How gratitude can help your bank balance (and more)

June 27, 2014 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Social Brain 

Saying “thank you” feels good. And not just for the person on the receiving end (when there is one), but also for the person doing the thanking: it seems that practicing gratitude can help people to focus on the positive and improve wellbeing. While researching aspects of financial capability for one of our upcoming papers, I came across a new study showing that the benefits of gratitude may extend even further.

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Classroom observations: what’s the best fix for a good but not perfect measure?

Imagine having someone follow you around, observing you for just a fraction of a day, to assess your capability on the job.  Sounds nerve wracking.  This is how many teachers are evaluated, and new research suggests that these observations are not altogether reliable.

Although observations as a means of teacher assessment may be favoured over other methods such as gains in pupil standardised test score, we should be wary of relying too heavily on observations as they currently stand.  A new paper out by the Brookings Institute reports that an assessment of teachers via observations is biased based on the existing ability level of the pupils in the class. That is, if the same teacher was dropped into in a better-performing class, he would be rated more favourably than if he had been dropped into a group of lower-performing pupils.

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Behavioural science’s wide reach: a boat on the Thames and beyond

April 23, 2014 by · 2 Comments
Filed under: Social Brain 

A world-renowned academic, an advertising and communications guru, a boat, booze, and behavioural science. It can only mean one thing: Behavioural Boozenomics is having a birthday party! But behavioural science is about more than just booze and banter, and its reach is extending beyond the niche into the mainstream. Read more

Daniel Kahneman on religion, wellbeing, and thinking fast and slow

March 21, 2014 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Social Brain 

What a treat to see Daniel Kahneman here in London on Tuesday night at the beautiful Methodist Central Hall, just next door to Westminster Abbey and Big Ben.


image from How to: Acadmey

Kahneman is a Nobel Prize-winning psychologist and a charismatic speaker who explains complex ideas in a very accessible way making them relevant to a wide audience. Regular readers of the Social Brain blog will probably already be aware of the key concepts in his bestselling book Thinking Fast and Slow, including that we can be thought as having two “systems” of thinking.

For those not familiar with his work, there are many summaries and reviews of the book available online; this recent article out earlier this week gives a quick overview of the main idea of TFaS. And a very over-simplified explanation of these systems follows:  Our System 1 is fast and automatic, these are gut reactions. Our System 2 is slower, requires effort, and is more deliberate. System 1 does a wonderful (or at least good-enough) job most of the time. System 2 often ‘endorses’ or goes along with System 1’s judgement or decision, although sometimes System 2 overrides our initial reaction. Kahneman’s decades of research has illustrated that while for the most part this job-sharing works quite well for us, problems can crop us when System 1 makes mistakes in its haste and then when System 2 fails to recognise and override them.

The book also describes other areas of closely-related research, including Prospect Theory and the difference between our Experiencing Self and Remembering Self. Prospect Theory offered economists a fresh way to understand utility, and one of its key ideas is that we are loss averse – losses sting more than gains feel good – a concept on which we based our headline and somewhat provocative recommendation in our recent publication Everyone Starts with an A, published last week.

The event on Tuesday was not the typical economics talk. The chair, comedian and TV personality David Baddiel, asked more philosophical questions than typically asked about the book (at least in the talks I have attended!), and the conversation turned towards such topics as dementia, atheism/religion, and wellbeing.

For example, using the ‘two selves’ distinction explained in the book, the effects of dementia could be thought of as a shift in balance from our remembering self to our experiencing self.  Regarding religion, Kahneman and Baddiel discussed how our yearning to create stories or narrative, along with the confirmation bias, might play a role in adherence to religions (including atheism). Kahneman continued by explaining that we have two ways of perceiving causality: physical and intentional. The conviction that intentions can have physical effects may provide an interesting way of looking at religion.

The discussion on wellbeing was particularly timely as this week was also the second annual International Day of Happiness (March 20). Kahneman explained that over the years he has reviewed his definition of wellbeing.  He used to think that wellbeing was the sum of the quality of someone’s lived experiences. Now this has shifted to take both the experiencing and remembering selves into consideration: our subjective reflection on our everyday experiences and major life events matter too. People want to have good stories about themselves, which depends both on how you experience something in the moment and also how you remember experiencing it.

