The False Consensus Effect

Do you think a woman’s place is in the home? Do you think gay marriage is an offence against both nature and God? Do you think all immigrants should be deported pronto? Whatever it is we happen to believe – however silly – we are of course convinced we are right. Not only that however; it turns out we also think most other share our views!

Professor Nicholas Epley carries out the same fascinating study every year with his MBA students. He gives them a list of ‘Ethically Questionable Practices’ (see table below) and asks them to say whether they think they are morally ok or not. Most people think they are not. But there is a twist in the study; students are also asked to estimate what percentage of people share their views. Most people who think these practices are unacceptable believe (correctly) that most others share their views. But here is where it gets interesting: the others, the students who are actually in the minority, also believe that most people agree with them! Look at the last column in the table; while only 6% of students think it is ok to pirate software from work and install it on your home PC, these people actually think that most others (56%) share their view! Epley concludes that our natural tendency is to assume others interpret the world as we do [Epley, N. “Mindwise” – Allen Lane 2014, p. 101].

Epley - False Consensus

[You can see why this may be a problem here on FB for instance. Say you are the moderator of a particular FB page and you have come to the conclusion that a particular policy is the best for the group. Of course you could ask what other people think about it, but why go to all that trouble? Clearly most people can see that your decision is the best… 🙂  After all, if people object they are free to express their views later. But here is the thing: in most cases, they won’t. This is where another phenomenon (‘Pluralistic Ignorance’) kicks in. Most people may actually disagree with your decision, but they think along the lines of ‘Well, perhaps most others agree with the moderators… After all, nobody has said anything…’  And so it goes… The combination of these two factors can help explain an awful lot about how minorities often come to dominate the public debate – and why, very often, there simply isn’t any public debate at all…]

Are Women Less Competitive than Men?

The study design was amazing: subjects (both M and W) were invited to the lab. They worked individually. The instructions were simple – ‘You just sit in front of a computer and you solve mazes’. Subjects were divided into two groups; one was paid $1 for every maze they solved, but with the other group the deal was different; the task was the same, but there was a competitive incentive. You had to compete with another participant. If you solved, say, 10 mazes and they solved 15, they got proportionally more money (e.g. they got $20 and you only got $5). The Q was this: would M in the competitive situation solve more mazes than M in the non-competitive one? And what about W?

No answers yet… 🙂  The researchers then posed another interesting Q: let us say that M perform better in the competitive condition. Is this because of ‘nature’ or ‘nurture’? To find out they ran similar studies * in one of the most patriarchal cultures of the world (the Masai in Africa) and in one of the very few cultures (the Khasi in India) which is in some ways female-dominated. The Khasi society is matrilinear and inheritance flows through mothers to the younger daughters. Would the results turn out to be different?  They were. You can see them in the chart below.

Here is the researchers’ conclusion: ‘Our study suggests that given the right culture, women are as competitively inclined as men, and even more so in many situations. Competitiveness, then, is not only set by evolutionary forces that dictate that men are naturally more so inclined than women. The average woman will compete more than the average man if the right cultural incentives are in place’. [Gneezy, U. & List, J. “The Why Axis” Random House 2013 – pp. 52-53]

 Men - Women and Competitiveness

( * The task used in Africa and India was a different one [throwing tennis balls into a bucket from a distance of 3m, but this is not relevant; what is important is the difference in performance in the two experimental conditions).

From Action to Attitude


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Why do we do what we do? Well, a number of answers spring to mind ‘Because it is the right thing to do’ or ‘Because we like it’ or ‘Because we have to’. All these explanations are reasonable of course, but what if there is another one? What if the reason we do something is that we just happened to do it at some point in the past?!?

Imagine this scenario: you are walking down the street, you are a bit tired, you are in a bit of a hurry – you are also badly in need of caffeine. Normally you have coffee at ‘Dunkin’ Donuts’, but this is a few blocks away and you happen to walk past this place you have never been to before – ‘Starbucks’… I will let the great Ariely continue the story…

This simple observation is one of the most profound discoveries in the field of Social Psychology: Our brain is lazy; we don’t want to seriously sit down and think about each and everything we do every day. Instead, we rely on heuristics. One of the most potent heuristics is this: ‘What did I do last time?’ Never mind that last time I was in a hurry and ‘Dunkin’ Donuts’ happened to be away; we don’t remember these things – instead we remember what we did. And then what do we do? We ‘line up behind ourselves’ and do the same thing!

Not only that; according to Psychologist Daryl Bem, we also change our beliefs and attitudes so that they are consistent with our new behaviour pattern! ‘For many things, our attitudes come from actions, that led to observations, that led to explanations, that led to beliefs’ (McRaney 2013 – p. 60). Common sense says the chain of causation is: ‘I like films = I go to the cinema’;  Bem says: ‘I go to the cinema = I must like films!’

This of course has huge implications for us: if we can get our students to act in certain ways (e.g. be responsible, punctual, participate actively, behave in a pro-social way) initially, chances are they are going to carry on acting in the same manner and they are going to adjust their self-perception accordingly!

Consider the following study which is a classic in its simplicity: Psychologist Jack Brehm asked a number of children to rate how much they liked a long list of vegetables. He then told them that he wanted to see whether they might think differently after they had eaten them. So he asked them to eat, say, broccoli three times a week for the next few weeks. Each child was served with the particular vegetable which they had listed as the one they hated the most. A month later, Brehm again asked the same children to rate the items on the original list. Sure enough, the ‘despised’ veggies had moved up in the students’ preferences! Cognitive dissonance theory allows us to reconstruct what might have gone on inside the children’s head ‘Here I am, regularly eating this stuff – without being forced. Either I am a fool, or it’s not actually so bad’. Which of the two options would be the more appealing to them?

In fact, there are countless studies which show we all tend to act consistently across time – regardless of how carefully we considered our original action was (e.g. Ariely 2010 – Ch. 10). So here is the Moral: ‘If social psychology has taught us anything is that not only do we think ourselves into a way of acting, but also we act ourselves into a way of thinking’ (D. Myers) Brilliant!


Ariely, D. “The Upside of Irrationality” HarperCollins 2010.

Brehm, J. W. (1960) “Attitudinal Consequences of Commitment to Unpleasant Behaviour”  Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 60, 370-383.

McRaney, D. “You can Beat your Brain” Oneworld 2013.

