Using insights from neuroscience in education: using the body to improve thinking skills

October 15, 2014 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Education Matters 

This guest blog is from Dr Elizabeth McClelland, who became a Fellow in January 2014.  Elizabeth has been working with RSA Education on plans to expand her programme Move4Words to many more schools in England. You can contact her at www.move4words.org.uk where you also find out more about the research evidence.

I was a research scientist in a former life – Royal Society Research fellow for 10 years at Department of Earth Sciences, Oxford University, then University Lecturer and Director of the Palaeomagnetism research laboratory at Oxford between 1997 and 2003. In 1998, I suddenly became very ill with an unknown virus which temporarily robbed me of the ability to speak coherently, to understand speech or written language or to control my muscles properly. All my facilties came back over the following couple of months, except my ability to read fluently. I could read single words, but couldn’t make sense of a paragraph. I was still lecturing at Oxford, I could do my numerical research, gave talks at conferences and even touch-typed a couple of papers (although was unable to proof-read them). It was incredibly frustrating. Eventually, I found a private physio who used a physical activity programme to help children with dyslexia, and she showed me that I’d lost the ability to control my eye movements, and had lost some cross-body muscular control. She showed me some simple physical and visual exercises, which I practised several times a day, and, remarkably, my reading started to improve after a couple of weeks, and within 2 months it was back to my original rapid reading. It was so dramatic, I vowed to find out more and to do what I could to help others in the same way.

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From Eggs to Education: why diversity allows the flock to flourish

October 3, 2014 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Fellowship 

In the most recent RSA Journal, I read with interest the piece on competition by Margaret Heffernan – particularly, the part that describes an experiment designed to engineer a ‘super flock’ of golden-egg180x180hens. To see whether increased competition would create higher levels of production, geneticist William Muir pulled the top egg-producing hens out of a regular flock and put them together. After just two generations of this new flock, the results were remarkable – six of the super hens had been pecked to death by the remaining three, whilst the original flock was performing better than ever.

This experiment suggests that if you only value the so-called ‘cream of the crop’ you are probably missing a trick or two. Societies need variety and balance in order to function healthily – you simply can’t have everybody doing the same thing, no matter how valuable it is deemed.

The article got me thinking about our education system and the levels of competition and selection. My own experience saw my peers divided into two camps at age 11: clever, and not so clever. Even for those who weren’t required to take the dreaded 11+, academic pressure remains a dominant feature of school life. Certainly, an element of competition can be motivating, but just as the ‘cream’ ought not to be scooped off the top and isolated at their own expense, nor should the rest feel their particular strengths have no value to society.

Many of the RSA Fellows I’ve met over the past year have been teachers, and all were unequivocally passionate about the difference a good education can have on the trajectory of a person’s life. Whatever the challenges in the classroom might be, Fellows have a wealth of ideas about where improvements can be made that will potentially transform the confidence of their students.

One such teacher is Jo Taylor FRSA, who, having participated in Teach First’s leadership programme, has gone on to co-found Wall Display – an education project which has recently applied for an RSA Catalyst grant.

“As a teacher I saw how much of a difference an engaged parent could make to their child’s aspirations. I also saw how hard it was for parents to be involved in their child’s education. I wanted to create a way for them to see the great things their children were doing.”

With children from disadvantaged schools, parental disengagement can be a big problem because if the parent had a bad experience at school themselves, they may be less inclined to encourage their children to participate. Many of these parents may have become disengaged because they did not perform well in exams, and with the continual emphasis on exams and grades, it’s increasingly important for teachers to find ways to celebrate the diversity of students’ skills and ensure they do not become disenchanted with learning altogether.

Wall Display has addressed this issue by creating an online platform for teachers to share their pupils’ work in such a way that it displays the creativity and individuality of the work whilst pushing it beyond the boundaries of the classroom.

“Students can get really demotivated producing amazing work which nobody ever sees, the idea is that Wall Display provides them with an audience for what they do in school.”

The public can award badges to work they like

The public can award badges to work they like

When teachers post work from students, members of the general public can give badges to work they like and other teachers can offer feedback.

I think this responsive aspect of the project is critical because if your teacher does not like your work, it might feel like theirs is the only opinion that counts. Wall Display’s strength is that it allows an array of opinions to reach the students – an experience which is far more representative of life after school.

