Myth of the socialist classroom experiment

For over fifteen years, a story about a professor’s classroom experiment of ‘socialising’ grades has been circulating around the globe in various forms, and mostly recently as a chain email.  The story apparently shows that ‘social loafing’ is inevitable in a society where rewards are averaged for a group, rather than efforts rewarded individually.

Taken to its conclusion, such a finding would presumably demonstrate that team sports could never be competitive, since each player gets the same result as the rest of the team regardless of how much effort they put in.

There must be more to the group dynamics than the overly simplified model of the mythical professor’s classroom.

Psychologists, in experiments of group performance, have found that performance results from aggregation of group rewards are not so clear-cut.  Indeed, the opposite effect, of improved average performance from group formation, is also possible in many circumstances.

First, here’s the story of the professor (remembering of course, that it is completely bogus)

When the reward is great, the effort to succeed is great, but when government takes all the reward away, no one will try or want to succeed. Is this man truly a genius? Checked out and this is true…it DID happen! An economics professor at a local college made a statement that he had never failed a single student before, but had recently failed an entire class. That class had insisted that Obama’s socialism worked and that no one would be poor and no one would be rich, a great equalizer.

The professor then said, “OK, we will have an experiment in this class on Obama’s plan”. All grades will be averaged and everyone will receive the same grade so no one will fail and no one will receive an A…. (substituting grades for dollars – something closer to home and more readily understood by all).

After the first test, the grades were averaged and everyone got a B. The students

who studied hard were upset and the students who studied little were happy. As the second test rolled around, the students who studied little had studied even less and the ones who studied hard decided they wanted a free ride too so they studied little.

The second test average was a D! No one was happy.

When the 3rd test rolled around, the average was an F.

As the tests proceeded, the scores never increased as bickering, blame and name-calling all resulted in hard feelings and no one would study for the benefit of anyone else.

To their great surprise, ALL FAILED and the professor told them that socialism would also ultimately fail because when the reward is great, the effort to succeed is great, but when government takes all the reward away, no one will try or want to succeed. Could not be any simpler than that.

Anyone who has actually been a student in a group university assignment (with, god forbid, socialisation of marks) would realise there is more to group dynamics than loafing alone.  Psychologists have identified a process of ‘social compensation’ (pfd) in experiments of group performance.  If the reward is highly valued by the majority of the group, they would put in extra effort to compensate for the chance of a few slackers bringing down the average result.  They will also put in the effort to help the poor performers improve their own individual skills.

As a general rule, where the reward is of low value, social loafing is likely to occur, and the group may breakdown.  After all, why expend the social effort of coordinating a group, especially for the individual high performers, for no particular reward.  Conversely, groups perform very well where the reward is highly valued by the majority of members, and even more so when competing against other groups.

The complexity of group interactions across the whole economy is one reason economics usually appears overly simplified. But it is a great relief that economists are now building on the understanding of human behavior gained psychology to provide more appropriate assumptions of human behaviour.

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  1. “….Taken to its conclusion, such a finding would presumably demonstrate that team sports could never be competitive, since each player gets the same result as the rest of the team regardless of how much effort they put in…..”

    The classroom example is simply not a “team sport”, it is tennis or boxing or running or an individual sport. If it was 2 different classes, one of which would graduate in toto and the other not, your analogy would hold.

    By the way, the one-time leftwing liberal associate of Bill Maher, Evan Sayet, said a few years ago after rethinking his political allegiances, that the modern liberal left wing world view, if it applied to sports, would consist of analysing how every losing team or competitor was cheated and exploited and unfairly disdvantaged.

    (There are multiple postings of that presentation; that one seems to be higher quality. The earlier ones have reached close to 1 million views, which is amazing for a 45 minute verbal presentation).

