Is Grading Predictably Irrational?

predictably-irrationalI just finished reading Predictably Irrational, by Dan Ariely.  It’s a pretty good pseudo economics book with a bunch of interesting anecdotes and far fewer, but still meaningful, viable conclusions.  In chapter 4 Ariely discusses the ‘cost of social norms.’  The premise of his argument is that we exist in two realms: social and market.  When we adhere to social norms, we tend to do things (favors say) without placing a dollar amount on the activity.  This can include any instance, really, that does not include an exchange of money, like preparing a Thanksgiving dinner.  This social world exists independent from the market realm.  Once the idea of monetary exchange is imposed, however, the ‘free’ exchange of the social realm slinks away and is replaced with our market mentality.

Ariely notes a variety of examples, including tests of his own, to demonstrate how this theory works in practice.  For example, he describes a daycare that instituted a ‘late fee’ for parents who kept picking up their children late.  Rather than dissuade the parents, it actually increased tardiness.  In fact, it seemed the parents were more concerned with the social norm of being late than the fine.  Once the daycare imposed a monetary or ‘market’ mentality, parents felt that they had the option to be late and no longer were violating social norms.  In another example, he discusses how the AARP could not get many lawyers to offer discounted legal services to its members at $30/hour.  However, when they requested lawyers donate their services for free, thus implying a social exchange as opposed to a market exchange, they had an ‘overwhelming’ response.  In Ariely’s own study he asks participants to complete a series of simple tasks.  In exchange Ariely offered some participants 50 cents, some 5 dollars, and some were simply asked to help out (no monetary reward).  What Ariley found was that those he offered nothing worked just as hard as those offered 5 dollars.  The 50 cent group, on the other hand, completed many less tasks than the others.

Ariely goes on to make a pretty big conclusion about how this should be applied to the educational system at large (dump standardized testing, merit pay, focus on social norms like sense of purpose, pride).  Those issues are just slightly above my pay grade, though, so my immediate thought was does this apply to grading?

How many times did you hear, “is this for a grade” in your classroom last year?  Maybe I am just more sensitive to this teaching juniors (who cannot avoid the thought of those college applications any longer), but I grew really exhausted from that question.  It just seems like implicit in the student’s inquiry is a desire to get more information about the ‘exchange.’  This information then would help him or her make a rational decision to extend more (or less) effort on the activity (much like a rational market actor, no?).

Ariely says that money “is very often the most expensive way to motivate people.  Social norms are not only cheaper, but often more effective as well.”  I wonder how we could use social norms to engage students intellectually (I’m making a pretty big assumption that the idea of ‘grades’ roughly translates to Ariely’s ‘money’).  Since grades are unavoidable, is this even possible?  So I am thinking about setting up my own little study.  I’d create an assessment and, up-front, say three different things to three different classes: a) it counts as a quiz grade; b) it counts as 3 extra credit points on the next quiz; and c) it’s so you can prove to me how much you know.  According to Ariely’s study, I’d get the most from the students if I said ‘a’ or ‘c’, but much less if I said ‘b’.  What do you think?


  1. I find Dan Ariely’s books fascinating. I just read an article in AARP, “Why We Fall for This.” I just wish I could remember keep this knowledge in the forefront of my mind to challenge myself to not be swayed by the tricks of the trade!!! Thanks for your blog.

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