Ideas and Solutions on How to Save the Environment Using Science

I’m no environmentalist by any stretch of the imagination but here I am, writing my second post about the environment (my first one being about why recycling isn’t good for the environment.)

Science really changes people, doesn’t it? Or at the very least makes them more aware of how science can be used to benefit the world.

After all, there are two ways you can use psychology.

You can either manipulate people for your own benefit like pretty much all companies do to make you buy their stuff.

Or you can manipulate people for their own benefit like building addictive but educational products or using our inherent psychological biases to change how we treat our planet.

Today we’ll be talking about the latter, shinier side of the coin.

Using science to save the planet

Psychologists and behavioural economists know all about our biases, our psychological tendencies, and the consistent errors that we make because of them.

And this is why science can be used to hack our minds and instigate change for the better good.

But the only way to hack our minds is by changing the things in our immediate environment.

After all, our environment shapes the way we think.

A wonderful Edge talk with Darwinian philosopher Helena Cronin has a telling excerpt on the topic:

Natural selection equipped us with the fixed rules — the rules that constitute our human nature. And it designed those rules to generate behaviour that’s sensitive to the environment.

So, the answer to ‘genetic determinism’ is simple. If you want to change behaviour, just change the environment. And, of course, to know which changes would be appropriate and effective, you have to know those Darwinian rules. You need only to understand human nature, not to change it.

So how do we save us from ourselves and help us change to ultimately save the environment?

Elke Weber from the Centre for Research on Environmental Decisions at Columbia University has come up with a few solutions.

1. Gotta have faith in future benefits

Building anything that’s good for the environment or switching to more environmentally friendly solutions costs money.

And because of the costs, environmentally friendly actions seem terribly painful.

On top of that, the benefits of these solutions are uncertain, mostly because the benefits come over time and in dribbles. That, and also uncertainty snowballs into a greater and greater beast the more you look into the future.

But we also have an innate tendency of delay discounting in that we overvalue smaller, short-term rewards and undervalue larger, more long-term rewards.

But we just have got to have the faith that if we spend more now for eco-friendly stuff, we will most definitely see the future generations benefit for many many years.

Let’s just keep the faith.

2. Don’t guilt-trip

Guilt-focused messages are great to attract attention but are awful in maintaining that attention.

Though people might even feel some guilt, they just hide their head in the sand and pretend the messages aren’t there anymore. This is sort of behaviour is called the Ostrich Effect.

Nobody likes negative mood states so naturally such messages will be avoided.

3. Give architects the power

Let’s face it, architects and engineers play a huge part in what is in our environment and what it looks like.

They are the major influential decision makers and we should empower them even more.

Empower to do what exactly?

To design more sustainable infrastructure and buildings.

How would we go about doing this?

It’s no secret that humans respond well to incentives and the virtuosos behind pointy skyscrapers and modern glassy buildings are no different.

One way to incentivise architects, engineers, contractors and other groups who design and build infrastructure would be to grade and reward more environmentally friendly building projects.

For instance, projects that would reduce greenhouse gas emissions and preserve the habitats of wildlife would be rated higher than projects that emit toxic smoky plumes into our air.

So if architects and engineers are rewarded for their eco-friendly buildings on a particular rating system, it is likely that this would in turn lead to more prestigious tenants occupying these spaces which only perpetuates the prestige of such buildings.

Of course, planning tools such as the Envision rating system already takes care of this aspect. But three decades-worth of behavioural research suggests this system could be improved upon using scientific insight.

4. Play on architect’s aversion to loss

But the point is that humans are loss averse meaning that they want to limit experiencing loss as much as possible.

If we have a system in place that rewards architects and engineers to build eco-friendly buildings, then the architects and engineers that don’t do that will lose a lot of reputation and stature.

So they’ll avoid practices that will have a negative impact on their professional careers.

5. Careful labelling

We have a knee jerk reaction to certain labels.

For instance, we wouldn’t react positively to the label of ‘carbon taxes.’

But if we frame them as ‘carbon offset’ labels, then these labels seem more palpable.

More palpable labels are the way to go.

6. Nudge to use energy efficient light bulbs

Nudging is basically incentivising people to perform a new behaviour by using psychological sorcery.