    • Wow.. a YouTube link instead of reference to textbooks written by people long dead. Now, that’s an improvement.
      modern liberal left wing world view, if it applied to sports, would consist of analysing how every losing team or competitor was cheated and exploited and unfairly disdvantaged.
      Ummm.. can you enlighten us as to which of the “modern liberal left wing world view” would lead to such an absurd conclusion?

      • Ok, I found some Obama Birther and 9/11 truther rants on youtube with 1 million hits.
        So, now I believe Obama was born in Kenya and 9/11 was a conspiracy by the US government.

    • General Disarray

      I wonder how Even sleeps at night with all those communists and socialists out there.

      Poor guy, it can’t be easy.

      • Imagine then that there are two different classes. The other class (team) has run their race and been given their marks. This has set the grading schedule faced by this class. An A will smash the other team, a B will beat them, a C will draw, a D will lose, an E will lose badly.

        The existence of the other team doesn’t matter. Consider it a world cup qualifier, where the winner gets to go to the finals, but it doesn’t preclude the other team getting to the finals. Or a team race even where you need to race against the clock.

        No analogy is perfect, but I believe this is quite reasonable.

        • Yes I believe you are correct, I was too quick to support Phil’s position.

          My own position is that in all of these group situations there is a mix of group rewards and individual rewards.

          For example, in the classroom example, those individuals who performed well would gain respect from their peers, which would be one motivation to perform well in addition to the motivation of reward for the group.

          So I agree that the classroom example rings false. Personally I believe the average grade would be lower than for a normal class, but not to the degree described.

          As for a large socialist society, the reward for the group is so ill-defined, and so far removed from one’s own small efforts, that the “team” aspect of motivation to perform well is very low. This leaves us with only the non-financial individual rewards as motivation, such as status, or of course the temptation to cheat the system.

        • It’s a very poor analogy and anyone who has played team sports as well as studied a tertiary degree will be able to tell you.

          Team sports are about competing against other teams. Everyone on the team wants to win the game. A loss results in everyone on the team feeling that loss. The team is interconnected and opposite teams are the opposition.

          In a classroom setting each person is tested individually. Therefore each person is rewarded on not based on their own individual efforts. Just adding ‘respect from your peers’ doesn’t mean a thing because all you need is one or two loafers and the system crashes. In a team sport loafers are either kicked off the team or given less game tame.

          In professional sports you have different players who are paid much more than other players. If one day a team decided to pay all their players the same you would instantly see the team dynamic fall apart and all the best players would move to find new teams where they are paid better.

          The reason the classroom study is so relevant is because, in most cases, this is how financial rewards are given. Those with the most ability or financial value are paid the most, those with the least ability or financial value are paid the least. When you equal everything out those who work harder or have more ability see no reason to work as hard and will work less, thus bringing down the entire group.

          Real world examples have shown this to be the case.

          “Personally I believe the average grade would be lower than for a normal class, but not to the degree described.”

          Why not? In a loosely connect classroom experience then the mark is entirely to be expected. One loafer leads to more loafers leads to nobody doing any work at all.

          It only works if those who don’t work are given a large disincentive against it, kicked off the team for not training, kicked out of the class for not studying, shot for not working (as happened in Soviet Easter Europe) or if classes are told that either they, or their opposing class will fail the subject, the best class passes and people who don’t pull their weight fail as well.

          Your original view of the analogy was the right one.

        • Thinking about this further, if you wanted to compare apples with apples (socialised team sports and socialised classroom) a way to do it would be to give equal game time to all players (as merely getting game time it reward in and of itself and is rarely equal) regardless of whether or not they train or pull their weight on the field.

          You would need to have a team with the maximum number of substitutes to make it work but I guarantee you would find that hardly anyone would turn up to mid week training. Eventually this would see poorer results in competetition and mean people were even less likely to turn up or play.

          The team would likely last one season then better players would move to different teams and you would either have only poor players left or no team at all.

          I have seen this very thing happen several times playing various sports, the only way to counter it is to give better and more dedicated (even if they are less skillful) players more game time. Thus rewarding individual effort and skill.