Why Online Communication May Lead to Problems


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‘Banu Akrod (aged 23) delivered the best Plenary of the Convention’. That’s a straightforward remark, isn’t it? But wait – do I really mean it, or am I being sarcastic? Of course when I write something I know what my intention is, but what about the recipients of the message?

In a fascinating study, Professor Nicholas Epley et al asked some volunteers to write two sentences about some ordinary topics, such as food, cars, dating etc. One of them had to be sincere and the other one sarcastic. The subjects were then asked to convey these messages to another one of the participants. In some cases they were to do this over the phone and in another by e-mail. Would the recipients ‘get’ the right message? Does it make a difference which medium is used?

Crucially, the senders were asked to predict whether they thought their message would be properly understood. The recipients were also asked to predict in how many of the cases they would correctly gauge the sender’s intention.

The results can be seen in the graph below. Regardless of the medium, the senders were optimistic: they thought recipients would understand their intended meaning in about 80% of the cases. Recipients were even more optimistic – they thought they would ‘get it’ in 9 cases out of 10. Of course, they were both wrong…

The first thing which can immediately be seen from the graph is an ‘optimism bias’ – expectations exceeded the actual results in all cases. But whereas the senders were quite close in figuring out how many would understand what they really meant when this was conveyed over the phone (73.1%) they were very wrong when it came to online communication. The recipients got it right a little more than 56% of the time – that’s little better than chance! The difference between 56% and 78% is huge (and that between 56% and 89% is huger still! 🙂 )

The Moral: Prosodic features convey a wealth of information which is lost when you put something in writing. The likelihood of misunderstandings in online communication is very, very high. [Epley, N. “Mindwise” – Allen Lane 2014, p. 108].

Epley - Online Communication[Look at any thread on FB where there is a divergence of opinion. Very often what starts as a polite disagreement quickly escalates into a proper punch-up (the well-known phenomenon of ‘flaming’). Epley’s findings can go a long way towards explaining why this happens, as does the fact that our brain has a built-in ‘negativity bias’. Not only do we focus excessively on negative incidents and slights, we tend to ‘overperceive’ them and remember them more.]

The Effects of Expectations


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“So it is (if you think so…)”

Fancy a pint? How would you like a glass of beer? It’s tasty, well-chilled, refreshing and, perhaps more importantly – free! (To quote Plato – ‘If you have to pay for your pleasure, then what kind of pleasure is that?’) In addition, you are also going to be given a choice! You can choose between beer A or beer B. Beer B, the ‘MIT brew’, is special and it contains a secret ingredient! You can taste them both and make your choice. Now think: would it make any difference if you knew in advance that this secret ingredient was in fact a drop of balsamic vinegar? Over to Professor Ariely now – just watch the video…

So what is the moral? Here it is: ‘Expectations Colour Experience’. How we perceive something depends on what we expect it to be like. And this doesn’t just have to do with food and drink…

How do we perceive people? Imagine you are a university student. You are waiting for the first session of ‘Introductory Economics 70’ to begin. Then somebody comes in and says that something has happened to the professor who normally teaches the course, so a stand-in instructor will deliver the lecture. The only thing is that, because the department would like some feedback, the students will be asked to fill in an evaluation form afterwards. By way of introduction, each student is given a slip of paper with some information about this lecturer. Naturally (as this was in fact a Psychology experiment – although students did not know it) there were two versions of this short bio. Here they are. Can you spot the difference?

A: “Mr Long is a graduate student in the Department of Economics and Social Science here at MIT. He has had three semesters of teaching experience in psychology at another college. This is his first semester teaching Ec 70. He is 26 years old, a veteran, and married. People who know him consider him to be a very warm person, industrious, critical, practical and determined”.

B: “Mr Long is a graduate student in the Department of Economics and Social Science here at MIT. He has had three semesters of teaching experience in psychology at another college. This is his first semester teaching Ec 70. He is 26 years old, a veteran, and married. People who know him consider him to be a rather cold person, industrious, critical, practical and determined”.

That’s right. The only difference is two words: ‘very warm’ as opposed to ‘rather cold’. Would that tiny detail make a difference? Of course it did. Students who had received bio A were much more positive in their evaluations later; they described the lecturer as ‘considerate’, ‘popular’ and ‘humorous’; it was as if the other students had seen a different person! They described him as ‘unsociable’, ‘irritable’ and ‘self-centred’. So much for independent thinking… 🙂  But that wasn’t all; this prejudice also affected the students’ level of participation. Among the former students two-thirds participated actively; among the latter, only one third made any contribution during the session! Apparently, two little words lost in a longish paragraph can nevertheless have a huge impact… Here is Professor Bloom explaining why this happens along with the very interesting concept of ‘Confirmation Bias’:

Expectations and ELT: So what does all this mean for teaching and ELT? It is clear then that as Professor Ariely says, very often what we expect to get is what we actually get. That means that we have a great tool at our disposal – we can influence students’ experiences before they happen! Here are four simple tips:

‘Sell’ your activities to your students: ‘And now, we are going to play an amazing game – this is one of my absolute favourites!’

Do NOT predispose your students negatively: ‘OK, I know most of you are not going to like this, but we have to do it because…’

Get your DOS or somebody else to ‘sell’ you to your new class: ‘OK guys, I am very proud to introduce you to Nick. Nick has …’ Do not do it yourself; research shows that it is far more persuasive if done by somebody else (have you noticed what happens before any speaker takes the podium in any great event? – see also: Goldstein, Martin & Cialdini 2007 – p. 81).

‘Sell’ your students to the next teacher: You may have the best intentions when you say ‘OK, Mary is a bit of a problem; she is weak and disruptive’ but in fact, this acts as a self-fulfilling prophecy (Rosenthal & Jacobson 1968). Instead, you can stress her positive points.

How about another drink? Expectations are extremely potent. In an unbelievable field experiment, students in a bar were given blue and red badges to wear on their wrists. Then they were given memory, reflexes and balance tests. Of course they did well as they were all sober. Towards the end of the evening, things were different however – people could remember less, their reflexes were slower and their sense of balance impaired. It was the same for both groups. The only thing is – unbeknownst to them, the blue group had been drinking non-alcoholic drinks throughout the evening! Yet they were just as ‘drunk’ as the others… 🙂 (Wiseman 2010 – p. 199).