One way to get people/tenants to choose and use CFL energy-saving light bulbs over less energy efficient lightbulbs would be for architects and engineers to build buildings that can only use eco-friendly lightbulbs.

Then you’re pretty much forced to use CFLs!

7. Shift attention to the future

As humans, we are by default pretty selfish.

We care most about our own present wants and needs and perhaps that’s the reason why we need these sort of environmental solutions in the first place.

But science has shown time and again that we do have other-regarding preferences, meaning that we can be quite selfless and look out for others.

However, these preferences aren’t at the forefront of our value hierarchy.

One way to tap into this selfless attitude would be to induce legacy motivations where it’s not about us anymore but about the future and leaving a sound legacy for the future generations.

Closing thoughts

A lot of money is invested into training experts, scientists, behavioural economists only for the main decision makers to ignore them in the end.

They have all the tools.

Listen to them.

It’ll do the world some good.

P.S. Thanks for reading and feel free to subscribe to my email list.

Still curious? Check out some more resources here.

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How to Stop Roommates From Using Your Stuff

I want to share a pretty cool psychology experiment with you, you’ll love it because the insight you’ll learn will be able to help you fend off your roommates or dormmates from using your stuff.

Your pans, your bowls, your stapler etc.

I know, infuriating when they use them without asking, even more so if they use them and don’t clean up and just leave them lying around dirty, the bowls and pans at least.

On to the experiment then.

The experiment

Dan Ariely, renowned behavioural economist and author of great books like Predictably Irrational, slipped in to the dorms at MIT as part of the experiment and, floor by floor, planted a six-pack of Coke in all of the shared refrigerators he could find.

Over the next few days he would return to the fridges and check on the cans, keeping a diary of how many of them remained in the fridge.

Within 72 hours, every one of the cans of Coke disappeared.

The money however remained untouched for 72 hours until Ariely removed the cast from the refrigerators.

Is there an explanation for this?

Yes.

But before we delve into that, Ariely asks you to imagine the following to put things into perspective:

“Suppose there are no red pencils at work, but you can buy one downstairs for a dime. And the petty cash box in your office has been left open, and no one is around. Would you take 10 cents from the petty cash box to buy the red pencil? Suppose you didn’t have any change and needed the 10 cents. Would you feel comfortable taking it? Would that be OK?”

I’m not going to pretend that it wouldn’t be super easy to just take the red pencil and keep the 10 cents so let’s just skip to Dan’s conclusion:

“When we look at the world around us, much of the dishonesty we see involves cheating that is one step removed from cash. Companies cheat with their accounting practices; executives cheat by using backdated stock options; lobbyists cheat by underwriting parties for politicians; drug companies cheat by sending doctors and their wives off on posh vacations. To be sure, these people don’t cheat with cold cash (except occasionally). And that’s my points: cheating is a lot easier when it’s a step removed from money.

How you can use this insight to your advantage

In his other book Behavioural Economics Saved My Dog, Dan recounts how a reader of his, or rather a friend of that reader, used this scientific insight to his advantage:

“My friend said that in his workplace items such as staplers, tape dispensers, and so on used to be constantly taken from his desk. He then glued a coin onto each piece, and no one has taken anything with a coin on it in five years. Does this fit with your findings?”

Dan commented the following in response:

“This is exactly the point. It turns out that we can rationalise lots of our bad behaviours, and the more distant they are from cash the simpler it is for us to rationalise them. What your friend has done by sticking money to the items it to make it clear that borrowing the office supplies without returning them is not just about the office supplies, it is also about stealing cash. And with this reframing he made the action more morally questionable in the minds of the potential thieves.”

Closing thoughts

So you now know you can stick money on your personal belongings to keep people you live with from using your stuff.

Life is all about quick wins, isn’t it.

But I also hope that you’ve learnt something about the predictability of human psychology and how it can work in funny ways sometimes.

And that the explanations for the strange inner workings of our minds actually make a lot of sense, a lot of the time.

I just want to leave you with a final thought or two.