  2. Leadership 101 my friend. As a team you will have common goals to achieve. If there is a risk an individual will put these goals at risk other people will step up an ensure they’re achieved.

    Now how do you ensure you have people willing to step up even though there is an underperfomer in the team? Understand what their individual motivators are and thier intrinsict values. Then you will see these people still perform at thier best.

    There is a lot more happening than just that. However that is just a basic illustration. Plus if underpormance is not dealt with it will still eventually bring results down.

    • That’s how the Bolsheviks thought it should work, too. Medals and citations and presentations and holidays on the Black Sea for noble comrades.
      MattR is absolutely right, we need to be careful what analogies we use when “lucre” is the incentive; it happens to be the only one in history that has ever worked for a large system.

  3. This is obviously a chain letter written for those without much education. How do I know? It assumes that if students in a first year economics course don’t study, they might get an F (in fact that they would average an F), which is the type of thing you might be hoodwinked into thinking if you’ve never been on campus.

    I’ve been around intro micro/macro courses at 3 universities as a student and graduate tutor, and I’ve never seen a test that would require study in order to pass. ‘F’ is not an option except in the most egregious circumstances.

  4. Well this is obviously an attempt to justify the 1% …

    However even if it was true there are so many holes in the “study” that it still wouldn’t be valid.

    There is no control group.
    Perhaps the second test was just harder …

  5. Of course their can be co-operation and compensation with small groups and a common goal.

    But imagine large groups and a goal which many don’t share.

    Like invading Iraq. Or spending $100bil a year on Centrelink. Or asking police to impose curfews on nightclubs and restrictions on liquor licensing.

    Or the carbon tax 🙂

    We are all slackers now.

    • “Of course their can be co-operation and compensation with small groups and a common goal.

      But imagine large groups and a goal which many don’t share.”

      Agreed. As groups get larger, it gets much more likely that people have differing views and goals. And when the group gets big enough so that not all the members know each other (and therefore are lacking a connection), it gets even harder again.

  6. Doesnt sound like too many people have played team sports. It is a lot more ruthless than some have suggested.

    A possible explanation for the class room situation is that it appears that the students are not told what the raw marks of each student were before the averaging took place.

    As a result it is just speculation on the part of the students as to whether they were below or above the average mark and thus a burden or a hero.

    When it is not possible to work out who is trying and who is bludging morale collapses and many will become discouraged.

    The texas class room is a reasonable description of what happens when the social group is prevented or unable to monitor the performance and commitment of the members of the group.

    When playing in a team sport underacheivers are easily identified and not tolerated unless they are trying their best -and even then not for long if there are alternative team members available.

    In the event there are no alternates the other team members will still try hard because that will maximise their chance of experiencing victory – and recognition of their key part in that victory. Dead wood in a team is just that and they and their team members know it – and they usually are given a hard time if they are clearly free riding and not trying.

    Another factor is whether there is a logical reason for socialising the results of the work. A team sporting victory is inherently not divisble whereas the results in an exam are.

    Unless the point of pooling exam results was to force a team approach it would not makes sense. But even in that case it would be critical to reveal the individual marks so that the social group could assess whether people tried their best.

  7. One of the ironies is that many people who have reservations about individualism and prefer more emphasis on social groups and team work will argue for a social/team approach but then try to block/ ban many of the things that allow teams and social groups to work effectively. Usually they do this on the basis of protecting the rights of the individual – usually privacy. Individualism doesnt really work too well in social/team groups.

    Teams and social groups work when there is effective coommunication and information within the group as to the participation and contribution to the group.

    Thus group members know who is contributing and whether they are contributing to their ability. Those contributions may involve a range a social goods and not just flat screen TVs. For example : older group members minding children or performing light physical activities.

    All good but the system breaks down when the group is too large for effective communication of this type of information or there are specific regulations designed to prevent the communication of this type of social/ team performance information.

