Massive OECD Study, Minor Focus on Education

I believe strongly that behavioral insights can have an impact on educational outcomes. It is, of course, much of what I write about. But, understandably so, most of the impact that behavioral insights have had has been through other fields.

I found an extensive study yesterday, published this past year on results from across almost all OECD countries. It is nearly 500 pages long, and the evidence is rock-solid, to say the least. But unfortunately for my purposes, there are only two small studies cited on education.

These studies (all of which you can read here, education begins on page 95) are useful. The first concerns an afterschool program in South Africa, where participants are reminded in personal text messages that include specific information. As you might expect, significantly more attended once reminded – and the reminders were personalized, referencing how often they had attended in previous weeks – and their educational outcomes improved once they attended. It was also particularly successful at bringing non-attendees back into the program.

The study admits its own limitations, as it was a short period of time. But I see such studies and I want to take it further. Attrition is a major issue, of course, and no one can learn if they don’t attend in the first place. But what of that next step? What about the students, particularly adults, who make just enough effort to show up but aren’t engaged? How can behavioral insights reach and connect with them?

That’s where I want to go.

The second study centers on adult literacy in the UK, and includes the accepted finding that persistence in education is closely tied to the beliefs that what they are learning is important, that they have the ability to succeed, that practice and effort matter (because why do it otherwise?), and that they feel like they are welcomed and belong. This study sent messages to students, seeking to increase these beliefs, and indeed it significantly (36%) lowered the dropout rate.

Again we have the same issue, though, in that these studies are, in my view, first drafts. They are great, and proof of concept. But if and when I get a chance to be involved in my own work, these will serve as building blocks for the path I want educational research to travel.

Stay tuned.


On Teacher Personalities and Compassion

Hello and happy 2018.

If you remember what I referred to last week, I spoke about authenticity and how important it can be for educators. But as much as I think I made some good points, pushing readers to strive for authenticity doesn’t mean a whole lot if we don’t actually define the term, at least to some extent.

So what does it actually mean to be authnetic, then? I don’t actually know for sure, but at the moment I believe it’s when you live the same way both inside and outside of the classroom. This could mean that your classroom persona is inauthentic and should be more aligned with your external life, or it could mean the opposite. I do believe that as an educator, you can’t truly hide your personality behind too much artifice. Maybe you can pretend for most of a day or a week or a semester, but whatever the real or authentic version of yourself is, it will be revealed. And this is a good thing. As educators, like most humans, we are often pushed towards exuding confidence whether or not we actually feel this way, and it seems likely to me (though I have no proof of this) that a disconnect between a classroom personality and an external one could be driven by a struggle with confidence, either in the sense of having too little and trying to project otherwise, or having too much and being thus unable to adequately reflect on challenges. I’ll come back to this.

Having posited this, I wonder if there are personality traits that correlate with better educators. Surely we’ve all experienced effective educators  and thus have images in our minds about what that looks like, but this is entirely subjective. I did some cursory research and came up with a couple articles, one here, and one here. And those links cover almost all of the traits you might have guessed, including patience, graciousness, and optimism.

All of this seems to be amorphous and purely superficial to me, though. What I think is needed is a comparison between the way educators are seen by their colleagues, friends and partners, and the way they are seen by students, ideally students old enough to have a solid grasp of adult personalities.

Imagine a survey that does not seek to condemn. One that lists personality traits and asks participants whether or not TeacherX possesses and/or displays them. Once complete, TeacherX’s results can be compared between their students and the others in their lives.

I doubt any educator would receive an absolutely equally matched score. I am sure some of the most persnickety teachers I ever had would come off as warm and generous to the people closest to them. Returning to my point above, perhaps the educators who were most similar inside the classroom and out might be those who didn’t chase an expression of self-confidence but those who practice self-compassion, which you can read about in this recent article here. The article states:

““The first and most important thing to do is to notice that voice in your head – that running commentary we all have as we go about our lives,” Mr. Barker said. “Often that voice is way too critical. You beat yourself up for every perceived mistake. To be more self-compassionate, you need to notice that voice and correct it.””

