Posts Tagged Behavioral Science

A little bit of “nudging” on London’s South Bank

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Regular readers of this blog (?!?!?) will be well aware of my interest in all forms of human/social psychology and in particular my interest in the role of behavioural and social psychology in managing change.

It’s an area of study that’s become quite sexy of late, perhaps with the poster child being Steve Hilton himself, stripped bare and holding a well thumbed copy of “Nudge” in a strategic position for the annual Conservative Party’s WI calendar.

It’s all rather simple really. Just a recognition of what psychologists have been telling us for some time. How we make decisions/choices is a much more subconcious and often malleable process than we might like to imagine – a process which might be influenced (deliberately or otherwise) by a myriad of  subtle (or not so subtle) factors including deliberate commercial or political “nudging”.

No point in me regurgitating a century of study here. Just pick up an one of: “Nudge”, “The Tipping Point“, “Blink”, “59 Seconds: Think a little Change a Lot”, “Freakonomics” or “How we Decide (the list is potentially enormous) and indulge yourself.  In my opinion anyone embarking on a career in advertising, political policy, sales, marketing, change management, branding or religious outreach (Amen) should be forced to read all of these tomes and a few others besides before they darken the door of any self respecting employer in any one of those “industries”.  An interest in and understanding of the psychology and subtlety of human behaviour should be de-rigour for all.

I’ve been interested in the varied work of the in London for some time. Not least because I get to spend hallowed time most weeks in the company of one of it’s leading brand thinkers – Sean McKnight. At the end of last week The Engine Group (EG)  had this little piece on their web-blog: on the subject of behavioural psychology (or behavioural economics if you will). I thought it was good that EG are exposing more of their disparate teams to this discipline (although I’d blithely assumed they’d all be light years ahead in their public reflections) but more importantly it did make me think about a lovely example of behavioural nudging in action which I saw on Friday in London.

Opposite Gabriel’s Wharf on the South Bank, you will, during the course of the year, find a group of folks who use the small sandbank there to sand sculpt. They’ve been dong this for years. I’ll occasionally throw 50p down into the circle they’ve drawn in the sand to collect tips but never more. But of late they have adopted a new tactic to nudge us into giving “more generously”. They have set up two yellow buckets with a small portable bicycle bell set inside each one. There is a little note beneath each bucket inviting onlookers to throw some tips and “See if you can ring the bell”.

I invite you to pop along and watch what happens. Based on the last two five minute visits I’ve made, I  predict their tips are up maybe 300% minimum.

But why?

Because now not only are people throwing coins (tips) to reflect their appreciation of the sand sculptures; they are throwing coins to – much more importantly (and in some cases it seemed, exclusively) – see if they can make a small bell, in the bottom of a yellow bucket go ‘Ding’. It is a nudge to one of our strongest instincts and motivations – to succeed in a task that should be eminently achievable but is often frustratingly not. Add the public setting (no one likes to look bad in public and the ‘herding’ influence of others on our behaviour is more powerful than we may accept!), the fun atmosphere created as we try (and try) and the satisfactory feedback/reciprocation provided by the simple “ding” of a bell in the bucket and you have the ingredients for the perfect nudge.

I watched today as one lady asked “What happens if I hit the bell?”.  Having been told – “nothing, it makes a “ding””, she spent 3 minutes throwing coin after coin at the bell in the bucket to no avail; I threw a sum total of £1 in coins trying to hit said bell, as did my lowly paid companions.  Even more interesting was watching how a group of 6 people, who had almost walked past the sandbank, turned on hearing a faint “ding” (followed by great cheering from the friends of the aforementioned lady who, £5 down I reckon, had eventually hit the “jackpot”). Said party then each proceeded to throw coins at the yellow bucket with barely a glancing appreciation of the sand sculptures and so on until we decided to leave.

I bet if you asked 50% of those people 5 minutes after they’d left the scene what the two sand sculptures were that day, they wouldn’t even be able to tell you*. It was one of the most simple and stunningly effective applications of behavioural nudging that you’ll see in a social context in London today. For any male readers – it’s bit like those little flies on the back of certain “progressive” urinals (a subliminal target for you to aim at to reduce the amount of “splash-back”)…simple, yet deadly effective.

All those industries I listed, but most importantly, political policy, are (it would seem and we should hope) learning much from moving behavioural psychology and economics to the heart of what they do in both Policy formulation and execution. In an era when we have scarcer resources with which to encourage, facilitate and deliver some Big Society shaped national scale behaviour change then every arsenal in our weaponry much be drawn down.

