would fulfill those needs. This anticipation may also have helped him cope with his father disappearing after promising to buy him a bus ticket from Tuscon to Los Angeles. If the anticipated reunion gave him the psychological resilience to persist through numerous challenges on his week-long journey, then coupled with his giftedness, credence is arguably lent to the notion that a boy his age could act so far beyond his years.

  1. References:

Berk, L. E. (2010). Development through the lifespan (5th ed.). Boston: Allyn & Bacon.

Bergman, R., Dreyfuss, N., Selim, H., Villalobos, L. (Producers), & Riggen, P. (Director). (2008). Under the same moon [Motion picture]. United States: Fox Searchlight.

Burke, A. (2009). Gifted and grieving: Why it is critical to offer differential support to gifted kids during times of loss. Gifted Child Today, 32(4), 30-37.

Cabaj, J. L., McDonald, S. W., & Tough, S. C. (2014). Early childhood risk and resilience factors for behavioural and emotional problems in middle childhood. BMC Pediatrics, 14(166). doi:10.1186/1471-2431-14-166

Milrod, B., Markowitz, J., Gerber, A., Cyranowski, J., Altemus, M., Shapiro, T., & … Glatt, C. (2014). Childhood separation anxiety and the pathogenesis and treatment of adult anxiety. American Journal of Psychiatry, 171(1), 34-43. doi:10.1176/appi.ajp.2013.13060781

Media # 2

  1. Media type: DVD
  2. Name of book/dvd/etc: Dark Matter (2007)
  3. Stage of Development: Young Adulthood
  4. Issue(s): Isolation, academic politics, school shootings, Asian-American cultural issues
  5. Summary:

Dark Matter is a film loosely based on the 1991 murders of three professors and a fellow student by Gang Lu, Ph.D. (“Liu Xing” in the film), a brilliant astrophysics student from China and recent graduate of the University of Iowa. In the film, Liu Xing is portrayed sympathetically—his hubris and infamous temper are omitted (Marriott, 1991). Numerous deviations from the real story that make the film no more than a fictionalized account; however, the film arguably still has value for showing that unfair marginalization can be a factor leading to tragic consequences. In Dark Matter, Xing is accepted into department head Jake Reiser’s prestigious cosmology lab based on his excellent test scores and undergraduate education at the University of Beijing (Chiu, D’Amico, & Chen, 2007). He yearns to uncover the true origins of the universe through his investigations of dark matter—however, the evidence he produces directly contradicts Dr. Resier’s theory. His dedication to the truth results in Reiser rejecting his dissertation for using computations deemed imprecise, even though Reiser used the same methods in his own research. By this point, Xing has been writing phony letters to his parents in China reporting good news; he has been spurned by his crush, an American girl who works at a coffee shop; and he has seen a smooth-talking Asian classmate (Laurence Feng) flagrantly forge research results to support Reiser’s theory—resulting in his dissertation being accepted and awarded a distinguished prize that Xing wanted. Xing’s isolation, social awkwardness, and academic frustration—coupled with his idealization of guns as a tool for social justice—result in him gunning down Reiser, Feng, and two other professors, before turning the gun on himself.

  1. Critique:

According to Erikson, early adulthood (18-40 years) represents a psychological struggle between intimacy and isolation. In his model, intimacy is facilitated by a secure identity and culminates in faithful commitment to an intimate partner, while isolation is correlated with identity moratorium and results in loneliness and self-absorption (Berk, 2010, p. 468-69). The depiction of Xing is consistent with someone who has neither a secure identity nor intimate attachment. Xing’s identity, based on his interactions with his parents and Asian peers, is not collectivist, but rather connected to academic and professional success. His internalization of this paradigm is so entrenched that he is unable to appropriately cope with the institutionalized injustice promulgated by Reiser and Feng—having his contributions marginalized and incorrectly criticized leads to a melancholic rage belied by his timid countenance. This rage is revealed to the viewer through Xing’s thoughts, which are depicted through glimpses of shootings in Western films and Xing being buried in falling snow (Chiu, D’Amico, & Chen, 2007).

While Xing may be a believable character, there is a broad dramatization of the “true story” the film is based on, demonstrated by its significant deviations from actual events. In fact, the dissertation of Xing’s real life counterpart, Gang Lu, was accepted—not fraudulently rejected on a technicality as in Dark Matter. In reality, Lu was enraged merely that his dissertation received too little enthusiasm, and additionally walked three blocks away to murder the vice president of academic affairs and maim a receptionist (Marriott, 1991). These departures from the true story may be evidence that the subject matter was handled with limited accuracy and egregious inappropriateness—consider the families of the victims, who might be outraged at the lionizing moralization of their loved ones’ murderer. Xing’s actions may represent the worst possible outcome of failure to negotiate the young adulthood stage—the next step up might be suicide without murder, which is far more common. Specifically, he was not a rampage shooter, but rather (as depicted in the film) someone who had experienced emotional abuse from Reiser and whose final reaction was to methodically murder the abuser and associated individuals—a decision typically not associated with psychopathy or psychoticism (Rocque, 2012).

In a survey study of counseling students, Gold and Rogers (1995) found a positive correlation between scores on the Hogan Empathy Scale and intimacy scores on Hamachek’s operationalization of Erikson’s intimacy/isolation model. If the inventories used are valid, this study is one piece of evidence supporting a connection between empathy and intimacy. Given that Xing witnessed the baptism of Feng’s infant son yet had no qualms about taking his life, he seems to have shown a lack of empathy for Feng’s wife and son. A lack of empathy is connected with a bias for isolation according to the study by Gold and Rogers. Various factors may have played into Xing’s isolation, including a clash between Chinese and American culture, but given that he was surrounded by Asian students who did not respond similarly, there was surely a personal component to Xing’s behavior, as well as a situational component regarding his failed romantic and academic interactions.

  1. References:

Berk, L. E. (2010). Development through the lifespan (5th ed.). Boston: Allyn & Bacon.

Chiu, L. S., D’Amico, K. (Producers), & Chen, S. (Director). (2007). Dark matter [Motion picture]. United States: Screen Media.

Gold, J. M., & Rogers, J. D. (1995). Intimacy and isolation: A validation study of Erikson’s theory. Journal of Humanistic Psychology, 35(1), 78-86. doi:10.1177/00221678950351008

Marriott, M. (1991, November 4). Iowa gunman was torn by academic challenge. The New York Times. Retrieved October 13, 2014, from http://www.nytimes.com/1991/11/04/us/iowa-gunman-was-torn-by-academic-challenge.html

Rocque, M. (2012). Exploring school rampage shootings: Research, theory, and policy. Social Science Journal, 49(3), 304-313. doi:10.1016/j.soscij.2011.11.001