Goldstein, N., Martin, S. & Cialdini, R. “Yes! 50 secrets from the science of persuasion”  Profile Books 2007

Lee, L., Frederick, S. & Ariely, D. (2006) “Try it, You’ll Like It: The Influence of Expectations, Consumption and Revelation on Preferences for Beer” Psychological Science 17(12):1054-8.

Kelley, H. H. (1950) “The Warm-Cold Variable in First Impressions of Persons” Journal of Personality, 18, 431-439.

Rosenthal, R.; Jacobson, L. 1968. Pygmalion in the classroom. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston.

Wiseman, R. “59 Seconds” Pan Books 2010

How to Turn a Man into a Picasso



Well said J. L. Lewis!: In ‘Chantilly Lace’ J. L. Lewis sings ‘There ain’t nothing in the world like a big-eyed girl  / to make me act so funny make me spend my money / Make me feel real loose like a long necked goose / Like a girl oh baby that’s what I like’! J. L. Lewis could not have put it better if he had been an Evolutionary Psychologist! He was spot-on about the effects of Women [W] on Men [M] – more of that in another article. What he failed to point out however is that apart from all the other effects, the presence of ‘a big-eyed girl’ may well release the artist in a guy…

‘The Science of Lust’:  What happens in this experiment is very revealing: One by one, a group of guys are led into a waiting room where they are kept waiting for some time and then taken to another room where they asked to express themselves on a canvas. Then the same thing happens with a second group, only this time there is a difference. As each man is led to the waiting room, he is introduced to Kate, a young, sexy girl in a figure-hugging top and hot pants… (Kate may or may not be a ‘big-eyed’ girl… I never seem to be able to focus on her eyes… 🙂 ) Kate flirts with him a little and only then is the man taken to the room and asked to paint. A picture is worth a thousand words – a video, even more:

The results: …So the question is this: Does ‘romantic priming’ make any difference to the quality of the work the M produce? The answer is a resounding ‘YES’! An art expert is called in to assess it and the work of the two groups is displayed in two rows. Even an ignoramus such as myself can easily see that the work of the second group is far more exciting. Obviously the ‘excitement’ the M felt after their short session with Kate was channeled into their creations!

Another experiment: Here is another one: Professor Kenrick (Kenrick 2011) got together two groups of M. The M of the first group were ‘romantically primed’ by looking at pictures of highly attractive girls, choosing one and imagining what a first date with her would be like. The men of the second (control) group were asked to imagine walking down a street and looking at the windows. Both groups were then asked to write a paragraph about an abstract painting or a picture of two friends chatting together at a café. The paragraphs were then shown to a third group of people who rated them independently for such traits as ‘creativity’ / ‘originality’ etc. He then repeated the process with two groups of W – again, there was the control group and the one where the girls were ‘primed’ with pictures of handsome guys.

 The results: So – would there be a difference? Once again, the M outdid themselves after imagining a date with the likes of Megan Fox or Beyonce Knowles. In a different study it was found that such M also scored highly in standard creativity tests. But what about W? No! Fantasising about a date with Antonio Banderas or Brad Pitt obviously failed to bring out the artist in them… (ibid.)

So what can we make of all this?: Natural Selection goes for sensible designs and has a sense of proportion. The adaptations we have in order to survive are practical, no-nonsense ones. And then you get the peacock’s tail – there is no way such a thing aids survival. It is clearly meant to impress the peahens! Whenever one sees ‘extravagance’ and ‘waste’ in nature, the culprit is almost certainly Sexual Selection (Miller 2001). It is all about the struggle of males (in 95% of the cases) to impress females. Creativity is a good case in point – the amount of effort, dedication and energy that people are willing to invest in order to give an outlet to their artistic urges defies all calculation!

But why should it be so? Well, it is the W’s preferences which determine what trait M will develop! And studies have shown that creativity and originality are highly valued by the fair sex (Buss 2009). Not only that; research has also shown that during their fertile days W’s preferences shift – they prefer better-looking guys, dominant guys AND guys who are more creative! (Thornhill & Gangestad 2008). Another study focusing on traits W find attractive found that during the luteal (infertile) phase of the month 40% of W asked found ‘wealth’ appealing, while only 8% went for creativity; on their fertile days however, this preference was reversed! (5% and 30% respectively! (Miller, G. ‘Sex, Mutations & Marketing’ YouTube) There is no doubt about it; W find artistically-inclined M sexy…

The Godfather connection: Now if creativity is connected to mating effort, then we would expect it to decline with the years. And this is exactly what we find! Kanazawa looked at the lives of 280 top scientists and found that 68% of them made their greatest contributions before their mid-30s! Not only that, but there was a clear decline in the originality of their output once they had got married! (Fisher 2004) As Kurzban points out (2012) different modules in our brain kick in at different stages in our lives. Having children reconfigures our brain (Brizendine 2010) and we switch from mating to parental mode. What is truly astonishing is that the male creativity curve coincides almost exactly with the male criminality curve!! (Miller & Kanazawa 2008) According to this view, they both represent different ways males employ to acquire resources and/or status… in order to impress W! Once they have settled down, the tendency towards both criminality and creativity fades…

What about Women? We saw earlier that the prospect of dating Johnny Depp does not create in W an irresistible urge to try their hand at sonnet-writing. Yet it does have an effect on them. Remember what we said earlier? The two sexes have co-evolved and like good business people both M and W are prepared to offer their would-be significant other what the latter wants. Now this would normally mean that romantically-primed W would change physically to look more like Kate – alas that is a little too difficult. But there is something that M want in a long-term partner, that W can offer: kindness. In the same programme Vlad Griskevicius conducts another experiment where after flirting with a handsome guy, W become exceptionally helpful to strangers – even though the M is no longer present! Here is what happened:

 Now you know…: So if you ever need to send male creativity soaring, you know what to do… Imagine for instance you are a teacher, you have an all-boy class and you would like them to enter the ‘Creative Essay’ competition; no problem! Just invite that sexy teaching assistant from the other building to join you in your next lesson… that should do the trick… In a more professional context, say you are working for an advertising agency and you again have an all-male team… All you need to do is hire some pretty girls for the promo clip… (mind you, judging by the output of advertising agencies, I think they already know this!!  🙂 )


