Thursday, June 24, 2010

The Demise of Social Norms

I have written about how school has shifted from a social norms focus to a market norms focus in a previous post here, and today I wish to look at whether it is possible for us to return to a learning environment built on social norms.

In his book Predictably Irrational, Dan Ariely writes about the dangers of mixing our social and market exchanges:

So we live in two worlds: one characterized by social exchanges and the other characterized by market exchanges. And we apply different norms to these two kinds of relationships. Moreover, introducing market norms into social exchanges, as we have seen, violates the social norms and hurts the relationships. Once this type of mistake has been committed, recovering a social relationship is difficult. Once you've offered to pay for the delightful Thanksgiving dinner, your mother-in-law will remember the incident for years to come. And if you've ever offered a potential romantic partner the chance to cut to the chase, split the cost of the courting process, and simply go to bed, the odds are that you will have wrecked the romance forever.

My good friends Uri Gneezy ( a professor at the University at San Diego) and Aldo Rustichini (a professor at the University of Minnesota) provided a very clever test of the long-term effects of a switch from social to market norms.

A few years ago, they studied a day care center in Israel to determine whether imposing a fine on parents who arrived late to pick up their children was a useful deterrent. Uri and Aldo concluded that the fine didn't work well, and in fact it had long-term negative effects. Why? Before the fine was introduced, the teachers and parents had a social contract, with social norms about being late. Thus, if parents were late - as they occasionally were - they felt guilty about it - and their guilt compelled them to be more prompt in picking up their kids in the future. (In Israel, guilt seems to be an effective way to get compliance.) But once the fine was imposed, the day care center had inadvertently replaced the social norms with market norms. Now that the parents were paying for their tardiness, they interpreted the situation in terms of market norms. In other words, since they were being fined, they could decide for themselves whether to be late or not, and they frequently chose to be late. Needless to say, this was not what the day care center intended.

But the real story only started here. The most interesting part occurred a few weeks later, when the day care center removed the fine. Now the center was back to the social norm. Would the parents also return to the social norm? Would their guilt return as well?

Not at all.

Once the fine was removed, the behavior of the parents didn't change. They continued to pick up their kids late. In fact, when the fine was removed, there was a slight increase in the number of tardy pickups (after all, both the social norms and the fine had been removed.)

This experiment illustrates an unfortunate fact: when a social norm collides with a market norm, the social norm goes away for a long time. In other words, social relationships are not easy to reestablish. Once the bloom is off the rose -once a social norm is trumped by a market norm - it will rarely return.

When school chose to adopt grading, we inadvertently replaced a social norm with a market norm. Learning became, and remains, a business transaction between teacher and student. No wonder some teachers fear that the removal of grading will precipitate apathy in students (as if there isn't already). No wonder some students, who've been convinced the point of school is to collect high grades, have a hard time motivating themselves to learn in the absence of payment (grades).

Dan Ariely strikes with clarity:

You can't treat your customers like family one moment and then treat them impersonally - or, even worse, as a nuisance or a competitor - a moment later when this becomes more convenient or profitable. This is not how social relationships work. If you want a social relationship, go for it, but remember that you have to maintain it under all circumstances...

Today companies see an advantage in creating a social exchange. After all, in today's market we're the makers of intangibles. Creativity counts more than industrial machines. The partition between work and leisure has likewise blurred...

In a market where employees' loyalty to their employers is often wilting, social norms are one of the best ways to make workers loyal, as well as motivated...

Although some companies have been successful in creating social norms with their workers, the current obsession with short term profits, outsourcing and draconian cost cutting threatens to undermine it all.

Ariely often talks about business in his book, but he smartly connects this all to education:

My feeling so far is that standardized testing and performance-based salaries are likely to push education from social norms to market norms. The United States already spends more money per student than any other Western society. Would it be wise to add more money? The same consideration applies to testing: we are already testing very frequently, and more testing is unlikely to improve the quality of education.
I suspect that one answer lies in the realm of social norms. As we learned in our experiments, cash will take you only so far - social norms are the forces that can make a difference in the long run. Instead of focusing the attention of the teachers, parents, and kids on test scores, salaries and competition, it might be better to instill in all of us a sense of purpose, mission, and pride in education. To do this we certainly can't take the path of market norms.

The Beatles proclaimed some time ago that you "Can't Buy Me Love" and this also applies to the love of learning - you can't buy it; and if you try, you might chase it away.
Teachers are not bad people. I can look anyone in the eye and safely pronounce that I believe teachers have the best of intentions. However, someone once said that the road to hell is paved with good intentions, and because grades can only ever be experienced by a student (of any age) as a reward and punishment, our best intentions are immediately trumped by the students' perceptions.

While it cannot be denied that grading has caused incalculable damage, I believe the damage is not irreversible. This is not to say that it will be easy - simply abolishing grading will not be enough to have students dance their way to learning how to divide fractions or sing their way to understanding comma splices, but it is the necessary first step in repairing the student-teacher relationship.

After abolishing grading five years ago, I radically altered my interactions with students. Every year, I work to replace the traditional, teacher-student market relationship with an authentic relationship that better reflects the ethos of social norms.


  1. Really great analogy, Joe. And I think it extends to merit pay, as well.

  2. I abolished grading too! The students do not receive marks until their report card (because it's the law). Up until then they get clear criteria, logs, rubrics, and conversation.

    I've just begun reading your blog this week, so I'll go through some archives to see if or where you explain how you do without marks.

    Thank you for sharing such smart thinking.


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