Every educator has a few dozen chances to make a mistake in each class, and even the best of us will indeed make many mistakes. If we’re compassionate with ourselves, we can improve, and not spend so much effort trying not to fail. Again, I have yet to study this, but I think this would lead to considerably more authentic teaching, teaching that admits to flaws but does not punish people for having them, teaching that encourages honesty and sharing when needed and not superficial bluster.

I think a list centered on compassion and related traits would be far more instructive than the vague list of beneficial attributes you can find all across the internet. Once a framework has been built, perhaps it would be easier to determine how authentic most teachers are, and potentially compare this to their success as educators. How to measure said success is a question for another day, but I think talking about authenticity will only get us so far without some sort of metrics to support the concept.

What do you think?

On Authenticity

So last weekend, I was a bit under the weather (I had tripped and hurt myself), and I helped emcee my family’s holiday party. When my role was complete, a few folks who weren’t close relatives complimented me on how well I had done, and I was a bit surprised, considering it had felt like an intellectual challenge to me.

I thought about that, and throughout this week I’ve been thinking about why this surprised me. Most of my best public speaking has come after days, weeks, or months of preparation, and I’ve long thought it was the time that led to such things. But in retrospect, perhaps it was truly the authenticity that led to connecting with the audience.

I ask you today about your best experiences as a member of an interactive audience. As a student, or as a paying customer, or as a partygoer. The way we conceive of such events, it’s something ineffable like “charisma” or “showmanship” that we think leads to success. But I think it might be authenticity, emotional honesty clearly conveyed. This doesn’t mean every possible nook and cranny must be revealed, but it also means a deliberate distance can backfire.

This may not be true for everyone or every situation. For some, perhaps a distance is necessary. But I would argue that for those men and women, said distance is indeed authentic. Whatever level of openness works for you is what you should seek to attain.

If you think back to educators you’ve had – or been – and remembered your best experiences, I suspect a vibrant authenticity was present in their every choice. And I also believe that, if ever you were let down, it was likely because they tried to play a role they didn’t actually fit.

Sometimes you have to do things outside of your comfort zone in education. The response isn’t to simply give up, of course. But as educators, we have to think consciously about how our tasks can match up with the authentic people we otherwise are, and align ourselves with every part of our work. We’ve all had teachers who were clearly going through the motions, and I’d argue that those teachers were considerably more damaging to our learning than those who genuinely struggled with the materials they were handed. To return to my original example, I genuinely struggled at the party last weekend, but the honesty and openness shone through nonetheless and carried me through on its own.

There is more to being a great educator than authenticity. You can be wonderfully true and not know how to manage a classroom. You can be extremely real and yet be bowled over by our many cognitive biases and heuristics. But without authenticity, we do our students, our colleagues, and ourselves a massive disservice. So on this New Year, I wish only that we can find a way to imbue our output with the spirit of the authentic people we are at the moment we wake up every day.

Peace and love.

Evidence on Sector-Focused Job Training

(No, that’s not a pun on the name of this blog, but it is a little funny.)

MDRC is a nonprofit that does research on the implementation of behavioral design in various disciplines. My colleagues and I were lucky enough to attend a seminar of theirs over the summer, and I consider their work to be among the best and most accessible in the behavioral science world. Today I’m writing about a podcast of theirs, in which they describe positive results from tailored and sector-focused job training. You can, and should, listen to the podcast (which is only seven minutes long) at this link.

To summarize the findings, MDRC has been analyzing a program called WorkAdvance, which is “a sector-based, skill-building model, launched in 2011 as a national Social Innovation Fund project sponsored by the Mayor’s Fund to Advance New York City and the Center for Economic Opportunity. WorkAdvance providers work closely with employers in New York, Tulsa, and northeastern Ohio to help job seekers prepare for and enter quality jobs as well as succeed and advance in the labor market.”

