Cooperate To Cheat…To Get A Good Grade, Or, To Learn?

Here is an interesting read: http://blogs.kcrw.com/whichwayla/2013/04/cheating-to-learn-how-a-ucla-professor-gamed-a-game-theory-midterm

To sum it up:

An UCLA professor of Behavioral Ecology allowed his students to create their own rules for a midterm test.  Instead of the usual closed-book test, he told his students a week in advance that they could bring to the test:  notes, books, laptop, experts (if they could locate one or two in time), calling former students who had taken this test before…anything not in violation of state and federal criminal laws.  After a barrage of questions and calming suspicion, the initially bewildered students began their collective plans for studying and facing the test.

On the day of the test, the students organized themselves to deal with the one question on the test.  Different groups took on different aspects, and they co-wrote the answer.  Only three students (“the lone wolves”) decided to write their individual responses, even though they actively participated in the studying and discussions.  Before handing back the test results, the professor added another wrinkle, offering students two options:  1. The norm — The students would get their test result back and it would count toward their course grade.  2.  A dilemma —  the professor would shred the tests and no one would know how they scored and no grade would be given.  Again, after the initial gasps, the students quickly made a unanimous decision to have their tests returned and counted toward grade.  They were confident in their ability.  They were right.  The average score for this test was 20% higher than previous years.  And the three lone wolves scored, respectively, on par, below, and above par with the class.

The professor’s intention for this experiment was for students to learn, first hand, the game theory that’s played out throughout the animal kingdom.  In the end for the class, all won; they all learned, including the professor.

Or, one could interpret the experiment this way:  Students lost because there was not much differentiation on this mid-term, other than the two lone wolves who scored above and below class performance.

This is yet another wonderful example of “socially constructed reality.”  But that’s not what fascinated me about this pedagogical experiment.  It’s the message that cooperation won over competition, both in terms of grade (20% better than previous record isn’t to be shrugged off) and learning.

What a lovely picture of cooperation!

What a lovely picture of cooperation!

What’s the lesson for organizations?  Allow people to make their own decisions and trust them to focus on their own best interests, which will in turn lead to better overall organizational performance.  Once again, this resonates with Daniel Pink’s TED talk on motivationautonomy, mastery, purpose.  These three pillars offer the organizational structure in which people are likely to give their best.  “Empowerment” has become an abused cliché; however, when unleashed in the right context and structure, as in the above example, it is genuinely powerful.

How about those shirkers or free-riders?  Well…what about them?  Evidently, in this pedagogical experiment, the students did not think it a profound problem.  The group rendered such few harmless; the group’s overall productivity can absorb a few infractions.  Do we want to lay down all the ground rules in the hope of catching those shirkers?  What do organizations actually do when they spot free riders?  Rarely do we hear clear-cut cases where such people need to be fired.  So why do we want to choke off creative and learning capacity for the larger group in hopes of monitoring the few?  Alas, most organizations keep adding obstacle courses for employees to prevent the few outliers from…what?  This was one of the points I addressed in my beginning posts on “Bad management theories.”

When I related this story to a friend, he was intrigued but said, “Thinking inside the box gets you profits.  Thinking outside of the box creates opportunities, though accompanied by mystery, pain, and risks.”  Drat, why didn’t I think of that?!

My friend was right.  In the end, this wonderful experiment was played out inside the box because the students were given the boundaries – the course materials covered thus far.  In a sense, the three lone wolves sort of nibbled the edge of the boundaries, but not much more than that.  More often than not, it’s the true lone wolf wandering off into a different territory who might find, or stumble upon, something new and awesome.  Especially in the face of uncertainty, cooperation leads to higher productivity than competition.  But to pursue ground-breaking innovation and creativity, one needs much more room.  I am not saying that all innovative and creative breakthroughs have been produced by individuals; however, given enough room, individuals stand better chance to hit that sweet spot.  There have been plenty of cooperative efforts that resulted in spectacular outcomes, such as the development of superconductivity, the transistor, penicillin, etc.  But remember, the discoveries of superconductivity and penicillin were individual accomplishments.  The marriage of multiple minds with unique ways of thinking subsequently leading to breakthrough discoveries seems more the exception than the rule.

Ultimately, it’s not either-or perspective in which we have to choose between cooperation or individual pursuit.  We can have both; we need to have both.

I will be on a road trip next week.  Be back in this space on May 19th.  Till then,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

Direct Contact:  taso100@gmail.com

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