Brizendine, L. “The Male Brain” Bantam Books 2010

Buss, D. “Evolutionary Psychology – The New Science of the Mind”  Pearson 2009

Fisher, H. “Why We Love”  Holt 2004

Griskevicius, V. “The Science of Lust” YouTube

Kenrick, D. “Sex, Murder and the Meaning of Life” Basic Books 2011

Miller, A. & Kanazawa, S. “Why Beautiful People Have More Daughters”  Pedigree 2008

Miller, G. “The Mating Mind” Vintage 2001

Miller, G. “Sex, Mutations & Marketing” YouTube

Thornhill, R. & Gangestad, S. “The Evolutionary Biology of Human Female Sexuality”  Oxford 2008

‘The Small Big’

(by S. Martin, N. Goldstein & R. Cialdini)

The Small BigHow do you help a busker make eight times as much as he normally would? Piece of cake – just get someone to drop a couple of coins in the hat as soon as the train doors open at the metro station! It’s called ‘Social Proof’ and it’s invisible! When people were asked later, nobody mentioned the ‘generous stranger’ (p. 15)…

In this amazing book, the writers focus on small things that can make a BIG difference. The contents list 53 chapters – each between 4 and 6 pages long. Each one looks at one or more studies and then considers the implications. The emphasis is on those little elements that make us tick. Social proof is one of them. Remember the busker? Instead of telling our students to do something, perhaps we could get a student to ‘model’ the desired behaviour.

The findings are often startling. For instance – how do you reduce no-shows for doctors’ appointments in hospitals by 57%? Easy – peasy: just send people a reminder sms with their first name in it! (p. 35) First names = attention = compliance! So what about us? Do we always use our students’ first names? Even when providing written feedback?

Another question: is it better to give people more or less choice? If you think the right answer is (a), think again! It is true that to get people to agree to do something offering them options is a good idea, but if you want them to actually complete a task they have agreed to do, then the opposite is the case! The big Q is this: ‘Is my problem getting buy-in or follow-through? Excellent! (p. 215)

Now here is a question for you: How many people would you have to ask to fill out a questionnaire before five of them agree? * It is incredible how much we underestimate people’s willingness to help! (p. 165) So – what about ELT? Do we encourage students to ask us for support? What about asking each other? And what about colleagues – how comfortable are we asking each other for help? (Honestly!)

OK – I have saved the best for last. Imagine you are in church. The sermon is over and the customary collection box is being passed around. Only this is an ‘uncollection’! You are actually encouraged to take money!! Then the priest says ‘Our expenses are huge. Please take some money, use it any way you want, and if you wish, you might give some of your earnings back to the church in the future’. Within six months, Reverend Steel got his money back twentyfold!! (p. 163) Q: Could we not do the same at the next IATEFL Convention?  🙂

[ * A: Amazingly, only about 10!]


(by J. Berger)

ContagiousDid you know that a glass ball will bounce higher than a ball of rubber? Or that kangaroos cannot walk backward? (p. 38) You might say that such general knowledge trivia are well, trivial, but Berger does not think so.

Professor Berger has set himself the task of discovering what it is that makes some things go viral – why it is that we share certain things but not others. The facts above come from under the Snapple caps. Snapple introduced them in 2002 – sales soared!

But why? Berger’s answer is that we love to share things (such as weird facts) because that make us look good – it is a kind of ‘Social currency’. He has identified 6 key ingredients to ‘virality’: Social currency / Triggers / Emotion / Public / Practical value / Stories.

There is a great deal here that we can use. Clearly, if students like something enough to share it, that could potentially make excellent teaching material. Strange facts (e.g. the QI books), lateral thinking problems, inspirational quotes can all make great ‘Social currency’.

Some elements such as ‘Stories’ or ‘Emotion’ are obvious, but what about ‘Practical value’? Well, I like to give my teenage students diverse reading material but there is one book (‘Body Language’ by Pease) which they almost never return – they buy it off me! Why? Because it says how you can tell if someone likes you. What would happen if we gave our classes more stuff like this?

‘Triggers’ (ch. 2) is a fascinating concept. The idea is that we are more likely to do something if there are things around us that remind us of it – things that ‘trigger’ a particular thought. Berger and Fitzsimons got students to eat 25% more fruit and veggies by using this trick (p. 72). Could we do the same and get our students to study more?

In the chapter on ‘Public’ Berger mentions an amazing movement (‘Movember’ – p. 138) which since 2007 has helped raise more than $ 174 million for victims of cancer worldwide. How did they do it? Well, they encourage male supporters to grow a moustache for a month! 🙂  People ask them why they have ruined their looks, they reply and the movement gains momentum – brilliant! (Moral 1: Costly, public commitment makes people do things – and the same goes for students! Moral 2: Incongruity works wonders! Could we use this in class perhaps?)

OK – I have saved a little puzzle for the end. Q: Imagine you are about to open your Apple notebook which is in front of you. Is the logo the right way up? It should be, right? Wrong! Now open the laptop. That’s right. It is the right way up – for all the others to see! (Public! – p. 127).

‘The Brain Sell’

(by David Lewis)

The Brain SellQuick Q: What is the McDonald’s slogan? That’s right – ‘I’m loving it!’ Now ask yourself: why is it not ‘You’re loving it?’ After all, this is the company talking, right? But here is the thing: every time you repeat that you persuade yourself! (p. 157)

Self-persuasion is only one of many, many ideas from the world of psychology and advertising that we can find in this book – and apply them in our field as well! If you get your students to talk about the benefits of, say, singing along to songs or listening to BBC News, they may well come to believe themselves. Here are some more:

Pictures (p. 47): if a picture is included alongside a text, the brain processes the info more easily and swiftly. Moral: add pictures to your texts!

Arousal (p. 27): heightened arousal contributes to positive feelings (a spill-over effect). Moral: if we include high-arousal activities in our lessons (e.g. debates – competitions – games like ‘wall dictation’) students will like our lessons more.

Change (p. 205): the brain notices changes; if things are ‘normal’ it runs on auto-pilot. Commercials employ rapid cuts and fast motion to ‘wake us up’. Moral: Short, fast tasks and a change in the nature of activities means that students are more alert and they retain more.

Rationale (p. 158): advertisers routinely translate product features into benefits (‘X has Y, which means Z’). There is a good reason for this. Moral: Explain the rationale behind the activities to students. What is obvious to us, is not necessarily obvious to them.

