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Social Psychology

  • Merit Pay: The End Of Innocence?

    Written on August 16, 2011

    ** Also posted here on “Valerie Strauss’ Answer Sheet” in the Washington Post

    The current teacher salary scale has come under increasing fire, and for a reason. Systems where people are treated more or less the same suffer from two basic problems. First, there will always be a number of "free riders." Second, and relatedly, some people may feel their contributions aren’t sufficiently recognized. So, what are good alternatives? I am not sure; but based on decades worth of economic and psychological research, measures such as merit pay are not it.

    Although individual pay for performance (or merit pay) is a widespread practice among U.S. businesses, the research on its effectiveness shows it to be of limited utility (see here, here, here, and here), mostly because it’s easy for its benefits to be swamped by unintended consequences. Indeed, psychological research indicates that a focus on financial rewards may serve to (a) reduce intrinsic motivation, (b) heighten stress to the point that it impairs performance, and (c) promote a narrow focus reducing how well people do in all dimensions except the one being measured.

    In 1971, a research psychologist named Edward Deci published a paper concluding that, while verbal reinforcement and positive feedback tends to strengthen intrinsic motivation, monetary rewards tend to weaken it. In 1999, Deci and his colleagues published a meta-analysis of 128 studies (see here), again concluding that, when people do things in exchange for external rewards, their intrinsic motivation tends to diminish. That is, once a certain activity is associated with a tangible reward, such as money, people will be less inclined to participate in the task when the reward is not present. Deci concluded that extrinsic rewards make it harder for people to sustain self-motivation.

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  • In The Classroom, Differences Can Become Assets

    Written on August 4, 2011

    Author, speaker and education expert Sir Ken Robinson argues that today’s education system is anachronistic and needs to be rethought. Robinson notes that our current model, shaped by the industrial revolution, reveals a "production line" approach: for example, we group kids by "date of manufacture", instruct them "by batches", and subject them all to standardized tests. Yet, we often miss the most fundamental questions - for example, Robinson asks, "Why is age the most important thing kids have in common?"

    In spite of the various theories about the stages of cognitive development (Piaget, etc.), it is difficult to decide how to group children. Academically and linguistically diverse classrooms have become a prevalent phenomenon in the U.S. and other parts of the world, posing important challenges for educators whose mission is to support the learning of all students.

    It’s not only that children are dissimilar in terms of their interests, ethnicity, social class, skills, and other attributes; what’s even more consequential is that human interactions are built on the basis of those differences. In other words, individuals create patterns of relations that reflect and perpetuate social distinctions.

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  • Underestimating Context (But Selectively)

    Written on July 28, 2011

    Imagine that for some reason you were lifted out of your usual place in society and dropped into somebody else’s spot — the place of someone whose behavior you have never understood. For example, you are an anarchist who suddenly becomes a top cabinet member. Or you are an environmentalist who is critical of big business who suddenly finds yourself responsible for developing environmental policy for ExxonMobil or BP.

    As systems thinker Donella Meadows points out in her book Thinking in Systems, in any given position, "you experience the information flows, the incentives and disincentives, the goals and discrepancies, the pressure […] that goes with that position." It’s possible, but highly unlikely, that you might remember how things looked from where you were before. If you become a manager, you’ll probably see labor less as a deserving partner, and more as a cost to be minimized. If you become a labor leader, every questionable business decision will start to seem like a deliberate attack on your members.

    How do we know?

    The best psychological experiments ask questions about human nature. What makes a person strong? Or evil? Are good and evil dispositional hardwired traits, permanent once unleashed? Or is there something about the situations in which people find themselves that influences their behavior?

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