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.
Article on term-time holiday penalty h/t Chris Gaskell.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
… and to non-economists, too.
A few weeks ago I attended a launch for the book Behavioural Public Policy. The book, a collection of academic papers with considered responses from other academics, is edited by Adam Oliver, and is born out of the suite of seminars he ran at the LSE (London School of Economics) in 2011.
The book launch, held in the LSE’s impressive Shaw library (similarly inspiring as the RSA’s Great Room), comprised an introduction from Adam and some short reflections from Julian Le Grand, Lord Gus O’Donnell, Drazen Prelec, and George Loewenstein. The RSA’s Social Brain Centre explores how a better understanding of human nature can be used to help address some of the challenges of our time, so a book about behaviour and policy sits nicely within our reference library. Here are some highlights of the evening:
Understanding behaviour is key to effective government policy
Kicking off the reflections, Lord Gus O’Donnell began with overwhelmingly positive praise for behavioural economics, explaining that in his view it is the biggest thing to happen to public policy in 30 years. (Despite all this positivity, Lord O’Donnell said he is working with Angus Deaton to investigate the question “when does an RCT go wrong?”).
In a very entertaining way of bringing theory to life, O’Donnell went through each of the components of MINDSPACE to demonstrate how the environment and situation were working to subtly influence our decision about whether to buy the book. For example, looking at the messenger effect, if Adam were to praise the book we would know that he has a vested interest, whereas since Lord O’Donnell was praising the book we can trust his endorsement. Incentives were of the standard economic type: the book was on sale at a special discounted price for the event. But our drive to avoid anticipated regret makes the limited-time discount all the more powerful. In terms of commitment, we had all already chosen to attend the event and made the effort to get there; remaining consistent with this commitment by buying the book would be a natural next step. And in my favourite example, for the affect component Lord O’Donnell pointed out that we had all been served wine.
Julian le Grand continued by summarising some of the key concerns about using behavioural science in policy, namely, that it could be seen to infantilise people, and, referring to the famous Titmuss paper about blood donation, that it is not always obvious how people will respond to incentives.
Better than psychology or just a tempest in a teapot?
Drazen Prelec continued the conversation with a very balanced view of the impact of behavioural economics. On the one hand, “behavioural economics is a tempest in the economics teapot”, in that it is (simply) a deviation from a point of view (the point of view of neoclassical economic theory). He explained that some of the insights from BE are really just a restoration of common sense. But on the other hand, some important findings have emerged and these insights would not have been available if the researchers were not “already marinated in the economics way of thinking”. In this sense, behavioural economics has something different to offer than does psychology.
Prelec offered three aspects of a Nudge approach that should be carefully taken into consideration as it becomes more widespread: transparency (of the nudgers’ interests), accountability for the outcome (is the nudger or the nudgee to blame for a failed intervention?), and neutrality (i.e. what values underpin the ‘neutral’ default option?).
George Loewenstein finished off the evening with his forecast about what will happen now that behavioural economics is becoming less niche and more mainstream, extending beyond academia and now into policy making and elsewhere. Echoing an earlier op-ed piece in the New York Times, Loewenstein asserted that the role of BE is to augment or increase the power of traditional economics. There is a risk that some people have seen it to be a substitute, rather than a complement, to standard econ theory.
Here he quoted Colin Camerer about neuroeconomics with an absolutely brilliant line, and applied the sentiment to behavioural economics: “the problem isn’t that we are overselling it; the problem is that it’s being over bought”. Loewenstein praised the Behavioural Public Policy book for avoiding the over-selling and offering instead a balanced view, and ended by stating his optimism that the field will work together with – not in opposition to – traditional economics.
What was great about the event is also what seems to be refreshing about the book: even-handed and thoughtful discussion about both the benefits and the limitations of behavioural economics, instead of an all-out love-fest. Although I readily admit to being one BE’s loudest cheerleaders, I appreciate that to understand its strengths, one must also understand its weaknesses.
Having attended nearly all of the Behavioural Public Policy seminars that Adam Oliver hosted, the chapter headings are no surprise to me. But the book includes responses to the papers and I expect will be more developed than the seminars, so I am glad that I was there to get a copy and to chat with fellow BE-enthusiasts. And in any case, recalling Lord O’Donnell’s comments, the launch provided entertaining insight into how behavioural science is used in practice – to flog books!
A version of this blog was originally posted here on 5th November 2013.
A discount code for the book Behavioural Public Policy is available here.
“Imagine a classroom where everyone started off an academic year with an “A” grade, and in order to keep the grade, a pupil had to show continuous improvement throughout the year. In this classroom, the teacher would have to dock points from a pupil’s assessment when his or her performance or achievement was inadequate, and pupils would work to maintain their high mark rather than to work up to it. How would this affect effort, expectations, performance, and assessment relative to current practice?”
This is one of the questions we pose in our upcoming paper, due to be published next month, which explores the application of behavioural insight to educational policy and practice.
Specifically, we are concerned with the socio-economic attainment gap – the difference in performance between pupils from affluent backgrounds and those from deprived backgrounds. We’ve been working with the Vodafone Foundation Germany to understand the education context in Germany, where the gap is particularly severe.