Jo spoke about the progress of the project at a recent RSA Engage event, and asked other Fellows to get involved in the following ways:

- Do you know a teacher or school who might like to use Wall Display?
- Do you know anyone who works for Ofsted or an education body?
- Do you know any business leaders who are passionate about education?

If you’d like to know more about Wall Display, help Jo or get involved then you can contact him at contact@walldisplay.org, or find out more on their website: http://walldisplay.org

The RSA has partnered with Teach First for seven years, and we are able to offer a reduced rate of Fellowship for all Teach First participants – contact Alex Barker for more information.

Pioneering social innovation in Malaysia

Genovasi Malaysia logoThis blog was originally posted on the news page of the RSA Student Design Awards website on 4th August 2014.

I am pleased to announce that nine emerging Malaysian innovators have won in the inaugural RSA Genovasi Malaysia Awards, winning a range of prizes worth a total of RM260,000. In addition, the winners all receive admission into Genovasi’s Innovation Ambassador Development Programme, complementary RSA Fellowship for a year, providing the students with access to the RSA’s Catalyst Fund and Skills Bank to further develop their projects.

The RSA Student Design Awards team partnered with Genovasi, a transformative learning institution focused on cultivating innovation skills in young people to develop and deliver the RSA Genovasi Malaysia Awards, which launching in September 2013. Genovasi offers a human-centred learning experience to learn and use innovation for social inclusion, active citizenship and personal development for future transferable skills to face challenges in life. The RSA Genovasi Malaysia Awards focused on three project briefs for this pilot year: Active Citizens, Encouraging Social Entrepreneurship, and Citizenship and Communication in a Digital Age.

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Massimo Vignelli: farewell to a master of everyday life

May 30, 2014 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Design and Society 

“I was always seeking to affect the lives of millions of people – not through politics or entertainment but through design. I strive to raise the bar, taking the common place and improving it”.

These words express the lifelong zeal and commitment to design by Massimo Vignelli, one of the worlds’ most talented and prolific designers who died this week aged 83. Read more

Are you coming to bed?

March 31, 2014 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Recovery 

March has been National Bed Month.

For me, this is an event that I can really get into, so to speak. I have always taken a professional and personal interest in sleep quality, even more so since having a child, when life and sleep can become so disrupted that you hardly know which way is up, let alone have the energy to venture there to find your bed.

There’s a wealth of research into how quality of sleep affects us, and many an argument as to how much of it we need. But the general consensus is that poor sleep equals poor health, reduced performance and less effective coping.

In the recovery field, there is a commonly used acronym – HALT. It stands for Hungry, Angry, Lonely, Tired, and it’s what you are supposed to stop and assess yourself for if you are struggling with cravings. I don’t know where it originated from but I’ve found it to be of immense value, not only working in the recovery field, but relevant to my action around my own wellbeing.

Although not necessarily easy, I find the first three to be the most immediately solvable issues. Hunger, of course, can be remedied by paying attention to diet and eating regularly. Anger, can be resolved by dealing with the situation, either directly or by finding ways of letting it go – counselling, meditation or physical activity for example. Loneliness can be a huge challenge for people – but Apps like Social Mirror can be of benefit, and most communities offer social groups if you are willing and able to get out there and engage. Tiredness, I think, can be the most challenging of these issues to control.

Nightmare picThere are of course, many natural ways to improve the quality of your sleep. In recovery, the use of ‘sleep tea’, a combination of herbs such as chamomile and lavender is commonly used. Sour cherry juice has also been proffered as a proven natural way to improve sleep. Yoga and meditation is used for relaxation and to reduce anxiety. But how many of us, in recovery or elsewhere, make getting quality sleep a daily focus? If you are anything like me, sleeping is not the period of the day that I attend to the most, but it is probably what I should prioritise. Anxiety about specific events can keep me awake at night, and that is the time that a person needs sleep the most.

We see sleep problems a lot in this sector, especially in the period after people have detoxed from substances. Waiting for your body to reach a state of equilibrium again can be an arduous process, and people describe waking in a sweat following dreams where they have drunk alcohol or used drugs, when that is the exact thing they are working so hard to avoid. Often GPs will prescribe sleeping tablets, but these of course are not meant to be a long term solution, and do not serve to provide any sort of ‘sleep training’ or encourage us to think further about ourhammock-pic-resized own role in getting good sleep.