It should come as little surprise to you that actually focusing the training on what the specific populations have needed has improved their results significantly. WorkAdvance prepares its clients for work in burgeoning industries, including IT, medical billing, and long-haul trucking (I’m, uh, not so sure about the long-term prospects of that one, but they know more than I do). The key, though, is that the training is designed alongside the employers, to provide the clients with the very specific skills they are lacking from most applicants.

The results were clear. To paraphrase the podcast, participants were much likelier to attain credentials and employment in their desired field, and two years out were earning 14% more than they otherwise would have. That may not seem like much, but is a considerable difference, especially for clients with less experience or expertise. To wit, the program even increased earnings for long-term unemployed, who are always a particular challenge in training and development.

Let me take a step back here and broaden the potential impact of this study. It seems obvious to posit that workforce development and other sorts of adult education need to be closely tied to employers or other goals that students might have, but a great deal of behavioral science is about common sense best practices that aren’t being done, after all. Job training programs are a dime a dozen, mostly because it’s easier to create a one-size-fits-all model. But without close working relationships with employers or schools (depending on what type of goals that students have), training runs the risk of becoming obsolete or irrelevant very quickly.

You can absolutely learn medical billing, or coding, or English just about anywhere and for not that much money (or even for free). But an employer who knows for sure that you’ve learned exactly the skills they require is much more keen to hire someone, all else being equal.

In my own field, plenty of my colleagues have taught “Business English” to interested parties. And there is absolutely a market for it. But most of the courses advertised are generic and outdated. I’m not sure how many textbooks I’ve seen that really want to make sure students know about fax machines, but it’s more than it should be. Imagine if more employers with international employees were involved in developing their own curricula with trainers and instructors, so that they knew exactly what their new workers had learned? Imagine how many fewer communication issues there might be.

Anyway, I encourage you to check out the podcast and look for other such evidence. The fact is, one-size-fits-all is really only good for baseball caps.

Social-Psychological Interventions

Yesterday, by chance, I found a printed-out copy of a report on “Social-Psychological Interventions in Education.” You can find the abstract here, though you’ll have to pay for the entire study, so I’m glad I was able to access it.

The title says “Social-Psychological” but once I got to reading it, it was clear they were speaking about what I (and others) might prefer to call behavioral design. The gist of the report is as follows:

Recent randomized experiments have found that seemingly “small” social-psychological interventions in education—that is, brief exercises that target students’ thoughts, feelings, and beliefs in and about school—can lead to large gains in student achievement and sharply reduce achievement gaps even months and years later. These interventions do not teach students academic content but instead target students’ psychology, such as their beliefs that they have the potential to improve their intelligence or that they belong and are valued in school. When social-psychological interventions have lasting effects, it can seem surprising and even “magical,” leading people either to think of them as quick fixes to complicated problems or to consider them unworthy of serious consideration. The present article discourages both responses.

Yeah, that’s behavioral science in a nutshell.

A few years ago, when I first became interested in out-of-the-box solutions to entrenched problems, I gave a presentation on what I was referring to at the time as “noncognitive skills.” A colleague from my graduate program saw it and was compelled to suggest we collaborate the following year, which we did, and by then it had developed into “conation,” which we took to the TESOL conference in Seattle this past March. But as 2017 rolled along, it became clear that, for me, behavior science was most likely going to be my interest and my focus, as I wrote about last week.

I say all this to say that this report validates my curiosity and my optimism for the potential impact of behavioral design. If you read the report, you will see that each group of students was given just a short exercise – fewer than thirty minutes – at the outset of a semester, and that this these students improved greatly when compared to the control. The results were so dramatic – and long-lasting – that, as the excerpt above suggests, people tend to dismiss it as “magic” or, at the least, unrealistic. But it’s real.