There is of course more, much much more, to facilitating large scale human change than dropping a few bells in the bottom of a bucket (another blog on that subject is due) but it does demonstrate that for all our self congratulatory sophistication, we are simple animals in so many ways, driven by a few fundamental primitive instincts. The challenge is to harness that simplicity and those instincts to assist society in making smarter decisions about our health, wealth and happiness. In all those industries a fundamental question we must ask in shaping products, offerings or policies is this: which of our basic human instincts/longings/aspirations does this play to and therefore how best shall it be framed to lead “customers” to the most “appropriate” response.

There is a fascinating debate to be had about whether subliminal nudging is enough (or even immoral) or whether “customers” need to be granted a more active understanding of and participation in how certain choices impact both ourselves and others if behaviour change is to be sustained (and moral) but that’s for another day. For now, I’m off to sort out my bell and yellow bucket. You can find me outside the Ritzy in Brixton between 10am – 4pm; making daisy chains for tips….

*A rather fetching lady’s face and a starfish like creature were the order of the day….once you saw past those yellow buckets.

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Selection (it’s only natural)

I have a confession to make. I’m a socialist, Northern Irish Catholic who was educated at a Secondary school and I believe in academic selection as an entry criteria for post primary education.

There, I’ve said it. Let the first stones be cast, but please be gentle with me – fleshy areas only and not the face, please, not the face….

The ongoing story that is post Primary education selection in Northern Ireland has been keeping me transfixed for over a year now. And it looks like I can look forward to a lengthy Season 2 and maybe even a Season 3 installment (unlike the poor Studio 60 – travesty!) with not a satisfactory end in sight. In fact, I read recently from Mark Simpson that positions have become so entrenched on the matter in that bastion of working democracy – Stormont – that “The Executive” will no longer even discuss the matter cross party.  Wonderful. Maybe if they all just closed their eyes, donned red shoes and twitched their noses they’d be transported to Kansas and someone else (anyone?!) could get on with the business of resolving this. If a day is a long time in Politics then surely a year is too long for something as important as our children’s education to go unresolved.

But its fascinating nonetheless – particularly because its intresting to see our political representatives grappling with actual local Policy issues at last. How this will end is any-one’s guess but here’ my tuppenceworth.  You might also enjoy the excellent pieces from Jeff Peel’s enjoyable blog and of course the omnipotent Slugger O’Toole.


If it’s not broke…..

Northern Ireland’s secondary education system (note: you can consider ‘secondary education system’ in that instance to mean both Grammar and Secondary schooling) generates a (possibly) disproportionate number of high calibre and well rounded students with school leavers achieving GCSE and A Level results well above national averages.  It is an internationally recognised fact and as someone who lives and works in England, I can testify that a Northern Ireland education (in my case at St Patrick’s College, Maghera) is very highly regarded in the marketplace.  That seems a lot to gamble with at a time when we are going to need more – not less – of the very brightest minds we can produce; minds perhaps best described by Seamus Heaney in his poem “From the Canton of Expectation”, as “intelligences brightened and unmannerly as crowbars”.  What a great phrase that is (thanks to President of Eire, Mary McAleese for introducing me to it).

A cursory galnce at the newspapers of today or the recent NI IREP Report will tell you that the coming generation of school leavers need to be perhaps the best of all, in keeping with the scale of the challenges that await them – that we rely on them to address.  Ending selection and exercising what some believe to be a ‘compassionate’ act of egalitarianism is no guarantee of better results/outcomes and ultimately isn’t that what our Government should ultimately be most concerned with – results and outcomes?  That’s not to say that they should not also be concerned with ensuring that all our children have the opportunity of education but what is key here is the idea that the nature of that education should be ‘appropriate’ and more importantly that it should be an issue addressed at Primary, not Secondary level – more on both those points later.

I have very strong personal views on education and how we need to re-define ‘success’ at secondary level but another post, another time…


Ghetto or Grammar?

Current proposals would in effect swap the pressures and associated “trauma” of selection with a postcode selection (not ‘postcode lottery’ as some call it as one can always move home to live closer to a desirable school) from which, few would benefit and potentially least of all those from our communities whose educational development these changes are proported to support. I don’t have the facts to hand but I still suspect that the upper and middle classes, if not already, will be able to (re)-locate themselves much more readily if needed (and I suspect that the current location of many of our best schools will be found in middle/upper class catchment areas anyway) to secure spots at the best schools.  Where’s the social justice in that? My family most definately could not have moved, unless of course my Da had made good on his oft repeated threat to get us onto the streets to rustle up some money!

