Friday, September 9, 2011

Bulletin News: When you need a nudge in kindergarten

by Pelle Guldborg Hansen

The other day something happened in my son's kindergarten. Well, actually not in his kindergarten, since he's a first grader in school now. But something happened in the Danish version of the after-school day-care that my son attends - and that something has been happening ever since he started in kindergarten.

So what happened?
Every now and then - that is, two or three times a year - all parents are asked to participate in a grand meeting at their kids' kindergarten, school or after-school day-care. However, since none of these institutions can force, threaten, punish or reward you for attending these meetings they have no other choice than to nudge the parents, and then trust that they will take out their time and show up.

So yesterday, the same thing as always happened: only a tiny fraction of the parents turned up. That is, around 5 out of the approximately 150 parents to approx. 75 kids (sorry, modern family structures makes the exact numbers very difficult to calculate). Unfortunately, besides the fact that this was the first time ever I missed out, this is not a unique unfolding of events. Of all the parents' meeting that I've attended during the years, only the very first meeting or meetings regarding very special events have been attended by more than a tiny fraction.

So who's to blame?
What happens next is just as usual: the blame game. "Why isn't the other parents showing up?" everyone present ask.

First come the usual suspects: "they don't know how important these meetings are", and "they are too lazy and uninvolved" - sometimes someone even suggests the game-theoretic one: "if everyone else shows up, they reason they don't have to, and if everyone else stay at home, they reason that so can they!"

These are all plausible explanation. The only problem is that they all share one suspicious feature: they make the people present and who are now giving their explanations look like pure saints: they know how important these meeting are, they are not lazy and uninvolved, and they do not reason in the self-interested way predicted by classical game theory.

Only then someone suggests the shocking truth: "people might just have missed the information..."

The morality of the bulletin board 
However, while this is usually true, the truth is not always looked upon with sympathy: "It was announced on the bulletin board." someone states with a clear and cold voice.

"Well, they might have missed it anyway. After all, I even forget to check it sometimes." you might consider answering.

But here's my advice: don't. Because the response you'll get is likely to be this: "It was announced on the bulletin board, and everyone knows that this is where we announce important news, so they ought to know that they ought to look at it." and since every parent clearly knows that this is true, it is quite hard to argue against it. Finally, the following presupposition is sometimes made explicit: "And if people don't, that's clearly because they don't find our work at this institution sufficiently important!"

The real explanation
The problem is just that we do not always do what we - upon reflection - know we ought to do. Just as you cannot derive an "ought" from an "is", you cannot derive an "is" from an "ought". We don't always act according to the ideals we aspire to.

Why? Well, in the above case the explanation is that our attention usually not focused on the occasional and rare announcements - even if it's nailed to the bulletin board. It's not that we don't care or don't respect the work that the employees put into their job. It's just the fact that the important announcements are so rare and so much else is going on, that we don't focus on the bulletin board.

The real problem
So why is this important? Well, the real problem in all of these cases is that as long as we don't focus on the real explanations when we discuss and devise solutions, we often end up burning up our institutions' hard earned social capital. In other words, the morality of the bulletin board makes people draw ill-conceived distinctions that feed suspicions and dissatisfaction.

The real question
This is what makes the above situation a clear candidate for a nudge. You're not allowed to force, make threats, or issue fines. So how would you go about ensuring that almost all parents turn up the next time?  

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