A few things are clear from the research:

  1. It can’t be top-down. Telling students why an intervention or an assignment is important does not convince skeptical boys and girls to buy in.
  2. Contextual experise – “an understanding of the psychological experiences and backgrounds of students in the local context” – is vital. Which is to say, even the best educator can’t walk into a culture with which they have had no previous contact and expect their intervention to succeed.

From here, I’d like to see how this might work quite specifically on adult learners, as these experiments were performed mostly on middle- and high-school students. I’d also like to see if the same dramatic improvement on students of color would remain the same regardless of age. And ultimately, I want to see if this can work even if students and instructors don’t speak the same language – can these exercises, short as they are, be translated for the first day of class? Would this have the same impact on student outcomes? And, as I’ll always return to, would this lead to greater long-term success, be it in terms of employment, income, or other relevant metrics?

There is a lot to look for, but this report and others like it are encouraging. Someday I will do my own such research and hopefully share it with all of you, and with others in my field.

Data on Relative Growth in Public School Districts

A couple days ago, the Times published this article. In it, they explain that the bog-standard way of comparing public school systems is potentially outdated – instead of merely comparing reading levels, we should compare how much reading levels change over several years. Wealthier areas are still by and large better off, but relative to where students in poorer areas begin, the wealthier students don’t improve as much.

You can go into that link and play around with different cities and districts, all studied by researchers from Stanford. The article uses Chicago as an example, showing that, despite how far behind they are in 3rd grade (below a second-grade reading level), by 8th grade they are only barely off the national average, having received the equivalent of six years of (reading) education in five years of school. Here are a few thoughts on what the data shows (and doesn’t show):

  1. As stated above, wealthier areas are still generally speaking better off, but it’s not 1-to-1. You can’t simply assume that median income will lead to a greatly improved reading level. In Westchester, for example, the majority of the most-improved districts have median incomes north of $150k, but nestled in between Rye City School District ($218k) and Bronxville Union School District ($212k) is White Plains, at $62k. What’s happening there that is helping students improve by so much, and why is the growth between 3rd and 8th grade specifically?
  2. The obvious caveat is that, of course, the best school districts don’t need to grow as much. But since we’re talking about a five year period, then growth significantly lower than five-years’ worth is an issue. And on that same list in Westchester (which I used because it’s nearby and mostly wealthy), you have Valhalla ($110k) way down at 4.3 years of growth, along with a couple other towns of similar median income. What’s happening there? Is it just that the best students in those towns don’t actually attend the public schools at all, leaving them bereft of strong performers? Or is it something else? What makes a place like White Plains able to sit among its much wealthier neighbors, and in some cases best them?
  3. The advantage of socioeconomics is plain. But studies like this show that, even if students are behind at the outset, depending on their environment, they can catch up. Hope is not lost at age eight or nine.
  4. I want to see this study for the difference in growth from 8th to 12th grade, though.
  5. Will colleges see these studies? Will they discount the grades from a low-income area because of assumed difficulty level when students are actually surging?
  6. And ultimately, I want to pull it apart a bit more. Yes, poverty has a massive impact on education (and funding, of course). But what about race, gender, sexuality, and other ways in which students can be outside of the majority? Does a low-income area with white students show the same growth and a similar-income area with students of color?
  7. There is, as ever, a huge push for universal pre-k and libraries full of data on the impact of early childhood education on student outcomes and success. But this study shows that it’s not enough to set them up well to start, because there is a massive difference between nine and fourteen. We know, as a country, we have to pay attention to students as they approach either college or working (or both), and we know we can’t let toddlers stay home. But maybe there is potential impact being missed in between the two. Maybe more students can have access to top-flight secondary and post-secondary education – or be better prepared for its rigors – if districts can work on helping them learn and grow during this period. It’s all, of course, a maybe.