The New Economics Foundation created a list of five everyday actions that people can take to improve wellbeing. So much of our own work within Whole Person Recovery is anecdotal, but based on that, and my own experience, I would add a sixth ‘way to wellbeing’ – work to improve your sleep.

Perhaps, if we all spared thirty minutes a day to take action around our sleep – taking a warm bath before bed, meditating, writing down our thought summary of the day, or doing some active relaxation, our wakeful periods may be enhanced, and we could really focus on the other five ways.

sleeping man

Hopefully, you have managed to stay awake whilst reading this blog……………

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 Nathalie.spencer@rsa.org.uk

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

Climate Change: My Beef with the Collective Action Problem

January 20, 2014 by · 5 Comments
Filed under: Social Brain 

Most of us recognise that climate change is both serious and caused by human activity, but few of us are managing to turn that recognition into behaviour change to reduce our impact.  While this is a multi-dimensional issue, I suggest two crucial factors are that:

  1. We know that many of the things we do are ‘bad’, but can’t see any way of making constructive changes that don’t require a drastic and unrealistic transformation in how we live
  2. We know that most changes won’t make a difference unless other people do the same, so acting seems like a pointless sacrifice

I think that a bit more information might change our minds on both these points, and make it a bit easier to motivate positive behavioural changes.

Revolution vs Evolution

To take just one area where these factors apply, consider what we eat.  It is widely acknowledged that eating meat is probably not the most ethical thing one can do.  In addition to animal rights concerns, the production of meat is a major contributor to climate change through greenhouse gas emissions and land degradation.  To summarize:

  • Livestock accounts for almost 1/6 of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions
  • An area of the world’s rainforests 2/3 the size of the UK is destroyed each year to create grazing land
  • Over 2/3 of global agricultural land is used to grow crops for animals in feed lots while a billion people go hungry

With population growth and the rise of new meat-eating middle-classes in developing countries, all of these problems are set to multiply.  It is therefore clear that current Western levels of meat consumption are completely unsustainable.

The implication is that we should all be vegetarians.  But personally, though I had long accepted the moral argument, I simply couldn’t envisage changing my behaviour so drastically. The end result was that I didn’t change at all.

But that was until I made an interesting discovery. To paraphrase Orwell, while all animals are equal, it seems some are more equal than others.  Red meat (lamb and beef) is by far the biggest offender, requiring many times more land, feed and fossil energy to produce.  This is partly because these animals are such inefficient converters of feed into meat.  Cows require about seven kilograms of feed to produce one kilogram of meat, compared to around three kilograms for pork and less than two kilograms for chicken.  NPR made this useful infographic to illustrate just how resource and emissions-intensive beef is: 

What It Takes To Make A Quarter-Pound Hamburger

What it takes to make a hamburger

The above doesn’t even include the copious quantities of methane these animals produce – a gas which has 23 times the impact of carbon dioxide.  Factoring that in, it becomes even clearer that acting on climate change doesn’t necessarily require a radical change like vegetarianism; just cutting out red meat can make a huge difference.

Or can it?  The second part of the dilemma described at the outset concerned the link between this kind of individual action and the kind of collective action that will be required to avert dangerous climate change.

Individual vs Collective Action

Game theory describes a classic example of the collective action problem in the form of the Prisoner’s Dilemma.  In this thought experiment, two prisoners in solitary confinement each inform on the other in order to get a reduced sentence.  The end result is that they both get heavy sentences.  Its logic applies, to a certain extent, to acting on climate change.  No-one wants to be in the situation where they act but others do not, making them both absolutely and relatively worse off, and rendering their sacrifice meaningless.

But that is where the analogy ends.  We do not live in solitary confinement.  On the contrary, our decisions are influenced more than anything by social values, social norms and social judgements.  A big part of our decision not to change our diet is the fact that hardly anyone else is doing it.  But if the social landscape can cause negative outcomes, then it can also engender positive ones.  If most people were making personal sacrifices for the sake of others, it would be much easier to make (and much more difficult to resist making) those same sacrifices ourselves.

So how do we get from this social landscape to that one?  Work by Nobel Prize winner Elinor Ostrom on the tragedy of the commons has highlighted the need for institutions, rules and incentives for behaviour.  But whilst these structures will be vital to global action, we must not lose sight of the role of individuals.  Your decisions do not just change your own tiny contribution to climate change; they also change the social landscape for those around you.