The 2000-seat hall was completely packed and the event was sold out. I think I spotted Lord Richard Layard, economist and founder of Action for Happiness, in the audience, and there is an unconfirmed rumour that Richard Dawkins was in attendance as well. Unfortunately there does not seem to be a video recording of the event, but if you can find one it would be well worth a watch. In Kahneman terms, my experiencing self enjoyed the evening, and my remembering self enjoyed and continues to enjoy it.


Nathalie Spencer is a Senior Researcher in the RSA’s Social Brain Centre.

Are we failing to fully understand failure?

March 18, 2014 by · 11 Comments
Filed under: Education Matters, Social Brain 

Wow.  What fortnight it has been!

The press coverage from our most recent publication about using behavioural insight in the classroom, Everyone Starts with an A, has been exciting, interesting, and somewhat exhausting.

We have been featured in the Telegraph, the Times, the TES, the Daily Mail, GovToday, and others.  Jonathan appeared on BBC Breakfast on Sunday morning, and Louise and Nathalie did various radio interviews over the past few days, including Drive Time, Radio 5 Live, and Voice of Russia.  And Jonathan has been engaging in lively twitter conversations on the topic.  This is all in addition to the very welcome reception we got in Germany early last week, with articles in Die Welt, Die Sueddeutscher Allgemeine, and on the front page of Der Spiegel (with over 3,600 Facebook likes).

We have received many supportive comments from people who see the merit in trying out the approaches suggested in the report.  It’s also fair to say, though, that not all of the comments have been positive and in fact many of them are from critics who seem to think that use of these approaches only serve to molly-coddle our pupils and fail to set them up for the harsh realities of the adult world.

But to think that these recommendations molly-coddle our youth is to misunderstand them or the science behind them. It seems that the people commenting like this are commenting on what they know from the newspaper articles, not from our report itself.  So, in an attempt to clear up the confusion, let’s review the two most contentious recommendations from the report: everyone starts with an A, and give a ‘not yet’ grade instead of a ‘fail’. 


Everyone starts with an A.

Yes, yes, I know, we chose this as our title, so of course people will ask about it! But “Everyone starts with an A” is a lot catchier than the full explanation of “try giving your students an A at the beginning of the year, so that instead of working up to it they have to work hard to avoid losing it, because a well-known insight from behavioural science is that we tend to be ‘loss averse’ and thus are more motivated to avoid giving something up than we are to try to gain it”. It just doesn’t have the same ring to it. When months have been invested into a project such as this, it is not surprising that we want our ideas to broadcast and shared widely.  So we did pick one of the most provocative recommendations from the paper in our title, in the hopes of generating interest in the report.  And generate interest it did. But the flip side of picking a provocative title is that understandably all of the nuances and background behind it get lost throughout the chain. With each additional press release or article, the message gets somewhat warped, and “everyone starts with an A” can turn into “give students something they don’t have to work for” (for the record, that is NOT what we are suggesting!).

One misconception from critics is that this makes the A meaningless.  Perhaps the first thing to say here is that, in our approach, just because you start out with an A doesn’t mean that you keep it. So at the end of the term (project, year, etc) it will not be the case that the entire class has achieved an A (but wouldn’t that be great?); some students will get an A and others won’t.  The criteria for maintaining the A and how readily it is lost will be up to the teacher.  So the A is no less meaningless or meaningful than it is in a traditional method of assessment. The key here is simply reframing the starting point so that instead of starting from the bottom, the pupils are starting from the top.

This reframing serves two purposes.

First, it is likely to improve effort levels.  We know from behavioural science that people feel the pain of a loss more so than the pleasure of a similar gain. Decades of research by Nobel Prize winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman (who is speaking in London tonight) and many others in the field support this. And this concept has been tested in the classroom by Levitt et al, who offered students a reward if they improved on a test. For some students, they were told: take the test, we’ll grade it, if you’ve improved then you’ll get the reward.  For others, they were told: here’s the reward (given upfront), take the test, we’ll grade it, if you’ve improved then you’ll keep the reward but if you haven’t improved then we’ll take it back. It’s worth repeating that both groups had the same  basic set-up of “be rewarded for showing improvement” and the only difference was whether the reward was given after the fact or before (with the threat of losing it). The researchers found that the second group performed better on the test, illustrating that this type of reframing may influence pupils effort levels.

