Wednesday, 31 August 2011

Behavioural Economics and Education

Part 2 of a Blog Series

  1. Gamification of Life.
  2. Behavioural Economics and Education.
  3. Gamification in Education 
  4. Gamification and Behavioural Change.

Behavioural Economics Primer
Before I delve more into gamification and behavioural change in education, it is worthwhile doing a quick primer on behavioural economics.

Behavioural economics considers the weaknesses in the standard economic model which assumes that individuals are rational and behave in a way to maximise their individual self-interest. Writers such as Thaler and Mullainathan suggest that “the standard economic model of human behaviour includes three unrealistic traits—unbounded rationality, unbounded willpower, and unbounded selfishness—all of which behavioural economics modifies”.

Irrationality: We are not robots and our decisions can be swayed by factors such as overconfidence, optimism, recent events, unlikely events and extrapolation. We are loss averse (a bird in the hand may not be worth more than two in the bush). And we can fall foul of mental accounting (where individuals frame value relative to their income, another product or a suggested number).

Lack of willpower: Drug dealers know it, gym owners know it, fast food restaurants know it, but do we know it? If we only had the will power we would stop doing things that are bad for us and start doing things that are beneficial for us. Unfortunately, we are habitual in our nature and our herding mentality means we tend to go with the flow when making decisions.

Selflessness: As Thaler and Mullainathan state, “Although economic theory does not rule out altruism, as a practical matter economists stress self-interest as people’s primary motive.” But this approach does not explain the huge numbers of people that give to charity and volunteer. But, as the New Economics Foundation put it, “People are motivated to do the right thing”.

Behavioural Impacts in Education
In a rational world students would put the least amount of effort in to gain the necessary qualifications to enter the professional world. The market for skills would drive students’ efforts and individuals would be magically allocated to the perfect job.  But markets don’t always run smoothly in the short term and as already stated individuals don’t always behave rationally.

Quite the opposite, students behave irrationally. They are overly influenced by short term results rather than long term goals. Their expectations can be framed by the students that they study alongside and the subjects they study rather than the wider world. Presentation of information, specifically grades, can lead to optimism and an unrealistic view of the future.

Will power has a huge impact on success in education. Handing in that course work on time, doing revision and (for some students) even attending classes require a huge amount of will power. And herding is ever present in education, as pupils are influenced by their peers. Creating a short-term reward system rather than a long-term hope system might generate improvements.

As in the real world, selfishness is a limited educational strategy and collaboration plays a huge role in success. Students need to work in groups; sharing knowledge and giving encouragement. Encouraging these behaviours improves performance and develops employability skills.

As Dan Ariely notes, individuals behave irrationally but in predictable ways. Gamification in education can utilise this fact both in terms of design and achieving behavioural change. Instead engaging students as though they will make the rationale choice (study hard, get the highest grades they can and develop the life they want) educators need to delve further into the psychology of their students.

The story continues…


Further Reading
New Economics Foundation – Behavioural Economics
Dan Ariely (2008), Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions,
Dan Ariely (2010), The Upside of Irrationality
B J Fogg, Behaviour Model
Jack Schofield, PC-PRO (2011) - The Gamification of Life
Richard H. Thaler and Sendhil Mullainathan, Library of Economics and Liberty, Behavioural Economics
Richard H Thaler and Cass R Sunstein (2008),  Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness


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