The Project

One of my (Justin’s) interests, as you can see below, is the impact of behavioral science on educational outcomes. Within that realm, my particular curiosity isn’t just the type of outcomes most educational institutions are able to easily measure – GPAs, test scores, graduation rates –  but what happens long after school is over. Anecdotally, I have noticed that the outcomes for people of color I’ve known at the selective schools I have attended have been less stellar, but I don’t really have any data on that (and I’d like to gather it). Having said that, it might just be who I happen to know, as there are plenty of doctors and lawyers out there.

I want to dive deeper, though. The external trappings of success are quite obvious, and salaries, real estate, and zip codes are easy enough to track. But are we, as minority graduates of so-called elite institutions, actually satisfied with their lives? Or, to put a finer point on it, are we at the same levels of satisfaction as our classmates? We know that racism exists no matter how much money you have, but the bill of goods we’re sold by such institutions implies that we’ll be somewhat safer from discrimination because of our closer promixity to traditional success. So, if this is true, bigotry should have less of an impact on people who are more externally successful, and, even if we’re not as satisfied as our peers, we should, perhaps, be closer to their level than people who, say, only have a high school degree. But ultimately, my real question is this: if it turns out that we’re not as satisfied as our peers, and that our graduation from selective schools does not, by itself, close the gap between our level of satisfaction and those of our classmates, can we use behavioral science to change this? And, to circle back to the beginning, can increasing satisfaction then have a positive impact on our more concrete success?

There are a few questions here to be asked and answered, starting with one that is more straightforward (and is probably answered out there already, so I just have to go and look): what are the concrete, long-term outcomes for minority (and I’d split it up into different ethnicities) graduates of top-tier schools? That’s the normal stuff, starting with GPAs and carrying on to salaries and perhaps other factors like homeownership. I also want to know about social lives, rates of marriage and divorce, substance abuse/mental health issues, even premature death if it happens to have occurred.  I am theorizing, of course, that race has a legitimate correlation to such results, but I don’t know for sure, so I want to find out, gradually. And of course, we’d need to compare to people who didn’t graduate from selective schools, to see if the gap in satisfaction (if there is one) is larger, smaller, or the same.

In other words, for example, two such graduates, same age range, same career track, same type of zip code, same marital status, etc, but different ethnicities. Is one more satisfied than the other? You will not be surprised to hear what I suspect to be the answer to be, but I am perfectly willing to be wrong. And is that satisfaction gap smaller than it is for two counterparts with a different level of education?

You have to get into the weeds on this, of course. Maybe someone who isn’t satisfied at age thirty-five felt the same way when they were in school. And we’d have to analyze minority students who were raised in affluent areas from those who weren’t to see if there’s a difference there, as well (or maybe there isn’t, but we have to see). Or maybe I’ll just find out that my theory is entirely baseless.

There is also the undeniable fact that it’s still going to be self-reported self-assessment. There will be something squishy in there, because there always will be when you ask someone to describe something emotional.

And frankly, I do not yet have the research skills to piece this all together yet. But that’s okay, because I intend to acquire them.

What’s the point of all this?

Well, one of two things will happen if I pull this off. Either I find out that, no, race and satisfaction for graduates of selective schools – when compared to same for those without said degrees – do not correlate whatsoever and I move on to something else. Or my theory is right, and then I can think of ways that behavioral science can have a positive impact on these students to help them as they grow and strive to achieve.

The genesis of this project, way before I knew about any of it, was probably a day in the fall of freshman year, fourteen years ago. Our Resident Advisor gathered us in a group to ask us what we thought of our school experience thus far. And I took note of the fact that the white students all rated their experience at an eight, nine or ten, while the black students all chose two or three. Lying to myself and others, I said five, trying as I always did at the time to hedge my bets. (This project will cover more than just black students, to be clear, but that group only had white and black boys and girls.)

