I smell a rat.

To control rat infestation, French colonial rulers in Hanoi in the nineteenth century passed a law: for every dead rat handed in to the authorities, the catcher would receive a reward. End result: more rats.

At a fee-paying school in Israel, teachers were exasperated with pupils being collected late by their parents. So they introduced a charge that was added to the school fees for every late collection. End result: late collections increased.

John Tomsett, a head teacher in York blogged recently that the instigation of formal intervention tactics with exam classes resulted in a decline in pass rates. The removal of the intervention had the opposite effect.

In the first case, people bred rats specifically to hand in, in order to claim the reward – and presumably some escaped. In the second, parents now felt they were justified in turning up late as they were paying to do so. In the third, Tomsett discovered that the pupils were becoming more and more reliant on teachers to do everything for them – what he calls ‘Learned Helplessness’ and were consequently doing less revision themselves.

I am currently reading “The Art of Thinking Clearly” by Rolf Dobelli – an excellent study of cognitive biases and other ways in which reality double-crosses us. Apparently the first-named example, which comes from the book, is called the Incentive Super-response Theory. There are many others which provide much food for thought. So far, I have been particularly struck by those entries that relate to the unsuccessful use of targets – but then so would I  be:  Confirmation Bias is another double-cross!

As the saying goes, “Be careful what you wish for” – and be even more careful what effects the result of your latest ‘initiative’ will actually have.


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