Related to this is surely the risk of creating, or in some instances, exacerbating a ‘ghetto culture’ where our young people take all their schooling in their local community with no opportunity to move outside that geography/catchment. Hardly something we wish to encourage given our already renowned and damaging psyche of insularity and community entrenchment. For me, passing the 11+ gave me the opportunity to attend any one of three schools in the area but all outside my village. This was a seminal moment in my personal development as it exposed me to others from other communities and backgrounds to a greater extent than possible in my local secondary. It gave me social skills and a confidence in meeting, working and playing with a wider collective of peers that stood me in good stead to this day.  For many the current system provides a unique and timely opportunity for social mobility.


It’s about creating an aspirational culture

This is not about truly about “selection” which to my mind suggests an entirely arbitrary process of picking the rich over the poor, the disadvantaged over the advantaged. This is about achievement. And that is a social challenge, not a secondary schooling challenge first and foremost.

Many many students (myself included please note) come/came from families whose incomes would place us in the lower socio economic bands (as one of three children of a self employed widower I received child benefit including free school meals). My success in the 11+ provided the opportunity of entry to a school of my choice and from there — university and a well paid profession. And that was something I was made aware of by parents and grandparents alike – all of whom never had that opportunity themselves. It was something I learned early to aspire to. Something that I felt I need not be ashamed of hoping for.

That suggests to me that this is not a simple case of blanket discrimination against those in the lower socio-economic classes.  Many pupils from these groups have and continue to succeed at 11+ stage testing and their successes should be celebrated. It should also be used to ask more of communities where some fail and others do not in the same grouping. The same could be asked within schools. My school catered from everything from 11+ A grades through to a special learning needs unit with around 1200 pupils in between.  And here’s my experience – if you want to learn, if you seek out the opportunities to learn, if you are motivated to learn and put in the graft then you can and will achieve.  I left school with straight A’s in my A Levels – as good and in some cases better than friends at the local grammar but also less than a few of my Secondary school colleagues.  I just think this is about much more than the Secondary school you attend to than it might be politically convenient to suggest.

NB All this assumes that Grammar Schools treat every applicant of with the same 11+ result on their personal merits and not on socio-economic background. If hey do or provide a weighting that ounts against children from more derived socio-economic communities thenoff with their bl00dy heads.

Behavioral Psychologists tell us that much of a child’s success is determined by the environment in which they spend their formative years – in particular how their parents engage in their personal and cognitive development.  The wonderful “Outliers – The Story of Success” by Malcolm Gladwell cites the work of sociologist Annette Lareau in coining the term “concerted cultivation” to describe a style of parenting which most effectively fosters and assesses a child’s talent’s opinions and skills; this is opposed to a style of “accomplishment of natural growth” where parents see it as their responsibility to care for their children but to let them grow and develop on their own.  Gladwell highlights that the former approach – while not without its flaws – generates a higher number of ‘aspirational’ children who are better able to reason, engage, participate, influence and succeed in the world around them.  Where Parents are unable or are constrained in adopting a style of concerted cultivation (it takes time and effort undoubtedly) then I believe that local communities should be encouraged to support and create an ‘aspirational’ culture for young children – a culture where success is seen as something to strive for and be proud of.  Many of us in Northern Ireland are familiar with how uncomfortable we and our families can be of “success”.  As someone once said to me, in Northern Ireland you should keep your head down and “aim for something slightly above mediocrity”.  It’s a undeniable shame and a cultural challenge that must be addressed because it is this and not the school of secondary education which will ultimately make the real difference – as I outline below.

Critics of selection tests claim it is cruel and unfair and I agree that selection purely through the use of a single arbitrary test is potentially discriminatory (although perhaps as much an issue for women, ethnic monorities, the elderly and while male athletes than just those in the “lower socio economic classes”). I personally would advocate the use of ongoing Primary School assessments, Annual School Reports and maybe a reduced weighting one-off test as a more balanced and effective approach to selection. But selection is an important aspiration for society, particularly so for a country as small and with such limited resources as Northern Ireland. We need our young people to work hard, to aspire to better things and to recognise that life – and hold onto your seats here – is hard, traumatic and full of tests, each and every day. Those learnings and the instincts they hone are important for society as a whole and we should recognise we cannot and should not protect our children from it ad-infinitum.


Fighting the wrong fight?

I never thought I’d be agreeing with Chris Woodhead in print but in my opinion, the selection process for Secondary education is a moot point if we are really interested in improving the educational lot and associated opportunities of all our young people. Any behavioral psychologist or neuroscientist worth their salt will tell you that by age 11 much of who we are and how we feel about education, achievement, behaviour has been set in motion. That’s not to say we’re the finished article but it is to say that the more important question here – the question Stormont should be concerning itself with first and foremost – is how to improve Primary education for those they believe are currently disadvantaged; its almost too late by secondary school.