I realised that whenever I go to Sainsbury’s and use my Nectar card, I will always get a coupon with some sort of discount on some of my most frequent past purchases, like a discount for a bag of spinach I often buy, or triple Nectar points on my next shop, or £2 off when I spend £20 on my next shop.

A lot of the time though, I see people pay for their shopping but leave their freshly printed coupons behind…

I think you know where this is going.

Because sometimes these coupons are essentially free money (i.e. “£2 off on your next shop” coupon) – if you use someone else’s coupon to get a discount, are you stealing from Sainsbury’s?

Is it wrong to use that coupon and get £2 off your shop?

After all, it is one step removed from cash…

Well what if you had the opportunity to steal £2 in cash from a cashier in Sainsbury’s and used that to buy your shop?

Thoughts, thoughts, thoughts…

Final thought with a different twist:

If you have a job and you’re getting paid X thousand pounds a year for your efforts – is that money just one step removed from slavery?

P.S. Thanks for reading and feel free to subscribe to my email list.

Mood Follows Action – How to Fake it Until You Make It

Imagine you’re in a funk, going through a slump, having a lazy day.

And for the life of you you can’t be bothered to do anything.

Ultra-endurance Athlete and author of “Finding Ultra” Rich Roll highlights that the common default mental position is to let a slump pass and just wait until you feel better.

But what Rich advocates is to take action in spite of how you feel.

So how do you shift how you feel about a scenario?

1.Take action in contrast to that feeling.

Be cognisant of the temporary nature of your current emotional state and realise that it is merely a ‘feeling’.

It is merely a feeling that can be easily reverse-engineered into something else.

Mood follows action. By taking action in contrast to that feeling is how you shift how you feel about a scenario.

And your brain will rise to the occasion.

2. Show up, especially when you’re uninspired

Even when you’re not feeling productive and can’t be bothered to do any work or if you’re feeling unmotivated to go to the gym for a workout – just go.

Just show up.

As Woody Allen once famously put it:

“Eighty percent of success is showing up.”

Just by showing up, you’re putting yourself into a productive, motivated mood.

Because even if you go to the gym while uninspired, the context of the gym itself will inspire motivation in you.

This ties in with pre-game rituals, like putting on your gym clothes before going to the gym just to summon that motivation to go.

A prime example of this is Scott Adams, author of the Dilbert cartoon-strip, who puts on his gym clothes before leaving his house, getting inside his car, and driving off to the gym for his workout.

It gets him in the zone. I talk about these concepts in an earlier post.

3. Improve your posture, change your breathing

By improving your posture, you can actually breathe better.

How?

Simply because your lungs are no longer pressing onto your diaphragm once you straighten up.

Why is it important to breathe better?

Strongman and Youtuber Elliot Hulse puts it this way:

“Breathing is the stimulation, both energetically and physically, of the intelligence in your unconscious, in your body, in your viscera.”

Elliot says that when you posture yourself like someone who feels good about themselves, you drive specific stimulation into the nervous system, and the nervous system immediately relays this to the brain.

It is an immediate feedback loop between body and mind.

In fact, Harvard researcher Amy Cuddy has shown that if you strike a V-pose, you can increase your testosterone levels by 20% and decreases your stress hormone levels just in 2 minutes.

Posture and depression

If you’re feeling a bit down, your body will follow and start slouching.

Feeling down or depressed isn’t just a mental thing, it’s physical as well.

In other words, depression has an embodied element to it.

This is also why if you’re having a crappy day, you should find some reason to smile.

It actually does make you happier.

cartoon_charlie_brown-depressed

There is a lot of science behind this cartoon.

People who experience depression also exhibit characteristic postures and movement that are an integral feature of their depression experience. 

Examples of embodied components of depression include reduced walking speed, smaller amplitude of vertical movements of the upper body, and hunched postures that elicit feelings of depression. 

As professor of Psychology Graham Davey, P.h.D puts it:

“These embodiments are not just reflections of inner feelings, they comprise an integral part of the depression experience because attempts to directly modify these postural features of depression also relieve the experience of depression.” 

This is why exercise is good to combat depression, not only because it chemically alters your brain but also because it eliminates poor postures that contribute to the embodied depression experience. 

We are however we act

What we do influences what we think.

