Why paying kids to get good grades is a bad idea, Part II

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In response to my post yesterday about why it’s a bad idea for schools to pay kids to get good grades, a commenter named yeah man raised a great point. He wrote:

If the social norms in place were working there would have been no need for this program in the first place.

This morning I was reading the October issue of the Journal of Consumer Research, and one of the studies made me realize what I wanted to say about that. So thank you, Noah Goldstein of the University of Chicago, Robert Cialdini of Arizona State University, and Vladas Griskevicius of the University of Minnesota.

I’m going to quote from the press release because it summarizes things so nicely:

In the study, researchers set out to boost participation in the towel re-use program of a major hotel chain. The hotel’s manager and staff allowed the researchers to create a series of different towel re-use cards, which were placed in the hotel’s bathrooms. Some cards read “Help Save the Environment” and others read “Join Your Fellow Guests in Helping to Save the Environment.” Both provided information on how resources are preserved when guests re-use towels. Room attendants recorded reuse rates. Cards that focused on the level of participation of other guests, which essentially conveyed that it is normal to participate, increased the percentage of participation from 35.1 percent to 44.1 percent.

In a second study, the researchers were able to boost towel re-use even further by placing a sign in the room that said 75 percent of guests in that specific room re-used their towels.

“The results of our studies have clear implications for marketers, managers, and policymakers,” write the authors. “It is worth noting that the normative messages, which were messages that we have never seen utilized by hotel chains, fared significantly better at spurring participation in the hotel’s environmental conservation program than did the type of message most commonly utilized by hotel chains—messages that focus on the importance of environmental protection.”

In other words, certain social norms get you more mileage than others. If the social norms that push kids to succeed at school aren’t working, why not try to engineer better social norms instead of running to market norms, which, as I pointed out yesterday, can really screw things up in the long run?

What would happen if when a kid sat down to do his homework the first thing he saw at the top of the worksheet was a sentence that said: “Last year, kids in Ms. Collins’s class spent 20 minutes on average doing this assignment”? Would that kid then take more time to do his homework—and actually learn something—instead of rushing through in five minutes?

I don’t know. But I would think if the National Math and Science Initiative has enough money to run around handing out $13 million grants to pay kids to study, they’d be able to come up with some funding for that experiment, too.