I am lucky that a significant proportion of my peers are genuinely altruistic, and their leadership made it much easier to motivate my own behaviour change in cutting out red meat.  And hopefully my decision adds a tiny bit more momentum to that movement, making it a fraction easier for the next person to prioritise the common good over personal interests.

If you do not have such role models around you, you can become one yourself.  If just one other person decides to follow your lead then you’ve doubled your impact.  If you share two more close friends, suddenly they are each confronted with the fact that two-thirds of their friends are making personal sacrifices, massively altering that social landscape and turning it from an inhibiting to an enabling force for change.

This ripple-effect of individual action can (and will need to) play a major role in overcoming collective action problems like climate change.  So if you are put off acting because you don’t want to change your entire life, or are discouraged by the collective action problem, it may be time to reconsider.  There is probably something much more manageable you can do, and it might have a bigger impact than you think.

Smartphones make us dumb

800px-Car_off_cliff_sign

Did you see the one about Apple Maps mistakenly directing people to drive across the runway at an Alaskan Airport? The coverage provides an indication of how much we’ve outsourced our intelligence to our smartphones, and how we are likely to erode our own intelligence as a result.

An excerpt from the BBC coverage:

“They must have been persistent,” the airport’s assistant manager Angie Spear told the BBC.

“They had to enter the airport property via a motion-activated gate, and afterwards there are many signs, lights and painted markings, first warning that aircraft may share the road and then that drivers should not be there at all.

“They needed to drive over a mile with all this before reaching the runway. But the drivers disregarded all that because they were following the directions given on their iPhones.”

So here we are in 2013. We can carry in our pocket a device which can instantaneously direct us, aided by a network of satellites we’ve launched into space above our planet, between any two points on earth. When there are glitches in this remarkable system, we appear to be losing our ability to engage our auxiliary senses of navigation. We increasingly trust our smartphones, simultaneously giving our innate sensual systems less trust in connecting to our cognitive comprehension. When people put themselves in danger, we vent anger at the technological miscues they may have received. How did people drive to airports before SatNav? We expect technology to be perfect: an upgrade to our own human fallibility.

There is a broader danger associated with the ubiquity of smartphone use. We withdraw from engaging with the places we are in and the people with whom we share them. Mobile technology enables local disconnectedness through providing a ubiquitous connection to everyone we know (and many we don’t), regardless of where we are (or where they are) in the world. As a result, our other communication skills become degraded. Smartphone users are constantly interrupted and distracted, less present in the place and the moment something that a recent Apple ad celebrates. We are unable to switch off – indeed the more technology enables us to work flexibly the more anxious we are to demonstrate to our work colleagues that we are not slacking, as the latest RSA Animate explores.

Comedian Lewis CK recently noted that constant connectivity spares us from the emptiness and sadness (and subsequent tranquillity and happiness) that we find when faced with overcoming periods of being alone. Taking notice of the world around us is one of the five “ways to well-being”.

Just walked into my neighbours house by accident while texting. I only noticed when someone called out and I looked up and saw it wasn’t my flat. Christ. - From Facebook, 26/9/13

With a phone in hand, we are less likely practice mindfulness (recognising our thoughts and feelings). And inter-personal communication skills are at risk of deteriorating as we avoid talking with neighbours or chitchatting with shopkeepers.

As Richard Sennett argues, learning to cooperate with different people, outside of your regular networks, is a key rite of passage to adulthood and civility and is contagious in a population. If that sounds too pretentious, then even on a basic level we’ve got to connect the dots: listening to others talk is the most important aspect of learning in early years. My fear is that the rising rates of social isolation, autism and technology penetration are inter-related. On the tube these days it’s becoming rude not to look at your smartphone: we can’t tolerate the gaze of fellow passengers.

I’m not saying we should give up this powerful technology. Many technological applications support local connectedness (such as Streetbank), while other applications support our offline social well-being (such as the RSA’s social mirror). SatNav gives people the confidence to navigate and explore, and mobile phone cameras empower citizen journalists across the world, but we need to know its OK to switch off and unplug. Smartphone adoption may be the most rapid technology adoption of all time – 45% of under-11s in the UK regularly use a smartphone or tablet. We need to understand the implications for public and inter-personal engagement, fast.

