Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Behavioral Pedagogy

I've long been curious about Dan Ariely's work. Predictable irrationality? That's students! (The place to start is probably his good TED talk.)

So I'm auditingish his Coursera course. His three books were bundled for Kindle at $20, and there's a number of resources available at the course site. I promise not to just blurt my notes all over the blog like I have been doing for the creative learning course, but only share bits of interest to teachers.

The idea of Behavioral Economics is that, though people are irrational, they are predictably irrational. Ariely is a big believer in the experimental method, which is extremely refreshing compared to the highly theoretical usual economics which relies heartbreakingly on weak correlation coefficients. (That's pretty pure mathematics snobbery, sorry.) His interest in it has a sad start with an early burn tragedy in his own life; his treatment plan got him wondering if there was a better way and how could you find out. The first application to teaching is this mindset. Teaching is so hard and complex, getting an idea and figuring out how you can test it is crucial.

What follows is super-abbreviated and concatenated.

Week 1 key concepts that apply to teaching:

Choice Architecture:
Inspiration: two nearly identical Scandanavian countries have vastly different organ donation rates. One is an opt-in system and one has an opt-out system.

Experiment: People are given a choice between two people and asked which is more attractive. 50-50 results. An irrelevant third choice is added that is a less attractive version of Person A. Person A now gets selected as more attractive at a 2 to 1 rate. (This is called the Decoy Effect.)

Principle: how we offer choices has a great deal to do with what people do with them. In general, make the default something you want to happen and keep the number of choices down. I violate this all the time, making choices in class too open, too complex, or too unclear. Typically people vastly underestimate the effect of choice architecture on their decisions.

Participation: a sub-area under choice architecture.
More participation: forced choice, color-coded choices, fun registration, simple straightforward information, few steps, reward participation, more complexity
Less participation: stress the importance or urgency, require multiple steps,

Inspiration: A savvy pearl producer found no demand for black pearls and created a huge market for them by setting the price point at exorbitant and only offering them from one exclusive Manhattan jewelry store.

Experiment: Participants were asked to write down a random number by a range of items. Later their bids for those items correlated strongly with the random number written down, while they maintained that it had absolutely no effect.

Principle: Our first impression of the worth or value for something has a huge effect on future valuation. This makes me think about how teachers describe assignments or homework. We should be more intentional about the imprinting we can control over students future valuation of  the tasks we want them to do. If we want to break an imprinting, we need to do everything possible to distinguish our idea from related ideas. Starbucks made their experience as different as possible from Dunkin Donuts, and people didn't evaluate their prices by DD prices.

Inspiration: having broken down and paid Starbucks' prices for coffee once, we are much more likely to do so again.

Principle: Once we have made a decision, we are likely to do the same thing again, because we remember our actions better than the emotional states that led to those actions. Good and bad news for teachers, in terms of habits formed and repetitive behaviors. The positive spin on this for me is that it is worth a significant teacher investment to start something new because it will have momentum for the students by this principle. We won't have to sell it so heavily the 2nd and 3rd time.

Pluralistic Ignorance:
Inspiration: in this video clip of an Ariely lecture, he speaks from a randomly generated script for 3 minutes with no student questions. Finally he stops and poses the question, "why did nobody stop me and ask what I was saying?"

Principle: we make inferences from the behavior of people around us that we value more than our own perception. This is deadly for us, I think. How many times have I thought, or have I heard a teacher say, "but no one had any questions!"


  1. Wow! This is a fabulous collection of ideas. Keep 'em coming!

    I'm going to try to identify something I can do in a class, related to each one, and then decide which ones I'd actually like to do.


  2. Hi John. Just saw this post. I'm also really into behavioral economics. I have been working on a similar set of ideas. Check it out if you have time: http://robertkaplinsky.com/tag/behavioral-economics/