Markets in everything, food fight edition

by on January 12, 2008 at 6:53 am in Education | Permalink

Juniors Rachel Whitcomb, Elizabeth Soergel and Taylor Procida are among those who protested an offer last month by the principal of Wilde Lake High School to pay students to identify participants in a cafeteria food fight.

…an intense debate erupted within the Columbia
school community over whether administrators should reward students for
informing on misbehaving peers. Last month, the student newspaper, the
Wilde Lake Paw Print, published three columns by students critical of
the principal’s offer.

"I find the administration’s recent use of monetary incentives
considerably more frightening than a food fight," wrote editor
Katherine Driessen, a senior.

Have you wondered how corporate scandals can go on for so long?:

Philip Soergel, a parent who complained to Howard schools
administrators about the principal’s offer, said: "We were aghast. I
had never heard of this. Kids are getting these kinds of lessons in how
to tattle on one another."

Here is the story.  It seems no one has turned in the perpetrators, I guess the price isn’t very high.

Andromeda January 12, 2008 at 9:31 am

I teach middle school, and it’s a tough issue (exacerbated, I suspect, because my school is all boys). There is this tremendous internalized social pressure against telling on people, even if you are the victim and need help dealing with the problem. On the one hand, insofar as it represents an instinct to deal with the problem internally and not be reliant on adults for everything, I admire it (though I suspect my coworkers do not share this feeling, and tend to overestimate adults’ ability to intervene successfully, and minimize kids’ ability to do so). On the other hand, there are problems that really do need adult powers to be called down, and certainly actions which merit punishments, and our lack of information is a huge problem. Kids are good at only doing things when adults aren’t looking.

I think the idea of paying is despicable and ill-thought-through (what if all you incentivize is lying?), but I sympathize with their difficulty in getting good information.

Mike Fladlien January 12, 2008 at 9:58 am

From a microeconomic standpoint, a food fight is a negative externality and is over-produced. The school should raise the cost that the food fighter impose on third parties. The school should reward those to reduce the cost with incentives.

James Grimmelmann January 12, 2008 at 10:02 am

I’m with Robert. Kids who gang up on tattlers today will grow up to be adults who kill snitches. The hard problem for the school — probably insolubly hard — is how to break down the idea that tattling is wrong. Payments don’t seem like they’re likely to work. Indeed, this seems like a near paradigm case of crowding-out; paying kids to inform undermines the message that informing is an altruistic and noble thing to do.

anon January 12, 2008 at 10:47 am

Robert and James:

Tattling on minor infractions only makes you a wuss. Especially if the injured party is not perceived to be too deserving. (look at this food fight for example!) And if the punishment a tattler would invoke would likely be totally incommensurate with the wrongdoing!

Jim January 12, 2008 at 11:21 am

Kids get ambiguous messages about tattling right from the start. “Don’t be a tattle-tale” is combined with urging to be sure to tell a responsible adult when something really serious is afoot — but kids might not be all that good at knowing the difference between minor and major infractions, and even very unsafe activity often only raises the probability of something really bad happening from the “very tiny” to the “more probable but still unlikely” range.

Along with seriousness of the offense, another key consideration, as commentators have noted above, is what penalties will be applied to identified wrongdoers. Even juries seem less likely to convict if they suspect that a guilty verdict will bring on a disproportionate punishment.

The recent book “Snitch” by Ethan Brown provides a look at how a reliance upon incentivized informants in the war on drugs (where most of the ‘crimes’ are consensual) undermines justice.

Jared January 12, 2008 at 12:34 pm

I’m disappointed in the school administration but not surprised. Although I am a little pleased that they would bother to try to identify the responsible parties at all. Every principal (or collegiate judicial functionary) I’ve ever encountered would just punish everyone in the cafeteria at the time and be done with it. There’s nothing like collective guilt to make their jobs easier.