Technology (p. 39): “most people lack the time or the patience to go up a long learning curve with a new device”. This goes for both students and trainee teachers. Moral: Technology should be a means to an end for us teachers. Keep it simple.

Feedback (p. 50): Findings from Market Research suggests that many people do not know how they feel or what they think about things – or they will give you the ‘right’ answer or the one they think you want. Moral: ‘Don’t ask – can’t tell’. For feedback it is often best to rely on indirect methods.

Negative Feedback (p. 120): How do we handle negative feedback (from students / parents)? Perhaps we could use the Apple ‘Feel – Felt – Found’ technique: ‘I know how you feel, I felt the same in the past… but now I have found…’ Excellent! 🙂  Moral: Notice the ju-jitsu technique – you do not contradict them directly!

‘Miryokuteki Hinshitsu’: What blew my mind away completely however was a distinction between two terms in Japanese: ‘Atarimae Hinshitsu’ vs ‘Miryokuteki Hinshitsu’ (p. 247); the former describes ‘standard service’, the latter what makes you go ‘WoW!’. Our goal should be ‘WoW teaching’. Any day.


(by Robert Cialdini)

Influence 2

OK – quick Q: you are a shop assistant in a clothes store. You work on commission. A customer walks in and asks for a suit and a pullover. Which do you show them first? (A: at the end!)

‘Influence’ is considered to be The Bible of persuasion, and rightly so! What sets Cialdini apart from most other academics is that he wanted to see how people try to influence in others the real world. He therefore worked for estate agents, politicians, in a restaurant and in advertising. His book analyses his findings – 6 key principles:

  • ‘Liking’ (p. 143): The more likeable someone is, the stronger their power of influence. Moral: get your students to like you – they are more likely to learn from you and make a greater effort.
  • ‘Authority’ (p. 178): We are more influenced by people we perceive as knowledgeable. Moral: make sure your student know your teaching credentials and give them the rationale behind your methods.
  • ‘Social Proof – Consensus’ (p. 98): We are easily swayed by what (many) others do; esp our peers! * Moral: instead of telling students what to do, it is perhaps better to tell them that their friends are doing it!
  • ‘Consistency’ (p. 52): We use our earlier behaviour as a guide for what to do next. Moral: if you get your students to adopt a desirable behaviour once or twice (for whatever reason!) they may well go on behaving in the same way!
  • ‘Scarcity’ (p. 203): We value things more if they are rare. (In a fantastic study they gave people chocolate chip cookies; in some cases the jar contained 10 – in others only 2. Results: the cookies were rated as tastier in the latter case!! – p. 219). Moral: if someone asks you for private lessons, do not agree immediately; let them think you are busy… 🙂
  • ‘Reciprocity’ (p. 19): If someone does us a good turn, we feel the need to reciprocate. Moral: by doing little things for your students you ‘bind’ them and you can ask them to do all kinds of things later. Here is an important discovery – you can ask them to do a lot more! (p. 33)

OK – remember the initial Q? A: you show them the suits first! (p. 13) Why? If you show them the pullovers, they will buy an average-priced one (say E 50) but when you take them to the suits, they will suddenly seem expensive, so they’ll get a cheaper one (say E 150). Yet if you take them to the suits first, they will buy a normal one (say for E 200) and then the pullovers will seem cheap by comparison, so they’ll get one at E 70! Brilliant!  🙂

* Here is a study on Concensus:


(by Daniel Pink)


Pink sets out to demolish long-held beliefs such as that people are only motivated by extrinsic factors and he does so with gusto. While primarily focusing on the business world, most of the things he says apply directly to education as well.

Pink starts by making a useful distinction between ‘algorithmic’ and ‘heuristic’ tasks (p. 29). The former are ones which you perform by following a series of pre-determined steps, while the latter require a more creative approach. Crucially, the latter are far more motivating!  In our field this would translate into a distinction between, say, the standard transformation exercise and an activity like improvising and recording a monologue. The big Q for us is: what is the ratio between these two types of activities in our classroom?

Later on, Pink draws on Csikszentmihalyi’s insights on ‘Flow’ (p. 115). Csikszentmihalyi’s research showed that most tasks where people achieved ‘Flow’ shared three key elements: a) there were clear goals,  b) there was immediate feedback and  c) the task difficulty level was perfectly pitched – slightly higher than the performer’s current level. The implications for task design here are obvious…

In discussing ‘extrinsic’ vs ‘intrinsic’ motivation, Pink points out that there is often a trade-off; extrinsic factors may work best in the short-term, but in the long run intrinsic motivation is always the winner! (p. 79) Back to ELT, exam classes illustrate this perfectly: granted, both parents and students often clamour for more exam-oriented material as there is always a test round the corner, but in the long run this is disastrous (I have yet to meet students who do CPE tests for fun after getting their certificate…)

Motivation leads to ‘autonomy’ and this is where things get really exciting! On p. 86 we are introduced to the concept of ROWE (‘Results-Only Work Environment’). The idea is simple: your employer does not care how or when you do something, so long as you deliver the goods! Now imagine ROSE instead! Imagine a school where classes are not compulsory, where students are more autonomous and they have to actually generate something as evidence of learning (rather than sit endless tests). This is not a dream; the IB model has taken many steps in that direction…

Then on p. 93 we go one step further still! Atlasian is a software company where once a week employess can do anything they want!! At the end of the day, employees just show what they have come up with. Now, can you imagine a school where once a week you can work on any project you want? Imagine being paid to design your favourite activities, to incorporate novel IT-based task in the syllabus or prepare worksheets for ‘Comedy for ELT’ sketches? Sheer bliss! 🙂

59 Seconds

(by Richard Wiseman)

59 SecondsKnowing how busy we all are, Professor Wiseman set himself the task of summarising a huge amount of accumulated Psychological knowledge in ten short chapters, the summaries of which one can read in 59 seconds flat! Topics covered include ‘Happiness’, ‘Attraction’, ‘Personality’ but also ‘Creativity’, ‘Motivation’ and ‘Persuasion’. Readers are not disappointed.

Looking at ‘Happiness’ first, surely there is nothing wrong with using activities which both help the students’ English and make them happier into the bargain? On p. 20 we are introduced to a rather unusual diary writing task, in which students are asked to think back to great times in their past, reflect of the many things they can be grateful for, and imagine fabulous times in the future. Putting things into perspective and creating a healthy ‘narrative’ about your life has been found to make people considerably happier.