“[W]e are designed to become in reality however we act. We fake it until it becomes real. Our core personality doesn’t change, but we quickly adopt the mannerisms and skills associated with our new status and position.”

-Scott Adams, How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big

A mood is just a mood, forever fluid and changing.

Take charge by acting in spite of how you feel and you will make great strides to changing your mood.

P.S. Thanks for reading and feel free to subscribe to my email list.

Social Influence: An Essay (Part 2/2)

So far in part 1 of this essay, we have looked at majority influence of a group on an individual.

However, there are also everyday social influences that occur on an individual level between people.

Most importantly however, these techniques are deliberate forms of social influence, whereas the aforementioned in part 1 were implicit forms.

These everyday influences include: the door in the face technique (e.g. Cialdini et al, 1975), the foot in the door technique (e.g. Dickerson et al 1992), and lowballing (e.g. Cialdini, 1974).

Door-in-the-face

When we consider the door-in-the-face technique, Cialdini et al (1975) illustrated its social influence qualities.

In this experiment, the researchers approached university students with a huge request of whether they would like to chaperone a group of juvenile delinquents to a zoo.

83% denied the offer. However, when the students were asked if they would like to sign up as counselors for minimum of 2 years – no one agreed.

When presented with the follow up ‘zoo offer’, 50% agreed.

This is an example of offering a huge request that will inevitably be declined but will lead to an acceptance of a much smaller request.

Foot-in-the-door

Another form of deliberate social influence is the foot-in-the-door technique, which requires individuals to express a small initial commitment that would influence them to partake in a larger commitment.

Dickerson et al. (1992) showed the effects of this influence in their experiment. In this study, the aim was to investigate if students could be influenced to conserve water in dormitory showers.

The researchers used this technique by approaching students on campus in a US university to sign a poster on conserving water. Those that did, were asked to be surveyed (a survey which was designed to make them think deeply about their water usage).

Then, there shower times were monitored. It was found that those that had committed to both poster signing and survey had shorter showers by 3.5 minutes across all over students.

This study shows how a small request can lead to a larger commitment and is an effective form of deliberate social influence.

Lowballing

A final influence technique is that of lowballing.

Cialdini (1974) demonstrated this technique in a university setting where he asked first year psychology students to volunteer for a study on cognitive and that it would commence at 7am.

24% agreeds to this. In another group, the same proposition was made, but the time wasn’t given. 56% agreed.

However, when the time was then presented to them (that the experiment is at 7am) and were told they could still back out – 95% of the students still appeared for that experiment.

P.S. Thanks for reading and feel free to subscribe to my email list.

 

Social Influence: An Essay (Part 1/2)

In this essay, the definition of social influence will be looked at along with the forms of such influence (incidental and deliberate). Focus will be placed on why people conform (e.g. Deutsch and Gerard, 1955).

Everyday examples of deliberate social influence will be presented in the form of compliance techniques namely the door in the face (e.g. Cialdini et al 1975), foot-in-the-door (e.g. Dickerson et al 1992), and low-balling (Cialdini, 1974).

Then, the various social influences dictated by particular group dynamics will be discussed.

These types of group dynamics can be divided into scenarios where individual psychology is influenced by the group (e.g. majority influences) and scenarios where groups are influenced by individual psychology (e.g. minority influences.)

In the latter case, we can further categorise the influences into group identification (either by cooperation or competition, Tajfel, 1970, or even prejudice, Macrae, 1994)) and majority influence such as conformity (e.g. Sherif, 1936; Asch, 1951) and obedience.

What is social influence?

Social influence pertains to the change of beliefs, attitudes, and values of a person being influenced. This influence is either deliberate (i.e. explicit feedback regarding how to behave) or incidental (i.e. implicit).

The latter type of influence can occur as a function of social norms. Social norms provide insight into why we conform, for example.

These norms inform others of the shared expectations of what a particular group believes desirable behavior is and it is these norms.

Social norms – two types of influence relating to norms

According to Deutsch and Gerard (1955), there are two types of influence relating to the social norms. These norms either serve an informational or normative purpose.

