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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