I’ve seen rather dispiriting outcomes for many of my classmates from both high school and college, substance abuse and dependency and really serious financial struggles the likes of which one might not expect from selective school graduates of any race. But again, those are my own friends, and perhaps many white students have had the same issues that I just don’t know about. And of course haven’t a real idea of someone else’s inner feelings. I think the schools try, they do, bless their hearts, but there is still something missing in the way they provide support to people who don’t resemble their typical and historical graduate. And I don’t say this out of self-pity or self-absorption – I’m fine, or, in the language being used here, very satisfied. But some folks aren’t, and I wonder if I can help figure out why, and how to change it.

I think, if there are thousands of adolescents out there who are thinking they are the only people who feel how they feel in the school where they’re expected to be molded into superstars, then perhaps behavioral design can help more than what the schools are already doing it.

I don’t really know. But I very much want to try and find out.

Thanks for reading, and I hope to begin sharing at least my initial research (on the type of traditional outcomes I mentioned at the outset) very soon.

Surface Diversity

We talk a lot about diversity and inclusion in almost every industry. Here in the public sector, I tend to think we do a better job of living these values, at least on a surface level.

But as soon as you peel back the surface, the homogeneity remains. So let’s talk about it.

Unlike corporate behemoths, the decision-makers in the public sector aren’t all of the exact same demographic. Maybe it’s because we’re explicitly not profit-driven, or maybe we’re just nice people (ha), but we do a fairly good job of our leaders not looking exactly the same.

When I say “looking,” I am of course referring to race and gender, perhaps the most visible categories we can be sorted into. There are other issues at hand (sexuality, disability, age, class, etc.), but when people stand together for a promotional picture, generally agencies are happy just to prove not everyone looks like a junior senator from a Midwestern state.

The problem is that we stop at step one. If we find we have a leadership comprised entirely of white men, we know it looks bad, so we make sure to change this…ever so slightly. This could lead to significantly more men of color, and that’s an improvement! Or it could lead to significantly more women. Also much better! But it’s like the way some folks pig out at dinner after eating a salad for lunch: your work is not done yet.

Would making leadership – and by this, I refer not just to full-time managers, directors and executives, but, perhaps even more importantly, to boards and fundraising as well – look more like the cast of Captain Planet solve every issue in the sector? No.

There are, as mentioned, the other categories that are harder to see.  You could have every color of the rainbow leading the organization, but if everyone went to the same three colleges, you might not really be diverse or inclusive.

“Well who cares? It should just be a meritocracy!” That would be nice, and I want to live on that fantasy planet with you, but we’re here, not there.

The fact is, if our leadership has little in common with the communities we serve, we risk creating distance where we should be generating warmth and trust.

Some complain that there just aren’t enough skilled or experienced leaders who aren’t from certain demographics, and so therefore such an effort would necessarily lead to worse results.

My counterargument would be that we should spend much more time finding and nurturing new and emerging leaders from different backgrounds. And we should take great pains to find leaders who don’t necessarily remind us of ourselves, as that is a natural tendency we all fall into when we’re not careful.

Training, mentoring, professional development are all vital and are sorely undervalued in our fields. And the excuses leaders make are just a way of saying they don’t want to take on the risk of someone unproven, a tale as old as time.

I think we lose many potentially dynamic and effective leaders by not spending our time and resources on finding and developing them, or, perhaps even worse, we occasionally elevate someone “different” without having supported them in their ascent, and then, as they flame out, we shake our heads and tell ourselves we won’t make that mistake again.

The mistake actually being made is a constant, stubborn fact of our fields. And it’s up to us to do the work to address it.

Look around at who leads your agency, who makes the impactful decisions. Think about how different the faces and voices are. And if all the voices sound the same, you might really be holding yourself back.



Behavioral Book Breakdown: “Thinking, Fast and Slow”

Carrying these posts over from my personal site, as I believe that behavioral science can have a great impact on the public sector, especially given the relative lack of funding. Behavioral science can generate low-cost solutions to entrenched problems, and so I’ll occasionally describe books I’ve read on the subject.