    It is no surprise that there is often considerable resentment when it becomes obvious that many people are being supported by the group and are making little or no contribution to the group of any description. Not even something as basic to the group as a group member simply looking after their own offspring so they do not become a threat or burden on the rest of the group.

    That resentment grows when public officials and supposed supporters of the group model go further and actively seek to conceal the availability of information to the social group about who is contributing and who is not. Often the reason given is privacy or the diginity of the beneficary. Concepts that dont really have a place in tight teams or social groups.

    Despite what their advocacy for social/ team orientated policies they clearly want their individualism and eat it too.

    What they dont seem to understand is that the price of effective teams and social groups is that team members need to know a lot about each other including their capacities and contributions for trust to develop.

    It goes without saying that extending the mutant model of ‘social/team’ thinking embedded in the modern western welfare state to the middle classes simply corrupts more people into thinking that contribution to the social/ team group is an option and a decision the state will help them conceal.

    So wind back middle class welfare and wind back the thinking that there is an entitlement to receive the support of the group secretly and without obligation.

  8. Anglo Saxon style capitalism is obsessed with a win / lose framework.

    Win / Win in the classroom and the economy? It is possible, and can be measured in the indogenous growth rate (minus population growth)in an economy.

    Jigsaw classroom strategies are an example of the concept in operation. even PB (personal best ?) would be impressed if he could experience Jigsaw in action.

    The win / lose reward based Anglo Saxon approach is largely why we are where we are. On the brink….

  9. In socialism outstanding people will get a lot of RESPECT from their social group. A doctor might live in a small apartment and drive an old car like everyone else but they will be greeted and recognised many blocks from their home. We are social creatures and it is debatable if you are happier with a BMW and having 5 friends, or driving an old bomb but being recognised within large tight community. A university degree or sports achievements will give you recognition within your community and it is more reward than many think and incentive to try hard. Probably works the other way where members causing problems would be judged by the group making them feel shame. The larger the group the way you are viewed by the group holds more value. Now applying your hard earned university knowledge and improving your skills in what turned out to be broken economies is a different subject. Probably depends on the profession too.

    • I was about to post that same RSA Animate video.

      The fact is that what motivates us is incredibly complex, and not nearly as simple as “carrot and stick” theorists would like us to believe.

      Unfortunately this narrative of “socialism = laziness” has been attributed to all sorts of nonsense. I.e. the USSR collapsed because everyone was lazy.

      It’s simple minded thinking that doesn’t stand up to any sort of real analysis, but it’s good propaganda.

      Here is Matt Damon on the subject good for a giggle 🙂

  10. I look forward to seeing this story pop up on my FB feed from my us friends. oh joy.
    While I was at uni (in the states at a fairly good uni where most were motivated) I had to participate in a few group activities where our grade hung on the work of everyone in the group. The more grade oriented would spend at least some of the effort they could have put into a better grade into coercing the slackers into doing work.
    This school also operated on an honour code and self scheduled final exams. At the end the wsemester 4 days were set aside for exams. These were at three set times during the day, but within that time frame, you could pick up your exam (for say intermediate macro econ – which was NOT easy) and take it anywhere in the building that it was distributed in. It had to be completed within 2 hour 20 minutes. In theory one person could take the exam on the first day and pass the details of the questions to their fellow students before they took the exam. In practice this never happened. Australians always seem puzzled by this- why would they not? Grading on a curve makes for a very effective motivator to do the right thing.
    In the example above, the slackers are not just dragging down the studiers, they are erasing the the extra bonus they give them by being bad students. If a hardworking student averages 80% on a test, and everyone else averages 60%, they would get a better grade than the 80% originally deserved, because the rest of the class did so badly they had to be booted. Conversely the 60% would resent that one 80% because it would mean they don’t get boosted enough. there would have been a lot more going on than just the basic motivation in a real classroom.