The section on ‘Happiness’ contains some amazing, ready-to-use activities for the ELT classroom. In a task which would warm the hearts of all humanist educators (p. 30), psychologists got groups of children to write nice things about each other and present their classmate with their ‘plateful of praise’. Not only does this contribute to overall feelings of wellbeing, it has the additional advantage of boosting class cohesion.

There are implications for teachers in almost all chapters. In the one on ‘Persuasion’, Wiseman quotes a study in which four charity boxes were placed in large stores (p. 70). Each one bore a different message. The most successful one was ‘Every penny helps’ (62% of all takings!) Researchers thought that people often refrained from giving as they thought their contribution would not make a difference and the message countered this. Could it be that our students feel the same? I believe that if we get them to do little things, this might lead them to try harder later.

‘Liking’ is of course a crucial component of persuasion. On p. 52 Wiseman reminds us of the advice of Dale Carnegie: ‘to increase your popularity, just express a genuine interest in others’ (funnily enough, it does not have to be genuine; if we keep on faking it, the ‘genuineness’ comes later!)  This is a good reminder for us that so-called ‘humanistic’ activities are not just for the learners; students do appreciate it if we find out things about them and we take the trouble to ask them how their sick dog is doing…

And speaking of ‘Liking’, here is an amazing discovery (p. 177) – people bond more readily when they share negative attitudes than when they share positive ones! So next time your students heap insults on the referee who awarded that penalty against the Greek national team, do not forget to chip in with a couple yourself… 🙂

‘The Upside of Irrationality’

(by Dan Ariely)

Upside of Irrationality

If anything, Professor Ariely’s second book is even better than the first. Starting with ordinary incidents from real life he proceeds to describe his research and gradually the principle in each chapter crystallises. Then he considers the applications of this in various domains. Here are a few of his discoveries:

‘We overvalue our work’ (p. 83). People who were taught origami and shown how to construct paper cranes or frogs, judged their creations as a lot more valuable than other people did. The implications for teachers are huge: project work of all kinds is a lot better than getting students to do endless exercises – the latter are not something they can take pride in, as they feel their contribution is so small *.

‘Having created something, we want people to see it’ (p. 53). In a fantastic experiment, people told to construct Lego robots lost interest a lot faster when the robots were dismantled as soon as they had completed them than when they were told they would be disassembled later. The moral: although students may get all the linguistic benefits from having their essay/story marked and returned, in terms of motivation it makes a huge difference for us to display it in class.

‘We prefer our own ideas to those of others’ (p. 107). In an amazing study, subjects favoured the ideas they had generated themselves, even when it was in fact the researchers who had given them these ideas in sentences a little while earlier! The moral for us is clear: rather than assigning H/W for instance, why not ask the students themselves what they would think it would be best for the class to do?

‘Short-term emotions can have long-term effects’ (p. 257). Here is how it works: we may be angry with our partner one day; we go to class; we snap at the students and we are unusually strict with them; the lesson is a failure. Later we reflect on the experience. Are we honest with ourselves? Of course not! Instead we try to justify our behaviour telling ourselves that we displayed the necessary firmness. But this ‘narrative’ actually impacts on our future behaviour; next time we are far more likely to be strict again! (A clear warning to all of us there…)

OK – here is my favourite, discovery: ‘habituation: we get used to things’ (p. 157). And now for the amazing, counter-intuitive implication for maximising satisfaction: ‘Pleasant activities – break them up; unpleasant ones – just get them over with’! So tell your partner, it makes sense to stop that massage every 2 min or so and then start again! 🙂

(* in fact by slightly tweaking some activities, we can change this – by following ‘The Egg Theory’! – just watch the following video… )

‘Made to Stick’

(by C. Heath & D. Heath)

Made to Stick 2

I believe this book should be compulsory for any educator. Indeed I will go a step further – I think it may well be more useful to us than any single book on EL Teaching.

The book is about effective and persuasive communication. The Heath brothers start with the Q: ‘Why is it that some ideas are so memorable?’ A: Six key elements [SUCCES]: i) Simplicity (Keep it simple!) ii) Unexpectedness (Surprise = retention!) iii) Concreteness (Avoid abstract or ‘deep’ messages) iv) Credible (Is it believable?) v) Emotions (It is emotion, not reason that makes people act!) vi) Story (The most memorable messages are in the form of a story).

In analysing these elements they explain all kinds of interesting notions, such as ‘the curse of knowledge’ (p. 19). What would happen if you were to tap your finger to the rhythm of a well-known song without actually humming it? Would people be able to guess it? 50% of respondents said ‘Yes’. Incredibly, the actual number was 2.5%!! It is exactly the same when we try to communicate a message – we think others understand, but very often they don’t! (Moral: check that your students have really understood what you have told them or what they have to do. Get feedback as much as possible!)

Heath & Heath go on to stress the importance of ‘curiosity’ (pp. 84 – 87). This is the technique that soap operas, cinema trailers and some gifted presenters use to hook the readers/listeners’ interest. (Moral: Whether it is the contents of a text, or the lesson, it pays not to tell students everything up front. We can excite their curiosity even about mundane things!)

A surprising research finding on p. 89 is of great importance to us; Q: Which is better: consensus-building activities or ones encouraging heated debate? A: The latter! In a controlled study, 18% of students who had done a consensus-type activity chose to watch a short film about the topic, but the number rose to 45% among those who had engaged in a debate! (Moral: use more debates to get students worked up so they are motivated to find out more!)

The two brothers also give us a host of useful tips on how to make our presentations / articles interesting (which is of course of immense value for our Business English students!). Here are a few research-supported findings: a) avoid obscure language (p. 106)  b) including details makes your argument more convincing (p. 139)  c) ‘translate’ statistics down to the human scale (the human brain cannot cope with huge numbers! – p. 144).

Above all however, remember to use stories. Human beings are wired for story. As somebody once so memorably put it: ‘Facts tell – stories sell!’

‘To Sell is Human’

(by Daniel Pink)

To sell is human

Q: What does a book on ‘Selling’ have to do with teachers?!?  A:  A great deal apparently! Pink starts by pointing out two facts: a) the fastest growing fields today are Ed – Med (Education and Medicine – ok, we sort of knew that) and  b) an incredible 40% of our time is spent in non-sales selling!! We sell clients on how great we are and we sell learners on English! That involves a lot of presentation, communication and persuasion skills. Pink can help us with all three of them.

