Education Bookcast

Education Bookcast is a podcast in which we talk about one education-related book or article per episode.
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Now displaying: April, 2016
Apr 25, 2016

A natural continuation from last week. Habit formation, and breaking habits, takes willpower. So how does willpower work?

Like a muscle.

  1. Willpower gets tired. You have a limited "store" of it, and it gets drained over the course of a day. So, if you had a stressful day at work, then you are much more likely to cave in and have that chocolate cake / cigarette. (Sound familiar?)
  2. Willpower gets stronger with use. People who adopt strict exercise regimes, for example, start eating healthier, studying more (if they're students), and drinking and smoking less. This is also true when people take up some other willpower-heavy scheme, such as trying to improve their study habits.
  3. This is the weirdest one - willpower is more or less directly related to blood glucose levels. If you've just eaten, you'll have more willpower; if you're hungry, you'll have less.

The book gives numerous examples of people who have demonstrated vast amounts of willpower, and shares strategies from those people. Like a typical Gladwell, it blends scientific research with individual cases into a sort of easily digestible yet nutritious risotto.

And then it spends a chapter giving ill-advised parenting advice based on a lack of proper research on the subject. Well, you win some, you lose some.

Enjoy the episode.

Apr 18, 2016

Up till now, we've had several episodes looking at the question of "why do people do what they do?". Most recently, we asked and answered that question from the perspective of persuasion, in a sense addressing the sub-question "why are people persuaded to do what they do?". Now we get a chance to look at it with the lens of habit: "why do people do the same things so often? How do these habits form? And how can we get rid of them?"

In case you think that habit is unimportant, my first priority would be to disabuse you of that notion.

  • Psychologists estimate that around 40% of people's day-to-day behaviours are based on habit. To put that more strikingly, almost half of our day-to-day decisions *are not decisions*, but things that we do automatically.
  • Doing things according to habit requires little or no willpower, whereas going against it quickly depletes that limited mental resource. People who appear to have strong willpower usually just have deeply ingrained good habits.
  • Habits never really go away. (What?) It is possible to "break" an old habit, but only by replacing it with a new one.

Now that you're convinced about the importance of the topic, it's time for me to persuade you to listen to the episode. 

  1. You're a smart, curious person. You're just the kind of person who would listen to this. And you've listened to other episodes of the podcast, and other podcasts about psychology and learning. (commitment & consistency)
  2. Thousands of people just like you have listened to it already... (social proof)
  3. ...and if you delay, the server will be overloaded and there will be none left! So hurry, while stocks last! (scarcity)
  4. I've spent all this time making it just for you, won't you do me the kindness of listening to it? (reciprocity)
  5. Professor Carol Dweck says you must listen to it. (authority)
  6. Nice phone, by the way. (liking)

If you're confused about what just happened, try going back and listening to episode 14 again. If you need any more reasons, here are some episode 11-style attempts...

  • Give me 10 reasons why you shouldn't listen to it. (cognitive difficulty)
  • Listen to the Bookcast, it'll have you hooked fast! (cognitive ease)
  • You have to admit, it has a nice logo. (halo effect / judgement by basic assessment)
  • I know you. You pride yourself as an independent thinker, and do not accept others' statements without satisfactory proof. However, you have a great need for other people to like and admire you, and you tend to be critical of yourself. Luckily, you have a lot of unused capacity, which you are yet to turn to your advantage. This episode can help you with that. (Barnum effect)
  • You've already spent so much time reading this, do you want all that time to go to waste? (sunk cost fallacy)
  • Ok, ok, if you don't have time, just listen to the first hour. Oh alright, jeez! The first 20 minutes then! (anchoring) (contrast effect)

Enjoy the episode.

Apr 11, 2016

So far in the podcast, among other things, we've looked at the topic of motivation. In the last few episodes, we've also started to look at human irrationalities and their consequences. In this episode, we look at a topic that combines "why people do things" with human irrationality: persuasion.

Robert Cialdini spent most of his working life searching for the answer to one question: what is it that persuades people to do things that they wouldn't otherwise do? In this classic book, Cialdini summarises his findings over the length of his career as a psychologist.

He focuses on the six key "weapons" of influence, as well as a number of specific techniques that "compliance professionals" (salespeople, negotiators, and the like) use to get better results. In particular, he also explains how some of these methods have been used by educators to great effect. And in explaining these methods to us, he gives us an insight into how people's minds work, and a more detailed look at people's irrationalities. 

Enjoy the episode.

Apr 4, 2016

Last week, we saw the destructive effects of a psychological phenomenon not many people would have heard of known as "stereotype threat". This week, we look at some ways of mitigating the effects of stereotype threat. How can we stop children and students from stereotyped groups from underperforming in exams because of their knowledge of their own backgrounds? David Sherman and Geoffrey Cohen summarise the results of recent research showing that a technique called "self-affirmation" can be used to stop not only stereotype threat, but a host of other irrational behaviours, and gives us a new, different, and somewhat more optimistic view of people's irrationalities.

Based on self-affirmation theory, people's irrationalities more often than not don't stem from a "lazy controller" as described by Daniel Kahneman in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow (see episode 11), but rather from a need to protect one's ego. For example, people will ignore evidence against what they currently believe not because of some in-built, immovable bias, but because the evidence is threatening to their sense of self. All that it takes for them to approach the new evidence rationally is to remind them that their sense of self is strong and multi-faceted enough that changing this one opinion won't lead to an identity crisis.

So, were the self-esteem and self-help pioneers right in suggesting that we look at ourselves in the mirror and say how much we love ourselves? It turns out that the "self-affirmation" that Sherman and Cohen refer to is very different - indeed, almost diametrically opposed - to that which has been advocated by numerous self-help gurus. Self-affirmation works when it is *subconscious* and in a *different* field to the one in which one's ego is threatened; the gurus, meanwhile, suggest that we actively face difficulties in learning, for example, by saying "I am intelligent" to ourselves. In short, make sure you understand self-affirmation theory by looking at the evidence first, rather than jumping in with whatever sounds like it might work.

An absolute gem that seems not to be much talked about, self-affirmation theory gives us both practical approaches to dealing with problems, and a fresh and surprising theoretical viewpoint on various issues in cognitive science. I hope you find it as fascinating as I do.

Enjoy the episode.