I’m reading (or rather listening to) the book Predictably Irrational in an attempt to get some insight into why people behave in a seemingly irrational manner in certain situations. I recently reached the chapter titled “The Cost of Social Norms.” In this chapter, author Dan Ariely explains the difference between social norms and what he terms “market norms” in terms of the exchanges we encounter on a daily basis when dealing with other humans:
“…we live simultaneously in two different worlds–one where social norms prevail and and the other where market norms make the rules. The social norms include the friendly requests that people make of one another. Could you help me move this couch? Could you help me change this tire? Social norms are wrapped up in our social nature and need for community. They are usually warm and fuzzy. Instant paybacks are not required: you may help move your neighbor’s couch, but this doesn’t mean he has to come right over and move yours. It’s like opening a door for someone: it provides pleasure for both of you, and reciprocity is not immediately required.
The second world, the one governed by market norms, is very different. There’s nothing warm and fuzzy about it. The exchanges are sharp-edged: wages, prices, rents, interest, and costs-and-benefits. Such market relationships are not necessarily evil or mean–in fact, they also include self-reliance, inventiveness, and individualism–but they do imply comparable benefits and prompt payments. When you are in the domain of market norms, you get what you pay for–that’s just the way it is.”
So what does this have to do with education? Well, read on about a study done on a day care center in Israel that imposed a fine on parents who arrived late to pick up their children:
“Uri and Aldo [the researchers] concluded that the fine didn’t work well, and in fact 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…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.”
Think about the social norms we have replaced with market norms in schools and classrooms–contract negotiations, grades, incentive programs for good behavior, the barter system we created with giving points for task completion, to name a few. And we wonder why students don’t/won’t do what we need them to do, or why all staff don’t have the constant desire to improve in their craft. How much have we “monetized” the exchanges that occur in classrooms and between administration and teachers so that there is now a choice to not do what’s considered necessary and best for students?
It’s an interesting question, one I am convinced is related to Dan Pink’s work on motivation, especially in his discussion about how carrot-and-stick incentives don’t motivate people for the long-term. But let me leave you with a further result from the day care study above:
“The most interesting part occurred a few weeks later, when the 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?…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 may be one of the reasons why effecting change in schools is so hard – we have to really work to bring back the social norms that should surround what we do.