Loss aversion may not lead to net gains in behaviour

23rd March 2018 at 00:00
It can be a powerful corrective, but can also foster a “What’s in it for me?” attitude

Most schools I know have a sensible policy on mobile phones. Because of their size, most primaries and special schools require phones to be handed in during the day. Most secondary schools have a policy that phones are only seen with the express permission of staff. To do otherwise results in its confiscation for a short period of time.

This policy is a good example of the use of loss aversion – the idea that losses generally have a much larger psychological impact than rewards or gains of a similar value – as a deterrent.

We need to be clear that loss aversion is different to a general threat or punishment, such as calling their parents, banning them from a school trip or from a sports team.

I don’t believe calling parents should be used as a form of punishment. Whenever I’ve been asked if I’m going to call home, my response has been that parents have a right to know what’s happening in school, so I call home when things go well, but I call home when things do not. Likewise for trips – they are a curriculum entitlement and we mustn’t offer them conditionally. It isn’t a punishment, it is a duty.

The use of loss aversion has to make sense in light of the misdemeanour. The loss of the phone for a period of time is a direct consequence of the use of a phone when prohibited.

Taking a phone because a child has not done their homework, for example, would be ineffectual, because loss aversion is not simply a way to increase the general amount of discomfort to the child. It is likely to be counter-productive and build resentment.

Does loss aversion change behaviour? In the short term, yes. But children make a dynamic risk assessment on loss. If we again use the example of phones in school, once the likelihood of being caught falls below a certain level, the risk is then worth taking. It is the school equivalent of the speed camera.

The behaviour of some drivers changes in the vicinity of the speed camera and then, once they get to a safe distance, they’re back in fifth gear and away at speed. Other drivers respect the speed limit and see value in it for themselves and other road users.

There are pros and cons to loss aversion. It can be a more powerful corrective than the enticement of a reward, but it appeals to the lowest level of extrinsic motivation: the desire to gain something or avoid something. It can also foster self-interest – a “What’s in it for me?” attitude.

And – crucially – it won’t lead to long-term behaviour change.

Jarlath O’Brien works for a multi-academy trust of special schools in London. His latest book, Better Behaviour – a guide for teachers, is due out in June

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