Second, when a pupil starts out with an A, this plants a seed in their mind that they too are capable of achieving this grade.  It is not reserved for the “brainy” or other select few; with the right effort, persistence, and support they too have the potential to keep this grade.  Shifting pupils’ expectations can influence their own performance in meaningful ways.

Critics have also claimed that if you start with an A, the only way is down.  This is responded to in more detail in this previous blog post, but the quick reply to this is that throughout the year a pupil’s grade might rise and fall in either approach – whether you start from the bottom or the top – and the point of our method is to change the starting point.  (An even quicker reply is in this blog post, possibly the shortest ever on the RSA website).


Give a ‘not yet’ grade instead of a ‘fail’.

This is NOT, as some people have interpreted it, about “banning negative words”.  This approach is about communicating the setback in such a way as to focus on the process of learning rather than on personal traits. As explained by Jonathan in this previous post,  “Failure will always be an important part of any learning process, but there is a huge difference between communicating failure in a way that signifies you are failing because you are not good enough, and failing because what you have done is not yet good enough.”

Educational psychologist Carol Dweck explains that the way we think about intelligence, ability, and performance sits along a spectrum between two very different mindsets: the fixed mindset and the growth mindset.  A fixed mindset is the belief that ability is a relatively unchangeable trait; in contrast, a growth mindset is the belief that ability can be improved with practice and persistence, just like a muscle can be strengthened through lifting weights.  Dweck’s research shows that a fixed mindset student will be proud when they get an answer correct, but when they come up against a set-back, they lose motivation because to them it signifies that they have reached the capacity of their (fixed) ability. Growth mindset students also feel proud when they do well, but they attribute it not to a personal trait but instead to the steps that they took to get there.  When growth mindset students encounter a setback, they are more likely to stay resilient and motivated, because they understand that with more practice and support they can improve next time. Our suggestion to give a “not yet” grade instead of a “fail” is one way in which a growth mindset can be encouraged in the classroom.

There are other ways of fostering in pupils a growth mindset, too, beyond this ‘not yet’ approach.  For example the way that teachers and parents give feedback can have affect mindsets.  Praising for ability or intelligence (“Great! You’re so clever!”) fosters a fixed mindset, whereas praising for the process (“Great! You really focussed while working on that problem set!”) helps to build a growth mindset.  Additionally, teaching students about the brain and how connections are made while we are learning serves to both explain that indeed we can continue to learn and improve throughout our lives, and also highlights the universality of learning and thus might especially help those pupils who self-identify as being part of a group around which there are certain stigmas or pre-conceptions (based e.g. on gender, ethnicity, or socioeconomic status).

In a recent email to us in response to the report, one reader, the head of psychology in a large college, wrote in with a wonderful quote which I think sums up the spirit of this chapter:  “My experience over many years has lead me to a mantra which I bore my students with, ‘there is no such thing as brainy, there is just hard worky’.”


Free download available

Hopefully these two explanations will go some way towards clarifying these two particularly attention-grabbing recommendations.  We encourage people to read the report here and to download the accompanying poster.

I don’t want to leave the impression that all the responses to the report or the recommendations therein have been critical. We have received many, many kind comments and supportive emails; thank you to those who have written in. The report has been described as “brave”, “hopeful”, and “insightful” and many recognise that the behavioural science underpinning these recommendations has a lot to offer to educational policy and practice.

Mindsets, biases and the implausible importance of plants: Classroom tools to unlock pupil motivation

March 12, 2014 by · 3 Comments
Filed under: Education Matters, Social Brain 

We’re delighted to announce that the Social Brain and Education teams’ newest report was launched yesterday in Berlin. The paper, supported by Vodafone Foundation Germany, explores the application of behavioural insight in the classroom to improve learning, and is the first in the RSA’s history to be published in both English and a foreign language.