Just a few examples of work in this area which bear out this point which happened to be conveniently cited by Matthew Taylor in October’s edition of Prospect:

  1. Elizabeth Gould, a neuroscientist, has shown in her work with monkeys that our brains can generate new neurons in a process she calls ‘neurogenisis”, however she has proven that those who have suffered stress or lack of stimulation (i.e. no concerted cultivation at home/in the community) had lower levels of neurogenisis. Therefore she suggests that the impact of nurture in early years is not simply impactful on our attitudes (which might be overcome) – but on the actual physical capacity of our brains to develop. Her work has been used to make the case for early intervention in deprived and dysfunctional families.
  2. The psychologist, Walter Mischel tested four year olds on their ability to resist eating a marshmallow and showed that childhood inability to defer gratification predicted low achievement and antisocial behaviour well into adult life.

The research on this area is significant and consistent. Primary school is where we learn the basic skills of reading and writing but it is also associated with the period in our lives when we might just be shaped the most and our ability to ‘succeed’ or ‘thrive’ determined. It is there that Government should start and place the emphasis of its schooling strategy before turning their attention to the Secondary schools.


Specialising in specialisation

One slightly more subtle concern I have about this ongoing row is that any removal of ‘selection’ suggests that all children are created alike and therefore should be streamed through the same educational process/institutions. This is a nonsense and in many ways fails to recognise that one of the great achievements of human evolution has been our recognition that to survive as a species/functioning society we have had to become a community of diverse and dependent talents. We recognise implicitly that we are not all created the same and none of us can master all things and so we specialise and diversify, thereby creating a range of services and offerings for one another – doctors, builders, teachers, chef, sportsmen, journalists, carers etc.  Without that implicit recognition in our evolution we may never have survived as individuals or communities. Diversity is at the very heart of our success as a species and so it should be with education. The idea implicit in ending selection is that if you don’t get to Grammar school you’re done for and the only real measure of success is finishing your education. That cannot be healthy. For many, becoming a scholar is neither desirable or necessary. Instead other talents can be fostered, talents required by society – just as valuable as those found in a list of white collar professions in the school careers manual.

Children are not all created equal. And let’s be thankful for that. Stormont should focus on improving the experience and personal options for specialisation of those attending our secondary schools, not treating everyone the same at a cost to many for the sake of an unproven social experiment.


Some humble suggestions

  • Stormont should focus on Primary not secondary as their educational priority
  • Provide state sponsored interventions to Primary Schools in lower socio-economic communities currently showing poor schooling performance, including engaging with local community groups to discuss how to foster a spirit of ‘concerted cultivation’ outside of the school environs
  • Delay structured primary classes until age 5 with year one adopting a Scandinavian model of learning through play
  • Split each Primary school year into two classes so that no child is ‘competing’ in a classroom with a child more than 6 months their elder (see Chapter 1 of Gladwell’s ‘Outliers’ for the sound reasoning behind that idea)
  • Extend the Primary school year, shorten holidays and increase the amount of time our children have to learn while shortening the amount of time they have to un-learn – particularly those children who aren’t lucky enough to be subject to ‘concerted cultivation’ on the school breaks
  • Use a combined set of evidence for secondary school selection – including the Annual School Report to support selection
  • Worry less about secondary selection procedures for now and more about the sort of varied but strategic school system we are going to need to underpin and support the recent NI IREP report
  • Reconsider the role of our non Grammar secondary schools and assist them to offer an improved and personalised educational experience linked to a long term NI economic strategy underpinned by targeted skills development
  • Give every minister interested in education for Northern Ireland a copy of this: “Outliers – The Story of Success” as food for thought


These ideas are much less palatable and immediately implementable to a party trying to hold onto power and make early political gains.  And as with so much else in Stormont – not least the crude and irresponsible deferment of Water Charges last year – this is the issue. No one wants to talk or think strategically – no one believes they have the time. Everyone seems too busy bickering for the spoils of our recently found Executive Power that we’ve already forgotten our much longed for and hard fought for right for something more, something better, something appropriately local and something lasting.  But as with the need for a longer term, considered and sustainable economic strategy it’s a hard but true message that these things take time if we want to get them right, real time.

I’m not sure that’s a message that will be heeded sadly.  As I’ve often heard in White’s Tavern over a pint of Guinness…’Rome wasn’t built in a day, but Belfast: maybe”.

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