While no country has yet to achieve a fully equitable system where educational attainment is not correlated with socioeconomic background, the UK, Germany, the USA, France, Austria, Bulgaria, Belgium, and New Zealand, among many others, are worse than the OECD average. So while our paper reviews the German context in particular, the message is applicable across many different parts of the globe.
So what is the big idea with everyone starting with an A? Regular readers of this blog might recognise that this approach taps into our tendency to want to avoid a loss – more so than we want to receive an equivalent gain – a tendency known as loss aversion.
Loss aversion just one of many behavioural insights that we explore, where the term behavioural insight is used to describe the application of behavioural science (comprising many different fields, including behavioural economics and social psychology among others).
Our paper includes the distillation of academic theory that would be expected, but we also turned to educators to get their perspectives on the practicality and value of applying behavioural insight in the classroom. To do this, we conducted focus groups with teachers in Berlin (see Josef Lentsch’s blog post from earlier this year for a glimpse into that experience), ran a survey with YouGov to explore views of teachers in England, and drew on a report that Vodafone Foundation Germany published earlier this year about teacher, parent, and pupil perspectives on a range of educational issues.
The paper be published in both English and German, and we’ll provide another update closer to the date with a link from which you will be able to download the report.
The European Commission will be holding a conference at the end of the month on the theme applying behavioural insights to policy-making.
Here in the Social Brain Centre at the RSA, we too are interested in the application of behavioural insights to various behaviour change challenges across many different policy areas. For example, we will soon be publishing a report exploring the application of behavioural insight to the socio-economic educational attainment gap (the difference in performance between pupils from relatively affluent and relatively poor backgrounds), and in the pipeline is another important piece of work examining the barriers to behaviour change in the context of mitigating climate change.
So the European Commission conference is particularly relevant for our team. According to the conference website, “the conference presentations and discussions will tackle several key questions, among which:
- How can behavioural insights be collected and applied?
- What role can behavioural insights play in informing policy interventions?
- Which are the most relevant examples where the behavioural approach improved the effectiveness of policy measures?
- What are the main challenges and achievements of the trials run at a national level?”
I am really looking forward to attending the conference, not only for the chance to binge on Belgian chocolates, but also for the opportunity to explore these questions in greater depth and exchange ideas with fellow conference participants. If you, as a reader of this blog, are planning on attending, please do find me and introduce yourself.
For more information about the conference please visit the dedicated website.
Readers of this blog may already be aware of the tragic news that Social Brain colleague Emma Lindley recently passed away. Below, I offer to you a poem I selected and read in Emma’s memory earlier this week at a staff gathering in her honour. Tributes by colleagues Jonathan Rowson, Gaia Marcus, and Matthew Taylor are also available.
I’d like to read a poem in Emma’s honour; but first, some background:
Some may remember that Emma wrote a blog post earlier this year about world poetry day. This was the first time I learned that she was a poetry buff and more specifically a fan of poet William Carlos Williams. I am a novice but from my limited exposure I too am a William Carlos Williams fan, so together we had a really lovely exchange about poetry in general and his work in particular.
More recently, when I “discovered” a famous poet of a similar style, Emma and I were in touch again and we had planned on taking some time to get a coffee and chatting more about this genre when she was next in the office.
So I thought it would be fitting to read out a poem today in Emma’s honour, a William Carlos Williams poem that I chose because it illustrates the quality of paying careful attention to the essence of a thing, a quality about which she wrote very elegantly in her blog post.
Emma wrote: “His poems often convey a certain haecceitas – the quality of ‘thisness’ – capturing something very particular. In the Social Brain Centre, we’re interested in the importance of attention, and one of the possibilities offered by Carlos Williams’ poetry is to focus attention very acutely. In a way, I think his poems illustrate mindfulness in action.”
With this in mind, I’d like to read “To a Solitary Disciple” by WCW.
Rather notice, mon cher,
that the moon is
the point of the steeple
than that its color
that it is early morning
than that the sky
as a turquoise.
how the dark
of the steeple
meet at a pinnacle —
its little ornament
tries to stop them-
See how it fails!
See how the converging lines
of the hexagonal spire
that guard and contain
the eaten moon
lies in the protective lines.
It is true:
in the light colors
of the morning
brown-stone and slate
shine orange and dark blue
the oppressive weight
of the squat edifice!
the jasmine lightness
of the moon.
In memory of Dr Emma Lindley.
“I think a lot of what people call intelligence just boils down to curiosity.” – Aaron Swartz
A quick straw poll around the office revealed that when people think about curiosity, the first things that pop into their heads are: cats (presumably killed by their disposition); children asking “why?” ad infinitum; or mad professors.
image by chez andre 1
But there is more to curiosity than that. And to help people explore the concept, three RSA Fellows have collaborated to start an organisation called The Curiosity Bureau.
I had the pleasure of meeting up with Becca, Tom, and Anton last year after the publication of the Social Brain team’s report The Power of Curiosity: how linking inquisitiveness to innovation could help address our energy challenges, and when the Bureau was just starting.
