Friday, March 07, 2008

On Psycho-economics (2)

Our psychologist friend Tirta continues on his post about the amalgamation of psychology and economics. Enjoy. -- Manager

On Psycho-economics (2)
by Tirta

A while ago I wrote about my worry with psycho-economics. I felt that the field was taking off a bit too early, because we psychologists still don't know much about how the decision-making mind really works. In my grim view, to fill the decision-making literature with neuro-laden jargons and colorful brain images may be nothing more than a showcase of unsubstantiated excitements.

An example I mentioned at the time was that of the economist Roland Fryer, who has been involved in a project to help New York students get better grades. I argued that Fryer was right to tackle the problem using the incentive approach, and that we need not worry too much about the psychological side of the issues – given how little we know about what happens in the students' brains when they study in schools. So I took it that as long as you have the right incentive, you would produce students with better grades.

I would now like to tweak my previous stance, as a result of reading two articles in the past few days.

The first one was about Fryer and his New York student project. He and his team had come up with an incentive: mobile phones. Students who do well in tests will be rewarded with mobile phones – which are to be used for school-related purposes (teachers would text their students about exams and homework, for instance). Now there are many objections to this mobile-phone approach, but I personally prefer to wait and see for some future data as to assess whether this particular incentive works.

The second one was about the psychologist and neuroscientist Stanislas Dehaene, whose research is about what he called 'the number sense'. He has produced groundbreaking work covering the many aspects of how the human and non-human brains deal with numbers: from the crude task of making an estimate that we share with other species (for example, which one is bigger: 2 or 8?) to the most sophisticated number manipulations only a handful of fortunate souls can do (fancy notions like the Poincare conjecture sounds fit here – although I honestly know nothing about this mathematical proposition).

One practical implication of Dehaene's work is that when it comes to mathematical reasoning as taught in schools, the brain has a pre-wired starting point: the number module. (Evolutionary psychologists believe that the brain is naturally designed with built-in modules, one of which is the number module). So mathematics teachers don't work with blank slates, they instead work with the number sense. Let's take the simplest example of counting.

Today the world is built upon the base-ten Arabic (some say Indian) numerals. Some languages, like English and Indonesian, are not completely compatible with this base-ten form: there are words that are cumbersome to pronounce and came out of nowhere, like 'eleven' or 'sebelas'. Chinese words for numbers, in contrast, are efficient to say and perfectly compatible with the Arabic numeral system. This is why Chinese four-year olds can count up to 40, while their American counterparts find it hard to get to 15; and why the average Chen can hold up to 9-digit in his memory, while the average Joe's capacity is limited to 7-digit. Dehaene's work is full of insights like this.

Now surely there are jargons and brain pictures filling up the number sense literature, but I think they are substantiated. We psychologists apparently know a bit about how the mathematical mind works, and we should be able to redesign how mathematics is taught in schools -- to make it more aligned with the nature of the number sense.

So yes, incentives do matter, and perhaps the mobile-phone approach will bring you better grades. (After all, the brain also operates with an incentive module). But paying more attention to the number sense might help the falling grades too, and make learning more fun even if Fryer runs out of mobile phones.

1 comment:

  1. i actually highlight my recommendation for a client to choose in a bolded green font as green means "go", "money", etc. the colour has some kind of power to induce.