VFG launch

(L-R) Sebastian Gallander, Louise Bamfield, Nathalie Spencer, Ingrid Baumgartner-Schmitt

The report builds on recent research from behavioural science and our evolving understanding of human nature to explore how effort, motivation, learning enjoyment, and performance might be influenced in ways not often traditionally recognised. To support our research, we consulted experts in education policy and practice specialising in motivation, ran a survey of over 750 educators in England, and conducted focus groups with teachers in Germany to co-develop a set of tools and techniques which we encourage teachers to trial in their own classrooms.

The concepts covered in the report, summarised here in an earlier blog post or below in this video clip, were very well received by the German audience. Mrs Ingrid Baumgartner-Schmitt, a school principal, offered a practitioner’s perspective on the value of the recommendations provided in the report. She explained the need for teachers to be given the space and time to trial various approaches and develop their understanding of the complex processes involved in learning and motivation.



With this report we hope to start a conversation, one that will be continued by practitioners. German speakers are encouraged to visit the website, developed by the Vodafone Foundation Germany, to share their experiences of trialling out the tools and to exchange ideas about other potential tips and techniques.

If you don’t want to wrestle with the German version available here, you won’t have to wait long, as the English version will be published on the RSA website this Friday (March 14th). Mark the calendar and revisit the website for a free download!

The problem with fines is that they can turn into fees

January 24, 2014 by · 5 Comments
Filed under: Social Brain 

If you are late, you have to pay a price. Normally it’s the social price of mild shame, but what happens when you are asked to pay an economic price instead?

The front page of yesterday’s Metro announced a £60 fine imposed on parents if their children are late for school.  At first blush this might seem like an obvious solution to a simple problem: to deter an unwanted behaviour, make it less attractive by imposing a monetary fine on it. But research from behavioural science shows that this model of change does not always pan out in real life.

The question is whether and how this £60 fine will affect parents’ actions; to this end research by Uri Gneezy and Aldo Rustichini detailed in their paper “A Fine is a Price” offers a potential answer. The researchers tested the effect of imposing a fine on parents for late collection of their children from a child care centre, and found, perhaps surprisingly, that late pick-ups increased under the fine.

The researchers tested the effect of imposing a fine on parents for late collection of their children from a child care centre, and found, perhaps surprisingly, that late pick-ups increased under the fine.

Whereas prior to the implementation of the fine policy parents would typically feel guilty about coming late, the monetary penalty served as a way to “pay” for their tardiness, thus absolving them of their guilt. It seems that for many people simply paying a fee is preferable to the emotional penalty of feeling ashamed or guilty. The take home message from Gneezy and Rustichini’s research is that introducing a monetary penalty can change a context from being a social transaction to a market transaction, and once this change occurs, it is very hard to revert back to the original relationship which is guided by social norms.

According to the Metro article, at least someone is aware of this risk. “Chris McGovern, of the Campaign for Real Education, warned: ‘They could undermine relations between school and parents – the cornerstone of any school’s success.’

It is possible, if not likely, that the £60 fine policy being imposed by three schools in Milton Keynes would fall prey to the same surprising results as the child care centre experiment, where the intrinsic motivation to be on time is crowded out by extrinsic drivers.  But the £60 policy may have other surprising consequences too, due to the conditions of the fine.  According to the article by Le Marie, the fine is imposed on parents for each child who is late 10 or more times in a 12-week term, payable within 21 days.  If the fine goes unpaid it doubles to £120 payable within 28 days.

Firstly, the policy changes the norm. Since a child needs to be late 10 times to get the fine, those parents or carers who are frequently late – say 6 or 7 times in a 12-week term – might change their point of reference.  Perhaps they will no longer compare themselves to the ideal (always on time) but instead to the most salient marker (which now is being late 10 times), so rather than feeling relatively bad about their tardiness they may start to feel “better than average” or at least “better than the worst”.

Secondly, one could question the efficacy of such steep non-payment (or late-payment) penalties.  A 100% penalty would be considered heavy, even compared to the oft-vilified payday loans (on average charging a £12-£25 late fee on a £100 loan).  Behavioural economist Sendhil Mullainathan and Psychologist Eldar Shafir explain in their book Scarcity that humans’ cognitive resources are limited, and when we are struggling to deal with not having enough of something such as time or money, our decision-making ability is impaired.