In our report, we explain the many sides of curiosity. Curiosity can be more perceptual and tactile, when you want to touch, smell, hear something, or can be more about information and knowledge acquired through books, for example. It can be directed an answering a specific question, or it can be more exploratory, jumping from thought to thought, making connections between various ideas.
Curiosity is an important driver of innovation, in at least two ways. Curiosity is a valuable ingredient of divergent thinking, or coming up with many different possible options and ways of interpreting a problem, which is helpful in generating creative solutions. It also provides intrinsic motivation, helping the innovator to persevere through difficult or slow-going phases of developing the solution.
Becca, Tom and Anton help others to explore curiosity through a range of services, including events. Since our first meeting, they have kindly kept us updated with the progress of the Curiosity Bureau, and it seems that they have certainly been keeping busy: the Bureau hosted a popular tactile curiosity workshop this summer, and they are expanding to Bergen, Norway. And we were pleased to hear that a recent piece in the RSA Journal has provided them with some further inspiration and provoked thought about the relationship between empathy and curiosity.
We’re always pleased to see when RSA Fellows’ ideas cross over with those we’re exploring through our research – and especially so when they’re putting them into practice in creative ways. We’d love to hear your comments about what curiosity means to you, and/or about how you are connecting with Fellows on a scale small or large.
Curious about the Curiosity Bureau? See their website.
The work of the Action and Research team depends on the generosity of Fellows and funders; find out how you or your organisation can support the RSA.
Nathalie Spencer is a Senior Researcher, Social Brain.
Sam Thomas is Project Engagement Manager, Fellowship.
Saving money can be hard to do, especially given the current economic climate and falling real wages. It can be difficult emotionally, too, with a recent report published by the Money Advice Service finding that many people prefer to spend their money “more on the here and now than on planning for the future.” But with the right help, maybe saving can even be fun.
Picture the scene: you are browsing online just about to purchase a t-shirt. You don’t actually really need another t-shirt, after all it looks exactly like all the others in your closet, but it is 30% off, so for £10 why not? But just before your online checkout, a message pops up asking whether you’d like to add £10 – instead of (or in addition to) making the purchase – to a savings account named “new computer”, “honeymoon fund”, or perhaps more important but somewhat less motivating “unforeseen emergencies”. Or, as you are waiting for the barista to hand you your coffee you eye up the croissants on the café counter. It looks tasty, so you consider adding it to your order, but instead, you use your phone to transfer the £2 you would have spent on the croissant into your savings pot designated for a gourmet foodie weekend in Paris.
image via edudemic.com
This is what ImpulseSave, a small Boston-based organisation is helping savers to do. Their motto, “go on a saving spree!” reflects its basic function of replacing spending with saving. According to this article, ImpulseSave allows you to transfer money into a savings account via text or app, and provides prompts to save while you are shopping online. Similar to some other savings tools, your savings account is named for a specific goal, so you always have in mind what your savings is building towards. Smarty Pig, another savings tool, also uses named accounts to keep the goal salient, but rather than making impulse saves, you set up automatic transfers from an existing account. How it differs from more conventional bank accounts is that you can share your progress online via various social media and friends or family can actually contribute to your savings pot to help you towards your goal.
The Social Brain Centre has argued elsewhere that saving money can be hugely beneficial to people; having a financial buffer can influence upward social mobility, effective decision making, and psychological wellbeing. But despite its benefits, many people find it hard to save.
So what do savings tools like ImpulseSave and SmartyPig offer to help people save more, that more traditional tools such as budget planners, while helpful, don’t seem to provide? Traditional tools assume that as long as people understand their incomings and outgoings, they will behave in such a way as to stay within their means. But just knowing the budget, while necessary, is not sufficient for many people to actually achieve their savings goals. Instead, we are often side-tracked by impulse purchases (the ImpulseSave website cites a staggering 15-20% of our take home pay is spent on impulse purchases “that we don’t need or even remember buying”!), short-sightedness, or lack of social support.
But just knowing the budget, while necessary, is not sufficient for many people actually achieve their savings goals.
The former tools, however, use insight about human nature and what drives our behaviour to help us (once we know our budget) stick to our savings goals. For example, with such busy lifestyles and our tendency to conserve mental energy, we are more likely to do something the easier it is to do. These tools make saving easy, either through automatic transfers or via simple digital tools. By naming the accounts, this brings our savings goals to the front of our attention, and helps keep us motivated by reminding us what we are working towards, even if that is to be spared the stress and anxiety of an unexpected expense (think a broken boiler or car repairs). And the social aspects of these tools may improve the motivation to save by evoking the desire to remain consistent with your publicly stated commitments, and also perhaps in some way by changing social norms around discussing openly what may be still somewhat of a taboo subject.
This is not to say that financial literacy is not important, but rather that beyond learning how to budget we may need some extra help along the way to achieve our savings goals. Tools like those discussed above seem to using behavioural insight to reposition saving from being something onerous to being something fun. So go ahead and try going on a saving spree, and comment below; we’d love to hear how it goes.