Misbehaving: What behavioral economics means for education

Written by Linh Pham, Ph.D., Assistant Professor, Economics, College of Business –

Misbehaving by Thaler book coverI recently finished reading “Misbehaving: The making of behavioral economics” by Richard Thaler, a professor of behavioral science and economics at the University of Chicago and the 2017 recipient of the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics. The book is Thaler’s personal documentation of the history of behavioral economics, a field of economics that applies psychosocial insights to explore human decision-making process. As an economist and a teacher, I find the book very interesting, not only because it provides an account of economic concepts in a fun and approachable manner but more importantly, its insights into human behavior are very useful in helping us become more effective teachers.

One of the main themes of the book is that in many circumstances, human decisions are influenced by factors that may seem irrelevant to rational people. Thaler starts his book with an example of how he gets fewer complaints from students about their grades when he gives exams out of a total score of 137 instead of 100, even though grade distributions, when converted to percentages, are similar in either case. This phenomenon is puzzling to a rational person, as someone who is unhappy when he gets 70 out of 100 (a 70%) should still be unhappy when he/she gets a 96 out of 135 (also a 70%).

In fact, humans are subject to a number of cognitive biases that limit our ability to make rational decisions. For example, we have time-inconsistent preferences. That is, a choice about an action or decision in the future may be less preferable at a later date, when the future becomes the present. This explains why we often procrastinate unpleasant tasks for as long as possible or why many new-year resolutions to eat more healthily or to go to the gym often end up not being fulfilled. Time inconsistency implies the inability to consistently follow a good plan over time. In the context of teaching, I am sure that many students start their semesters with good intentions to perform well in their courses, yet such intentions often fade away over the course of the semester. A simple way to deal with time inconsistent preferences is to reduce the cost of “unpleasant actions” such as studying or completing assignments. For example, breaking large, end-of-semester projects into smaller assignments improves student overall performances on the projects; or, utilizing various in-class activities such as games, practice questions, or readiness assessment quizzes at the end of each topic helps students better prepare for exams.

“Psychologists tell us that in order to learn from experience, two ingredients are necessary: frequent practice and immediate feedback….Because learning takes practice, we are more likely to get things right at small stakes than at large stakes.” (Thaler, 2015).

…it is necessary that we acknowledge our own cognitive biases and keep an open mind when interacting with students.

Another important lesson I learned from the book is that to be effective teachers, it is necessary that we acknowledge our own cognitive biases and keep an open mind when interacting with students. Sometimes this can simply mean actively listening to students, carefully analyzing their thoughts before jumping to a conclusion or making any suggestion. After all, trust and safety have to be established first in order for real conversations to emerge. And to me, conversations are at the root of effective teaching.


  1. Great insights and things to think about. Thanks for sharing.

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