Pink has studied communication extensively and he has lots of interesting things to say on how to write catchy e-mail titles (p. 167), tweets (p. 170) and why using visuals is so important (p. 180). But he also gives us the results of a number of studies on such fascinating topics as…

…Labelling (p. 138): In a Prisoner’s Dilemma type of game, 33% of the participants cooperated when they were told it was called ‘The Wall-Street Game’ but the number doubled when others were told they would be playing ‘The Community Game’. The same effect was found when some students were labelled ‘tidy’ as opposed to a controlled group (Moral: Label you students positively and they will live up to the label!)

…Facilitation (p. 142): In another study, students who had been singled out for their pro-sociality by their peers, were asked to contribute to a food drive for charity. The same was done with others classified as ‘selfish’. The results: 8% of the former but 25% of the latter donated food! Why? The ‘selfish’ students had been given clearer instructions about what to donate and when! (Moral: motivation aside, direct behavioural instructions [‘Do this!’] can go a long way towards ensuring compliance).

…Persuasion Techniques: Here is one: instead of asking students whether they have studied for a test which might trigger ‘Psychological Reactance’ we could ask them ‘How ready are you for the test? Say on a scale from 1 to 10?’ When they answer, we can then follow up with the fantastic ‘Why not a lower number?!?’ This forces them to focus on the positive (what they have done) and shows them what they still need to work on! Excellent!! (p. 213)

What makes the book so readable is that Pink also gives readers many real life examples. Here is my favourite one: On page 213 of the book there is a picture which hangs on the wall of an Italian restaurant. The picture is that of the owner and it reads: ‘If you had anything less than a great experience at il Canale, please call my cell: 703-624-2111’!! Now think: how many DOSs would be prepared to do such a thing? 🙂

‘i Is for Influence’

(by Rob Yeung)

i for Influence

Incredibly, from an informal survey I did, this book does not come up among the top 5 on how to the science of persuasion – but it should! The book’s easy-to-read, humorous, direct style might suggest you can finish it in a day or two, but not if you want to make notes of all the important stuff!

Yeung builds on the work of the great Cialdini, but he adds an extra layer by giving us findings from recent fMRI research for instance and by including a host of short vignettes and examples from the world of business. As for the relevance to us teachers, the examples abound! Here are a few:

In a simple yet elegant study (p. 254) researchers asked random passers-by to take part in a market research. About 75% of them agreed. On another occasion however, the figure went up to 90%! How did this happen? Easily; research assistants simply added the words ‘You are free to accept or refuse’! (Moral: Pointing out to students that certain assignments are optional avoids triggering ‘Psychological Reactance’).

In another experiment (p. 110) students were asked to read a form asking them to volunteer sometime in the future to help with an awareness project in local schools. Once again, there were two groups. Out of those who agreed to come, 17% of the first group turned up, but the number soared to 49% in the second. Why? Well, members of the second group had to tick a box in the form signalling their agreement! (Moral: to ensure consistency, get students to agree to do things [e.g. H/W] and actually write down themselves what they have to do!)

Motivation of course if a major concern for us teachers. In a brilliant study (pp 190 – 192), Business students were given a text to read. Some were told it would help them with their ‘personal development’; others that it would help them with their future career. The results: not only did the ‘intrinsic motivation’ group do better than the second one (by about 24.5%) but they also showed a long-term interest in the topic to a far greater degree than the others! (Moral: we may be tempted to ‘sell’ activities to our BE students using ‘extrinsic’ reasons, but intrinsic motivation is far more effective).

Yeung writes convincingly and unpretentiously. He has a special knack for pointing out the implications of the research and the wide applicability some of the findings have. Here is a final example (p. 68): Do you remember that market survey study? In a similar situation, compliance numbers soared from 40% to a staggering 70%! The reason? Research assistance had been instructed to touch passers-by lightly on the arm… (Moral: to ensure compliance, touch your students gently!)

‘You Are Not So Smart’

(by David McRaney)

Not so Smart

McRaney is living proof that the best popularisers of scientific theory are not necessarily researchers themselves. His book is one of the best I have ever read! In 48 bite-size chapters he has managed to elucidate 48 important findings from the fields of Psychology.

‘Priming’ comes first – naturally! The idea is that subtle cues in the environment can affect the way we behave. In a fantastic study (p. 11), some subjects had to work with words related to ‘politeness’ – others with ones relating to ‘rudeness’. Later they were asked to see a researcher who was ‘busy’ talking to someone; the former interrupted him after 8.7 min, the latter after only 5.4! (Moral: The school environment and decoration should be full of cues relating to diligence and cooperation; priming does work!)

‘Procrastination’: In another experiment (p. 45) subjects were asked to choose movies that they would have to watch at some point in the future; most chose at least some serious ones. In another condition however, subjects had to choose movies to watch that very evening; guess what – they went for films of the ‘Legally Blonde’ type… (Moral: We tend to put off doing the things we have to do. To ensure students do not do this, get them to commit well in advance!)

‘The Self-Fulfilling Prophecy’: In a study that all educators should read (p. 234), some teachers were told that certain kids in their class had performed outstandingly in IQ tests (of course this was a lie – the children had been chosen at random). Sure enough, these kids did exceptionally well at H/W, as the teachers lavished more attention to them. (Moral: Expectations often bring about their own fulfilment; alas, this does not only work for students we think are geniuses…)

Now here is a little gem which can make a huge difference in Classroom Management. In another study subjects were asked whether they would donate some time to a cancer drive. One group were simply asked; they did agree but actually only 4% of them turned up. Another group however were asked to volunteer and then asked again if they thought they would show up – almost all of them did! (Moral: When you ask your students to do something, just ask them an additional Q: ‘Do you think you are going to do it?’)

Usefulness aside, the book opens a huge window into our brain and the way it works… You are guaranteed many ‘a-ha!’ moments and not a few chuckles… You will recognise yourself when reading about the ‘Self-serving bias’ and you will recognise 98% of bloggers when reading about ‘The Dunning-Kruger Effect’! (ooops! I didn’t say that! 🙂 )

‘Predictably Irrational’

(by D. Ariely)

Predictably irrational

MIT Professor Dan Ariely needs no introduction; he is one of the biggest names in the field of Behavioural Economics. Ariely studies the way we think, decide and operate – and in chapter after chapter he shows that we are far from being the rational creatures we think we are!