In effect, we become so busy trying to juggle certain pressures that we don’t have the mental energy left to deal with other challenges, such as, for example, bringing our child to school on time. One way to mitigate this sub-optimal decision making in the peripheral domains is to relieve some of the pressure on the major problem (e.g. lack of time or money) – exactly the opposite of slapping an expensive fine onto a parent, potentially further exacerbating the underlying issue.

This point was echoed by Netmums founder Siobhan Freegard’s statement that “‘Children who are frequently late to school are often from chaotic family backgrounds. Taking money away from struggling parents could just make a bad situation worse.’

Last November an article in The Guardian noted that parents wishing to take their children out from school for holiday during term time would be faced with a similar fine.  The initial results of this policy show that applications for taking children out of school have in fact increased since its introduction.

It is yet to be known whether Milton Keynes’s borough-wide £60 fine policy will change rates of tardiness.  But both the behavioural science research and the failure of the term-time holiday penalty suggest that the policy will not work.  These effects, surprising to many, illustrate why it is so important to question our underlying assumptions about human nature, and to trial interventions on a small scale before rolling out a large scale policy change.


Nathalie Spencer is a behavioural economist at The RSA’s Social Brain Centre. Reach her at

Article on term-time holiday penalty h/t Chris Gaskell.

Laughing about climate change

January 15, 2014 by · 2 Comments
Filed under: Social Brain 

Ever heard of a stand-up economist?  I hadn’t either, until I was invited to see Yoram Bauman’s gig here in London last Friday night. Dubbed “the world’s first and only stand up economist”, he began the night with delightful puns to tickle the hidden economist within anyone (think along the lines of “my father said I was crazy and there is no demand for it, but that’s ok because I’m a supply-side performer”).

laughing audience image by hebedesign

laughing audience image by hebedesign

As if a stand-up economist isn’t a surprise enough in itself, there were more surprises throughout the night. Around mid-gig, the tone got rather more serious and Bauman, who is also an environmental economist, began speaking about climate change.

I’ve been to quite a few (non-economics) comedy gigs in my time, and there is always a level of nervous laughter. In fact, that’s one reason why comedians engage with the audience in the beginning of a show, to create the nervous energy with people who are afraid of being put on display, as nerves and laughter go hand in hand. But when Bauman started talking about climate change it was a different type of nervousness that seemed to quietly fill the room.

Although he presented some optimistic graphs, for example showing that while using a ‘revenue-neutral carbon tax’ approach British Columbia’s GDP per capita had a better growth rate than the rest of Canada (good news for those who don’t want climate change mitigation to be at the expense of economic growth, but this deserves a whole different discussion), most of the facts presented were decidedly depressing. We have a real problem to face up to.

In the Social Brain Centre’s recent report A new agenda on climate change: Facing up to stealth denial and winding down on fossil fuels, one of the findings is that people don’t talk much about climate change. In fact, only 60% of a representative sample of Britons has ever had a conversation about the issue, and of those who do talk about it the majority (71%) spend less than 10 minutes on it.

conversations cropped

Perhaps sneaking climate change into a comedy routine is one approach to starting a longer discussion. After all, Bauman had a captive audience, and with the promise of more jokes after the climate change part was done, had an incentive to stay and listen. Worryingly, Bauman admitted that after one particular gig, someone from the audience remarked that “the climate change part was the funniest bit”. Not suggesting that the rest of the material was unfunny, but illustrating that perhaps the concept of climate change is so uncomfortable that we dismiss it or disavow it, preferring instead to think that the catastrophe is being overblown to comedic proportions.

So while climate change is no laughing matter, balancing the gravity of the issue with a certain levity – just enough to make the concept a little less uncomfortable – may help to prevent disavowal and encourage longer conversations about the topic. The stand-up economist might just be on to something.