This also bring to mind NYC’s plan to pay some students for better grades. The objection then was that you would be replacing good incentives with bad. Even if we do want children to inform on their peers (which I don’t), shouldn’t we be concerned that widespread informant bribes will train people to expect compensation for cooperation with authorities? Wouldn’t we rather have children learning to make their own decisions? (Oh, this is in a school, so I guess the answer is “no.” Let’s just train them to do as their told and not think for themselves.)

And finally, where is this money coming from? Are people paying Howard County property taxes really going to be paying some kid to tell his principal who threw the first hot dog?

James Feldman January 12, 2008 at 1:37 pm

Robert: the reason why tattling is not more popular is because a reputation for confidentiality is a commodity with value which cannot be purchased, particularly to children in a school environment.

Even if you as a student disapprove of the actions of your classmates in this case, you have other circumstances where you want the confidentiality of your classmates. Confidentiality is valuable in many ways to a young student, for any number of enjoyable if somewhat illicit activities. Investing in not tattling now offers dividends to the student in question should they do anything from cheat on a test to try a beer or make out with someone at a dance.

Money might outvalue the return of having a reputation as a non-tattler. But money cannot offer the students the possibility of future returns that silence can. Therefore, the silent students are making a rational, long-term investment in their own opportunities to bend rules.

mjk January 12, 2008 at 7:51 pm

The students could try a counter offer. $30 for each witness to not tattle. There is an information asymmetry the students can exploit. Unlike the administrator they KNOW who the witnesses are!

Exactly: nonetheless, isn’t this a form of punishment. The coase theorem kicks in & it’s almost certainly worth more to the student not to be punished than to the administrator to punish him/her. Nonetheless, by offering as a reward w/e the administrator’s WTP in order to punish the student is, they force a student to pay approximately this same price not to be tattled on (assuming the social pressure that also plays a large part were absent). And the administrators don’t end up paying the bounty either!: shrewd move.

Raul January 13, 2008 at 4:15 am

Another option: Sign this contract with the class bully: “If anyone tattles and I don’t bash his face in you win $50″

Schelling anyone?

Lawrence January 13, 2008 at 1:24 pm

To over simplify:

Stanley Milgram’s research indicated there are two kinds of people, followers and non-followers.

Followers will take your life on an order, even if they don’t believe in the order, non-followers will not.

Non-followers signal a human trust (prisoners dilemma?), a premium advantage.

Followers signal a chimp like/low IQ survival code. Not a premium.

A cop friend of mine told me that “gang-bangers” regularly tattle, prep students rarely do.

Which signaling would you trust?

If tattling is correct than the underground railroad or Germans hiding Jews during WWII in Germany were wrong.

If Tyler is wrong, these things were correct.

I am very, very afraid of living in Tyler’s world.

If Tyler is correct the French resistance was wrong, but the Nazi occupation was right.

Very afraid.

A Guest January 13, 2008 at 1:36 pm

I think the idea of the potential onlooker evaluating the potential over-seriousness of the punishment is very important. To wit:

1) How many of you know someone who has acquired some MP3s through not-perfectly-legal means?

2) How many of you have ratted them out to the RIAA?

Raul January 13, 2008 at 3:54 pm

A Guest:

More examples:

1. If you saw a motorist on a highway driving 10 above the limit would you rat?
2. If you chatted with a guy in a bar, had “a few” (subjective) beers and then saw him drive away; would you rat?
3. The student next to me in the bar had just one beer and is 19 years old. Would I rat?

Are these areas for legislative reform? When an overwhelmingly “representative” (I hope) sample of the population considers laws draconian / irrelevant / unfair is that a valid signal for change?

Anderson January 14, 2008 at 9:49 am

I don’t get why anyone would expect the paid informers to identify the *correct* students. Finger someone you dislike, take the money, and if you’re proved wrong, say “hey, it was a really confusing food fight, I thought I saw her throwing the milk. Oops.”

Person January 14, 2008 at 5:57 pm

Lawrence: did you *really* just compare tattling on people who started a foodfight, to help others escape
genocide?

I don’t even know how to respond to that.

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