In one of the amazing studies in the book he shows for instance that the way we ‘frame’ something (p. 41) often determines how others are going to take it (remember Tom Sawyer and how he got his friends to paint that wall? For classroom management purposes, this is crucial; if we introduce activities saying ‘Now, this may hurt a little…’ chances are students are going to feel the pain!)

This leads to the hugely important subject – expectations: quick Q: would you like a beer with a drop of balsamic vinegar in it? (p. 159) A: It depends on whether you know it in advance or not! If you do, chances are you are going to dislike it. Expectations colour perceptions. How many times has this prejudiced us against certain students?

Ariely’s interests range from beverages to education. Here is another Q for you: which students do better in academic work: those who are free to choose their own deadlines, or those where the professor ‘democratically’ decides for everyone? Incredibly, it is the latter! (p. 115) This finding may go against our cherished beliefs, but in fact it ties in very smoothly with notions of ‘ego depletion’ (Baumeister). The very process of deciding exhausts us, with the result that we are both more stressed and produce poorer-quality work.

Ariely writes in the simple, effortless and straightforward style that you find among people with a real command of their subject. Rather than bombarding the reader with studies and facts, he goes through each experiment in detail, ensuring that the reader manages to grasp the key concept in all its fine details. He then goes on to consider the possible applications of the findings in various fields of life – not just work. Yet what I like best about this book is that he also uses examples from his own life – sometimes funny, sometimes poignant.

OK – now here is one last idea from the book: a little ‘conjuring trick’ for shamelessly manipulating students (pp 9 – 10): You give them a choice for H/W: they can read a long article or they can write a short essay. But you really want them to write that essay. Piece of cake – you give them a third option; writing an even longer text! Now, nobody is going to change that, right? Yes, but because the short essay is better than the long one, students also assume it’s preferable to the article too! Brilliant!! 🙂

‘Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard’

(by C. Heath & D. Heath)


This book is all about change. Now think of a human being as a rider on an elephant; the rider is our rational side; the elephant is our emotional side. OK – how do you get them to move in a certain direction? Heath & Heath look at three key ideas: a) you have to motivate the elephant – to get it to want to change its course. Logical arguments do not work with the elephant; what you need is an emotional appeal! b) Assuming the elephant is willing, you can then address the rider. The rider likes logical arguments, but tends to overanalyse and suffers from ego-depletion and choice fatigue; s/he needs clear, behavioural instructions (‘Do this!’).  c) An interesting alternative is to also shape the path – so the rider and elephant go down the track because it is easy or because it is the natural thing to do!

How can we use all this? a) Imagine you are addressing a class of low-level Business students; ‘In 6 months’ time, I am going to invite here a group of my NS colleagues for drinks and you are going to be able to mingle without using the L1 at all!’ Now that should motivate them! (PS: If you say this, make sure you actually do it! 🙂 )  b) When setting H/W, telling learners to ‘Study the vocabulary’ is too general; it helps if you specify: i) which words? ii) how should they study them?  iii) how many times?  c) Incredibly, if as part of H/W you ask students to use a new web tool or a site which requires them to register, they may give up! So make sure they do it in class and they get to feel their way around a little before going home (when something is new, the elephant can be easily demotivated).

The writers draw on research from Psychology, Behavioural Economics and related fields to illustrate their ideas and provide a wealth of case studies mostly from the world of corporations and NGOs. Now here is a study I found fascinating (p. 182): researchers asked university students to identify some of their dorm-mates who were either ‘very charitable’ or ‘rather selfish and unlikely to donate to charity’; they then approached the two groups, informed them about a food-drive that was taking place and asked them to donate some. The ‘charitable’ students received a general letter with all the necessary info, but the ‘selfish’ ones got a more detailed one which included a map and a specific request for a can of beans. The results: 8% of the former but an astonishing 25% of the latter made a contribution! There is a lesson for us all there – clear that path!!

‘Flipnosis: The Art of Split-second Persuasion’

(by K. Dutton)


Dutton has looked into a great body of research and case studies and set himself the task of distilling the elements which, if combined judiciously, can help one persuade others instantly. I do not know whether people can master this art, but the principles he comes up with are certainly interesting: he has identified 5 of them (acronym: SPICE!): a) Simplicity: simple messages tend to be more persuasive.   b) Perceived interest: recipients of a message subconsciously ask themselves ‘What’s in it for me?’  c) Incongruity: surprise means people notice the message and noticing is a precondition for persuasion.  d) Confidence: confidence convinces. Period.  e) Empathy: you are more likely to persuade others if you are seen to be (or to have been) in the same boat.

What could all this mean for language teachers? a) Whether you are talking to your students or giving a talk, avoid jargon and metalanguage as far as possible. b) ‘Sell’ your activities to students; don’t tell them a particular task is going to improve their vocabulary – tell them it will enable them to read the instructions for WoW!  c) Instead of telling your students how to pass exams, why not give them tips on how to fail them? Indeed, you could ask them to give a talk on this themselves! d) There is a difference between admitting you do not know something for instance and being diffident; can you walk into a classroom and address your students like Miss Brodie did?  🙂 *

e) Lecturing students is often counterproductive; instead of telling them what to do in order to improve their vocabulary for example, why not share with them the strategies you used when you were learning, say, Spanish?

The book is amazingly fast-paced and I simply love the directness of the style; it is like the writer is talking to you directly! There are lots of reference to personal anecdotes, case studies and research – many of which are taken from the world of business. For instance, did you know that employees work better if they think they control the volume of background music? (p. 199) OK – now here is a story (p. 245): The scene: The London tube; despite the ‘No smoking’ signs in the carriage, someone lights up anyway. An ominous silence descends… Q: How do you get him to put it out – without a confrontation? A: A guy steps up to him and asks him if he too can have a cigarette!! Then one of the passengers cannot take it anymore ‘Have you not seen the signs?’ he growls. ‘Oh, I’m sorry’ the requester says, pretending surprise. Then he turns to the first guy ‘Perhaps WE’d better put them out…’ (Remember point (e)?!? – pure ju-jitsu!!)*