Informational influence is to reduce uncertainty, which leads us to accept information from others as evidence of reality (e.g. Sherif, 1936). Human beings have a desire for a definite answer, which is opposed to ambiguity and confusion.

They strive for cognitive closure (Kruglanski and Webster, 1996) which is characterized by urgency (e.g. attaining cognitive closure as quickly as possible) and permanency (this closure is maintained long-term).

Normative influence reflects the inherent need for social approval. Conformity occurs in order to build strong social relationships with group members.

Transmission of norms

Sherif (1936) conducted an experiment using the autokinetic effect to investigate the effect of conformity to a perceived group norm.

The autokinetic effect is an optical illusion where a fixed pinpoint of light in a completely dark room appears to move due to the eye movements of participants.

In this experiment, participants watched the light alone and estimated verbally how much this light appeared to move. After a number of trials, the participants had developed their own frame of reference with which they adhere to in their estimations.

Later, the experiment continued in groups of 3-4 where participants took turns in estimating how much the point of light moved. They used each other’s frame of reference, with all estimates being roughly the same.

A group norm had formed to which participants had conformed to once it was established.

Interestingly, when the participants were asked to repeat the task alone it was found that social influence of conformity still compelled the participants to based their estimations of the previously established group norm.

Hence, Sherif’s experiment shows how conformity can occur as a function of informational influence (Deutsch and Gerard, 1955) whereby people use the information of others as evidence of reality.

This is done in order to reduce uncertainty as we as humans strive for cognitive closure (Kruglanski and Webster, 1996).

This is due to uncertainty causing discomfort and confusion and humans will strive to reduce this uncertainty by achieving cognitive closure urgently (i.e. as quickly as possible) and permanently (i.e. for extended periods of time).

Conformity as majority influence on a minority in an ambiguous situation

What is the other reason that people conform?

Deutsch and Gerard (1955) suggest that normative influence (i.e. inherent need for social approval) is another reason. This influence compels us to conform due to an inherent need for social approval and group affiliation.

Conformity occurs as a function of building strong social relationships.

Asch (1951) conducted an experiment where majority influence was a factor in inducing normative influence in the form of conformity among individual participants.

In this experiment, 8 participants were gathered to enter a room, of which 7 were confederates. All participants were presented with two white cards.

On one there were three lines differing in length (a, b, and, c) and on the other there was one line which had to be compared with the lines on the card.

Out of 18 trials in the experiment, the confederates were asked to unanimously make a decision in 12 trials.

Over the critical trials, it was found that 75% of individuals agreed at least once and 32% conformed half of the times. This experiment showed the effect of majority influence over a minority.

Majority influence:
group affiliation and cooperation

However, studies have found that social influence occurs due to mere group affiliation and cooperation.

Tajfel (1970) conducted an experiment in which a group of boys that had previously known each other took part in a series of tasks.

The experiment required them to come into the lab and take part on an experiment on visual perception. One of the tasks required them to estimate how many dots there were on a computer screen.

Then, the participants were divided into groups depending on the performance in the visual task. They were segregated into two groups: under- and over-estimators.

Later, the boys assigned real money rewards to the participants with only knowing their group allocation (there was no real name, just a code).

Even though the group allocation was entirely arbitrary, the boys showed inter-group discrimination and in-group favouritism in their rewards.

That is, they gave less and gave more to out-group and in-group participants, respectively.

Majority influence: prejudice

The aforementioned experiment by Tajfel (1970) touches upon an important issue in everyday life and a majority social influence that occupies a curious position in the literature on social influence, namely prejudice.

Prejudice has been exhibited towards the outgroup in Tajfel’s study.

Macrae (1994) conducted a study on prejudice towards out-group as social influence.

In this experiment, participants were presented with an essay task to write about skinheads (this term was chosen for its political incorrectness).

Group 1 was asked to suppress their prejudices whereas group 2 was given no such instructions.

It was found that group 1 expressed fewer prejudicial views in their essays than group 2.

This showed that there was an obedience effect that had caused their suppression.

Interestingly, when the participants were asked to repeat the essay (without instruction), group 1 had experienced a rebound effect and had become significantly more prejudiced.

This study showed that it can be difficult to suppress a prejudicial idea and the attempt may lead to more prejudice.