Consider those moments where you pause and think to yourself “this is what life is all about”. Its likely you’ll be mentally present. Think of your favourite streets, parks, squares, or bus routes. We can be entertained us for hours watching what Jane Jacobs calls the “sidewalk ballet”: an urban, social, public experience. At the height of our powers of human perception we can learn silently, discretely admiring the athleticism of streetballers and joggers, the daring of skateboarders, and the technique of a street performer. We develop visual literacy to comprehend the age of our buildings, the fashions of different generations, and the processes which clean our streets. Taking a walk, sitting on a bench or at a cafe, we guess the age of a passing infant, the profession of their parent, or simply where someone got those shoes. And we can mindread, discerning the causes of the argument between two lovers and enjoy from the deduction of awkward body language between two people that this must be a first date.

This role (sometimes termed the “flaneur” – the strolling observer) is a somewhat romantic and privileged notion, but we need to protect the time and space for activity which develops our social skills: reading other people’s faces, body language, tone of voice and emotional signals. Indeed our most skilled public servants – social workers, police officers, nurses, school teachers – recognise that inter-personal intelligence is essential in co-producing desirable outcomes, especially with vulnerable people with barriers to verbal or written communication.

The time each of us has to engage with our surroundings is precious, and the design of the spaces which surround us are often disengaging. Several initiatives have shown that often space the looks like public space is not: subject to surveillance, regulation and restrictions on use and participation. A true public space might include a shared institutional setting where we experience a base feeling of equality because we’re all accessing the same thing.

No doubt we will develop better maps, location-based apps and global 3G coverage, but we need to engage in real places to support the development of our capabilities as social creatures.

Jonathan Schifferes is a Senior Researcher in the Public Service 2020 and Connected Communities team (and does use his smartphone for Twitter).

Shhh…! Silence in the RSA Library – what do you think?

August 19, 2013 by · 5 Comments
Filed under: Fellowship 

This is a blog by Samantha Fletcher, Martina Booth and Anna Clayton (RSA Fellowship staff).

The role of the library has evolved significantly. Once used exclusively for quiet reading and self-study, it is now a community space where people go for computer courses, children’s story times and even a cup of tea. A spokesperson for Blackheath Library in Greenwich comments:

‘”Libraries are places for everyone to use and enjoy. They’re our community centres, information hubs, spaces to learn or think and make ourselves feel better. We want to ensure libraries are developed in a way that means they stay at the heart of the community.”

As libraries evolve from silent self-study areas to community hubs, should we still be expected to be quiet whilst using them? Opinions differ! For instance, one of us was recently taken to task by a user of the RSA Library for being too noisy while dealing with a query from a Fellow. This made us reflect on our policy – or lack thereof – on users maintaining silence whilst working within it.

Library

The RSA Library is a resource at our House for both RSA Fellows and staff, stocking books and DVDs relevant to the work and interests of the organisation and its Fellows. It provides a working space and reading room, WiFi and a Freepost service for those Fellows unable to visit in person.  It’s open whenever the House is open.

We’ve never enforced silence in the library, because we firmly believe that the House is one of the best places to have an idea, and Fellows turning their ideas into action can help solve some of today’s social problems. Collaboration between our 27,000 Fellows is vital to this process, and to make the RSA Fellows’ Library a place where interaction is suffocated feels wrong and against the RSA’s basic principles.

Commanding total silence in the RSA Library also poses a challenge as to how we communicate with Fellows who have queries and issues. In addition the library is only staffed part-time, so a ‘total silence’ policy could never be effectively policed.

As libraries evolve from silent self-study areas to community hubs, should we still be expected to be quiet whilst using them? Opinions differ!

All that said, we appreciate that Fellows do not want to be unnecessarily disrupted whilst using the library and we hope that our Fellows are considerate and respectful of other Fellows using the shared space. So now it’s over to you: in future should we manage the library’s volume by putting a ‘no talking’ notice up? Or can we continue to promote quiet working but not insist on silence?

To have your say, please comment below, or alternatively email library@rsa.org.uk. At the end of September the RSA Library steering group will review all feedback and discuss the issue.

When was the last time you went on a saving spree?

August 8, 2013 by · 4 Comments
Filed under: Social Brain 

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. savings-400x264

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.

 

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

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