Author: Daniel Kahneman

Year: 2011

So this is kind of the ur-text for this subject. It’s thick (literally), and dense (in every sense of the word). It will cover every single cognitive bias (or “heuristic”) that had been studied up through its publication, most of which were codified by Kahneman himself and his late partner Amos Tversky. Kahneman won the Nobel Prize for his behavioral science work, and the discipline would literally not exist if it weren’t for these two men.

But my god, it is not easy to read.

I took it with me on my vacation in early September. I read a novel very quickly and then turned back to this one. And my vacation was extended because of weather issues. And I could only get through 30 or maybe 40 pages on a good day. It was just that dense.

I struggled to the finish line. And I like Kahneman. A brilliant man whose work has ultimately, if indirectly, changed my life and that of many others.

But this is much more of a reference book than a book you can really leaf through or apply to your life from moment to moment.

The other books I’ve given capsule profiles in this space wouldn’t exist were it not for this book and its author, so it had to be covered.

It’s certainly very informative. And it’s not written in jargon or anything of the sort. It’s just not exactly pleasant to try and read. Quite an accomplishment to make it through and you’ll be all the better for it, but I would point you towards the others – and more I’ll talk about later – if you want a more accessible entry point into behavioral science.

I’m glad I finished it. I can just keep it on my shelf and point to it now!

Behavioral Book Breakdown: “Invisible Influence”

Carrying these posts over from my personal site, as I believe that behavioral science can have a great impact on the public sector, especially given the relative lack of funding. Behavioral science can generate low-cost solutions to entrenched problems, and so I’ll occasionally describe books I’ve read on the subject.

Year: 2016

Author: Jonah Berger

Whereas “The Power of Habit” was the first behavioral book I sunk my teeth into (or, fitting for the subject, sunk its teeth into me), “Invisible Influence” is one of the more recent I’ve come across, looking around for a book to chew over on my commutes to and from work and finding it pleasant, if a bit short. It’s 232 pages, but a lot of those pages are cut in half by titles and such. It’s written by a marketing professor, and many (most) of the examples used are from real-life business decisions and other such accessible subjects. I complained about it being slight, but on the other hand, accessible though it may be, something like “Thinking, Fast and Slow” (which I’ll get to in this series, eventually) is nearly 500 pages of dense (though engaging) writing, and you and I both know that most people don’t bother with that sort of thing. And even if they do bother, they skim, or give up.

So there is a place and a purpose for a slimmer tome.

Berger’s argument is essentially that we must not deny the fact that our behavior is rarely something we fully choose for ourselves, much as we headstrong Americans like to think we’re independent. Of course, one of the principles of behavioral science is the fact that we tend to deny or ignore facts that don’t fit our worldview, so, paradoxically, the people who most need to hear this sort of thing would have the hardest time accepting it.

Some of the fun examples here include the fact that many successful athletes have older siblings (that they wanted to keep up with and then, eventually, defeated), why expensive products have barely visible logos, why running with people slightly faster than you can improve your own speed, and, sadly but importantly, why many black students have their academic achievement impacted by the spectre of “acting white.”

It’s essentially a series of vignettes – there’s a lot of Gladwell in it – but plenty of the real data to back it up. And, hilariously, it uses examples from my own eating club in college, Terrace, and how people can tell we belonged to the club by what we wore.

It’s not the “I’m trying to make this dense subject palatable” hard-hitting work of a “Power of Habit” or a “Thinking, Fast and Slow.” It’s more like tying together narratives that appear disparate but aren’t. And I think one thing that fascinates me about this topics is that it can be both a science that needs to be made accessible AND a bridge that brings groups of stories together.

Berger also usefully concludes each section with ways that the various stories and studies he has just mentioned can be used. This is a key, and it’s one thing that’s similar to “The Power of Habit.” None of this stuff is valuable if we can’t take it and use it.

And that’s my goal here, to encourage you to go out, learn more, and use it. It’s interesting and fun and all, but ultimately, if it’s not practicable, it’s pointless.