Stay tuned for part 2 of 2…

P.S. Thanks for reading and feel free to subscribe to my email list.

 

Ideas on How to Get Students to Return Overdue Library Books

When you borrow a ‘7-day loan’ book from the university library and fail to return it before the 7 days are up, you are forced to pay a fine of 50 pence for every day that the book is overdue.

The crux of the issue is exactly what we’ve been talking about a second ago.

If someone wanted to keep a book for longer that 7 days, all he had to do was pay a small, petty fine of 50p a day and v’oila! he bought himself some extra time.

And just like that, gone are the times of experiencing guilt for holding on to an eagerly sought out book at the expense of someone else’s intellectual enterprise and education.

The whole thing is ruled by market norms now.

50p isn’t much of a fine

But the thing with paying just 50p is misleading and takes advantage of an inherent psychological tendency that we all have.

This is how libraries earn their money for “new books”.

This natural tendency is called delay discounting which is the process of devaluing future outcomes. You can read more about that here.

Essentially, paying 50p a day is chickenfeed to most people.

But 50p on day 1 turns into £1 into £1.50 and so on…

Hold on to a book for 10 days and you have to pay £5. Then you’re thinking – where’d that fine come from?!

Funnily enough, £5 turns out to be 1/8 of the price of a new copy of that very book you’ve been nursing for ages.

We don’t care about other people, only about ourselves

Let’s face it, we’re egocentric and tend to be selfish.

On the other hand though, we’re not purely motivated by self-interest.

Behavioural research shows that we do exhibit other-regarding preferences in that we factor in other people’s interests in our decision-making.

But these preferences aren’t at the forefront of our value hierarchy.

Sad but true.

BUT!

There is a solution.

A solution that would make people focus on the needs of others…

And it’s been around for millenia.

That solution is to instil feelings of guilt.

People are egocentric and look for their benefit but guilt has always been able to inspire at least a modicum of regard in those who have strayed off the path of righteousness (getting carried away here but you get the point.)

So if libraries want to help a student out, it has to be better at instilling guilt in students that are taking the mick.

How?

 How to instil guilt back

Social norms

Norms are important because they’re unspoken promises we make to people in our immediate social circle.

In the good ol’ days, if someone was a deviant in the social circle, he’d be banished or killed.

So to make the student feel compelled to bring the book back (bring the bloody book back, Russell!), we need to make him realise he’s a deviant in accordance to the unspoken laws/norms that govern every student.

Sure, sure, he probably knows this already, but we need that thought to be in the forefront of his consciousness.

So send him an email which reads something along the lines of:

99% of people give the books back on time – would you like it if someone did that to you?

This informs the person of the norm (i.e. how the majority acts = norm) and plays on their emotions a bit…

This ties in with the second point:

Empathy

A big theme here is to introduce empathetic imagination by putting them in the shoes of the people that are worse of for someone not bringing an overdue library book back (damnit, Russell!)

Another example that would play on empathy would be:

Please return the book as overdue books disadvantage students in their revision.

What would be even better would be to put that sentence in red.

Red attract attention and assigns urgency.

By the same token though, a lot of students don’t check these library emails and give in to the ostrich effect. Basically, they hide their head in the sand and avoid the issue (don’t you dare, Russell…)

But if you include in the email that “you could save X amount of money for returning the book on time” in the subject line, you might just get them to open the email after all.

Higher fees

Students taking the mick oftentimes don’t mind paying 50 pence a day for an overdue book.

Let’s face it – it’s a small price to pay for being daft.

So what about compounding the fines over time?

On day 1, the fine is 50p but on day 2 the fine increases to £1 etc.

Another thought: what about exorbitant fees?

Nobody wants to pay super high fees for a measly, chewed-up, dog-earred, nineth-hand book, right?

But this could have some unintentional effects, like encouraging malpractice where the students with the overdue books wouldn’t even bother paying the fines, returning the books, and would just vanish from the face of the Earth.

 

Making them experience the negative experience of holding overdue books

What about giving deceiving them into thinking that the book was overdue so that they experience the negative affect and feel like a criminal before telling them that you were joking but also add “but seriously – don’t forget to bring the book back on time yeah.”

