Be Kind in Chalk

Happiness Lab On How Grades And Rewards are Manipulative

I’ve been spending some time catching up on older episodes of the Happiness Lab podcast, and the other night, I caught episodes 9 and 10 from season one back to back. I’m very glad I did listen to them back-to-back because as the shows went on, I found myself thinking about how we have all become connected on social media and how the idea of emotional contagion seems to play out online every single day, and also how that can be a bad, or a good thing, depending on if you know about it.

First, episode 9 – Make ’em Laugh.

Much of this episode is about laugh tracks and the importance of feeling like we are sharing the experience of watching a show and laughing at the jokes. There has been a lot of study about emotional contagion and how we all, naturally, respond to the emotions of people around us. When your family member is unhappy, you become unhappy, when the boss is short-tempered, everyone on the team becomes short-tempered, and so on. But, most of that study was done as it relates to in-person interactions. It was only a few years ago, in the now-infamous Facebook emotional study, that we started to ask the question about how communicating through a textual medium could also create emotional contagion.

Now, make of the ethics of that study what you will, and I also have some doubts, but it did teach us something that we were unaware of previously. Not so much that as the news feed algorithm was manipulated to show more negative stories, the subjects started sharing more negative emotions in their own posts, but that it also didn’t matter who’s posts you read. Even complete strangers’ negative or positive posts had the same impact as the people closest to us.

This is enlightening because it shows us that we are all capable of being manipulated, by anyone, online.

This is why it’s vital to always consider who is sharing something online and why.

But, hold that thought because in episode 10, we’ll learn about why grades are horrible.

Or rather, why the whole system of rewards, like grades, completely undercuts what we may be trying to accomplish, and it’s not really our fault. The first time you either withheld dessert for not finishing dinner or provided dessert for finishing dinner to your kids, you’ve started them down the addictive path of “making the grade”. It never ends. It continues all the way through university, and on into the professional world. We are very unlikely to do the best thing, solve the hardest problems, or provide truly innovative work, because what we are really after is the rewards of good work. The raise, the high marks on a performance review, the promotion, etc. That’s what we set our sights on; if an innovative and fantastic way of improving the organization comes out of that race for the “grade”, great, but it’s not what we were trying to do most of the time. It also means we may avoid taking risks and “failing”.

There are many implications for that in the workplace, so you should go take a listen, but I want to specifically talk about one study discussed during the show. The one where they assigned students to write a research paper defending the opposite view of a strongly held political opinion of theirs. The students did so, and then they were assigned a grade on those papers completely randomly. No one even read the papers, to see if a student had done any real research, or not, and whether that might impact how they felt about the opposing viewpoint now, they just gave out a certain number of A’s and a certain number of D’s. What happened? The students who got an A, on the next survey of political opinions were more likely to feel somewhat differently than they did before; the ones who got a D did not.

One of the most popular arguments we hear, and one I’ve made myself, is that to truly stay informed and avoid living in the bubble of our own political bias, we need to make sure we are getting information from a variety of sources, including ones we may not agree with.

This study seems to be telling us that isn’t enough, and it can easily be manipulated. If I read an opposing viewpoint, and there’s no reward for doing so, I’m unlikely to really be influenced by it, but if I read an opposing viewpoint and get rewarded for it, I’m more likely to change my mind.

Now, remember that emotional contagion we might get from social media? What if I shared one side of a political view and got rewarded by the algorithms or whomever with lots of likes and comments, and the post got shared a whole bunch, but posts from the other side got none of that? Which side am I more likely to agree with? Right, the one that I got better grades on. Not because it’s true, better, or more accurate, but because I am rewarded for thinking that way. Rewarded the way I’ve been my whole life, since I was a little boy, from the first time my parents wanted me to behave a certain way, all the way through my school years, and for all of my career.

How hard would that be to fight against? Almost impossible, I’d say. How easy would it be for social media to do it, either the companies themselves or large groups of users?

How does that influence what we do and see on social media?

However, now that you know about these built-in reactions that we have, we can also choose to be the ones creating the emotional contagions, with our own messages meant to raise the spirits of the room, to leave people feeling better about themselves. We can influence each other just as much as anyone else can if we dedicate ourselves to doing it.


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