In his book Predictably Irrational, Behavioral Economist Dan Ariely describes an experiment he conducted with his students. He started by reading a few lines from Walt Witman's Leaves of Grass:
After closing the book, I told the students that I would be conducting three readings from Walt Witman's Leaves of Grass that Friday evening; one short, one medium, and one long. Owing to limited space, I told them, I had decided to hold an auction to determine who could attend. I passed out sheets of paper so that they could bid for a space; but before they did so, I had a question to ask them.With simple manipulation, Dan Ariely was able to arbitrarily make an ambiguous experience into a pleasurable or painful one. Without ever hearing Ariely's poetry reading skills (or lack there of), their first impressions were formed based on whether they were asked to pay or be paid.
I asked half the students to write down whether, hypothetically, they would be willing to pay me $10 for a 10 minute poetry recitation. I asked the other half to write down whether, hypothetically, they would be willing to listen to me recite poetry for ten minutes if I paid them $10.
This, of course, served as the anchor. Now I asked the students to bid for a spot at my poetry reading. Do you think the initial anchor influenced the ensuing bids?
Before I tell you, consider two things. First, my skills at reading poetry are not of the first order. So asking someone to pay me for 10 minutes of it could be considered a stretch. Second, even though I asked half of the students if they would pay me for the privilege of attending the recitation, they didn't have to bid that way. They could have turned the tables completely and demanded that I pay them.
And now to the results (drum roll, please). Those who answered the hypothetical question about paying me were indeed willing to pay me for the privilege. They offered, on average, to pay me about a dollar for the short poetry reading, about two dollars for the medium poetry reading, and a bit more than three dollars for the medium poetry reading, and a bit more than three dollars for the long poetry reading. (Maybe I could make a living outside academe after all.)
But what about those who were anchored to the though of being paid (rather than paying me)? As you might expect, they demanded payment: on average, they wanted $1.30 to listen the short poetry reading, $2.70 to listen to the medium poetry reading, and $4.80 to endure the long poetry reading.
Dan Ariely concludes:
The die was cast, and the anchor was set. Moreover, once the first decision had been made, other decisions followed in what seemed to be a logical and coherent manner. The students did not know whether listening to me recite poetry was a good or bad experience, but whatever their first decision was, they used it as input for their subsequent decisions and provided a coherent pattern of responses across the three poetry readings.
Reward systems that bribe kids to learn implant a dangerous anchor. What if kids come to see learning as a mere means to an end? What if they see learning as something to only engage in if the conditions are profitable?
To further make his point, Ariely quotes Mark Twain:
Work consists of whatever a body is obliged to do, and play consists of whatever a body is not obliged to do.
What if all of our extrinsic manipulators, whether they be exorbitant rewards or ghastly punishments, are herding kids to anchor learning in as an obligation - something they ideally would never need or want to engage in?
We need to think long and hard on bait-and-switch systems that frame learning as a chore.
We may be doing far greater harm than we could ever imagine.