Obviously this would raise “ethical questions” due to the deception used (still a thought, though…)

Make paying off fines a unpleasant experience

When paying off their library fines, sometimes people with overdue books rationalise that “well at least I’m helping the library with my money.”

It’s this rationalisation that doesn’t deter them from similar transgressions in the future.

So how would one go about making sure this rationalisation isn’t conjured up?

What about setting fire or shredding the money they use to pay for their fines?

Parting with hard, cold cash can be difficult, especially if you’re paying off library fees.

What if a student paying off his fines were to insert a note into a machine only to receive a fake shredded note in response?

They wouldn’t be able to rationalise that the money was going to a good cause (i.e. library) but rather was wasted because of someone’s laziness…

You could argue this puts a lot of undue stress on the student who is paying the fine. But once he’s parted with the money – what difference does it make what happens to the money?

After all – he’s parted with it and it’s no longer his.

But the downside is that no actual money is exchanged (i.e. it is taken off your student card).

I guess cash is slowly becoming archaic (not to mention unsanitary.)

Plus, now you’ve got machines where you can return your books back, so you aren’t able to experience any walk of shame as you would if you had to return the overdue books to a member of the library staff.

Trying to compromise and be on their side

Okay, the past two ideas were a bit “out there” so how about something that would be more ethically sound?

Like trying to be on their side and offer them an easy way out.

In the email remind him of the overdue book, you could write something like this in it:

“You can quietly come to school to give it back, no one will know…”

P.S. Thanks for reading and feel free to subscribe to my email list.

***

Thank you to S. Reimers for brainstorming these ideas with me. Obviously some were more on the jokey side while other more legitimate but overall it was a fun intellectual exercise I fondly look back on.

 

The Two Worlds We Live In

 

In his seminal book “Predictably Irrational”, behavioural economist Dan Ariely describes how we live in two worlds: one is governed by social exchanges and the other is characterised by market exchanges.

He emphasises that different rules apply to each of these two very different worlds.

For instance, imagine that your friend invites you to a party and you end up having so much fun that you decide to pay your friend for all the expenses it took to organise the thing.

How do you think your friend would react?

Such good deeds don’t come at a price.

The very act of offering to pay for them (i.e. placing a price tag on them) transitions the relationship with your friend from a social exchange to one governed by market norms.

In other words, by proposing such a thing, you’ve introduced market norms into a social exchange.

You’ve changed the dynamic of the social relationship and most likely even hurt it by negating the very foundation it was built upon in the first place i.e. intangible qualities such as trust, loyalty, kindness.

Social contract vs. market exchange

In his book, Ariely mentions an experiment conducted by researchers Uri Gneezy and Aldo Rustichini where the long term effects of introducing market norms into a social relationship could be recognised.

The researchers studied a daycare centre in Israel where they imposed fines for parents who were late in picking up their children.

From a behaviourist standpoint, it makes sense: if you want to reduce the frequency of a behaviour, you have to impose some sort of punishment to do so.

After all, world-renowned behaviourist B.F Skinner would reduce a rat’s button-pressing behaviour by simply shocking it. This is called negative reinforcement and it reduces the frequency of an undesirable behaviour.

However, upon introducing these fines, the situation hadn’t got better. Parents continued to be late in picking up their children. In fact, they were even more late than ever before.

How could this be?

Well, before the fine was introduced, the relationship between the caretaker at the daycare centre and the parents of the children operated within a world based on social exchanges.

Whenever the parents were late, their sense of guilt was so great that it increased their compliance to avoid being late.

But now that the fines were introduced, the dynamic of the social relationship had changed. The parents began to interpret the social exchange in terms of market norms.

They could now choose to be either a) early and not pay, or b) late and pay, say £2. They could literally buy themselves some time by paying the fine, absolving themselves of any guilt in the process, living in the conviction that it’s okay to be late as long as you pay up.

The relationship had moved from an implicit social contract to one dictated by market norms.

No going back

What happened when the fines were removed? Did the relationship between caretaker and parent return to one that was based on a social norms?

Here’s what Dan says about that:

“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.”