Nathalie Spencer is a Senior Researcher in the Social Brain Centre

Social Brain’s Top 10 of 2013

December 20, 2013 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Social Brain, Uncategorized 

If there are two things I know, they’re that a) time goes by too quickly and b) everyone loves a list. So with this in mind and with 2013 drawing to a close, we thought it would be a good time to reflect on the work that we’ve done in the Social Brain Centre here at the RSA.  Below we offer you the top 10 “best of” the Social Brain blogs, in chronological order. Enjoy!


In The Key to Eternal Happiness, Nathalie discusses the difficulty of sticking to goals and offers a way to reposition the want/should conflict (what I should do isn’t always what I want to do now) to understand how we can help ourselves to be both happy now and happy later.

Divided Brain, Divided World introduces a publication of the same name, which is a Q&A between Jonathan and Dr Iain McGilchrist, author of The Master and His Emissary, and a series of reflections from other parties. McGilchrist’s work is the subject of one of our much-loved RSAAnimates.

In What older people want: Sex, Skydiving and Tattoos, our late colleague Emma announced the launch of a report in association with Hanover Housing Association, provides key findings, and offers some quotes illustrating the divergent views of ageing.

We argue in Two types of climate radicalism that to live with climate change we must either accept radical change or we must radically ignore or deny the concept.  This foreshadowed the in-depth report, A new Agenda on Climate Change, published this week.

The post When was the last time you went on a Saving Spree?  describes some innovative new tools to help people save more money and improve their personal finances.

We pay tribute to our late colleague, Emma Lindley, in Emma and In Memory of Dr Emma Lindley.  She is sorely missed and remains in our thoughts and hearts.

Taking Spirituality Seriously talks us through the ‘so what?’, and ‘why bother?’ questions of Spirituality to introduce our current programme of work, including a series of workshops and public events.

We describe one way that behavioural science might be used in schools to help boost performance in Starting with an A, giving a taste of a forthcoming report which will be published in both English and German.

The Guardian’s sustainable business hub section features Jonathan’s Changing Behaviour: How Deep Do You Want to go? 

Recently, again in anticipation of the climate change report, the Can we save the planet, keep the lights on, and avoid freezing to death? post explains the ‘energy trilemma’ and what it means for our strategies to mitigate climate change.


Given all the blogs we’ve written this year, it was difficult to pare down the list. These are not necessarily the most-viewed posts, but together they give a glimpse into the range of projects we have been working on this year. Keep your eyes peeled for publication announcements in the near future.

Most importantly, thank you for all of your interest, (re)tweets, Facebook likes, and thoughtful comments throughout the year. We’re looking forward to continuing our blogging in 2014!

Many warm wishes for a happy holiday season to all of our readers,

From the Social Brain Centre


The RSA will be closed for the holidays from December 24rd 2013 to January 1st 2014, inclusive.

Being Thankful (or, chipmunks dressed as pilgrims)

November 28, 2013 by · 4 Comments
Filed under: Social Brain 

At the risk of being a bit corny, I’m going to use today – the holiday of Thanksgiving in the US – to write about what I am thankful for.

This isn’t to wave a flag and to offer even more insight into American culture than we already get on a daily basis, but rather, it’s to link the holiday to the act of paying attention, one of the key themes of the RSA’s Social Brain Centre.

Thanksgiving Card


As we’ve previously blogged, paying attention to the positive aspects in your life can help to build emotional resilience (for a great exercise, see our late colleague Emma’s post about poetry and attention), and Jonathan wrote about the power of gratitude.  So with this in mind, I’d like to declare three things for which I am thankful.

I am thankful that I am lucky enough to work in a field about which I am passionate, trying to learn and understand more about human nature and behaviour, what makes us tick, and how these insights can be applied to some of the many challenges of our time, including climate change and the socioeconomic performance gap in education among others.

I am immensely thankful for my friends and family, both near and far, many of whom will be celebrating today with a roast turkey.

And I am thankful for the great card from Louise, Associate Director of Education, which elicited a laugh and which makes me smile each time I glance at it – see the photo above!


Creating your own gratitude list is easy enough, but if you’d like to share it with others, I’ve just come across the gratitude list website where it looks like you can read what celebrities are thankful for and share your own lists, too.

To those celebrating, wishing you a very happy thanksgiving!

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