Monthly Archives: April 2015

When a nudge is better than a sledgehammer.

Encouraging positive behaviours in individuals can prove problematic in any domain and it’s often easier to get it really wrong than to get it even slightly right. For me, one of the most interesting
sledgehammer studies I encountered in 2014 concerned the effectiveness of ‘fear appraisals’ as a predictor of motivation and exam scores (Putwain & Remedios, 2014). Seeing as threats are often seen as a fall back position for many teachers as the exam season approaches, with such comments as ‘If you don’t revise you’ll fail your exams’ or ‘If you fail you won’t get your place at university’, these results are relevant to daily teaching practice.

This kind of research then raises other questions, such as ‘How do I motivate my students in a more effective and productive way?’ Behavioural economics might have the answer, however its techniques have so far failed to permeate the world of education and have, instead, concentrated on health and wellbeing. Nevertheless, if we dip our toes into some of research intended to promote healthier living, it becomes possible to see glimpses of where behavioural economics could fit within an educational paradigm.

A recent paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) exhumes the once popular concept of self-affirmation. My immediate reaction to the paper was a wry smile as I recalled my old next-door neighbour who wrote the word ‘winner’ in lipstick on his rear-view mirror. Needless to say, I’ve never been a big fan of self-affirmations and not just because they involve the wilful misuse of copious amounts of post-it notes.

Despite my initial reservations (although many remain), I eventually realised that the research itself seemed quite promising. The paper (Falk et al., 2015), entitled ‘Self-affirmation alters the brain’s response to health messages and subsequent behavior change’ is interesting on several level (and not just because it has the word ‘brain’ in it).

According to the paper, self-affirmation (the affirmation of core-values) are effective if invoked prior to a message being given (and this is supported by previous research). Falk et al. wanted to investigate whether or not prior affirmation of core-values would lead to a group of sedentary participants being more receptive to health messages (i.e. would they be more likely to engage in physical activity) presented post core-value affirmation and how the brain responded to these messages.

The study supported previous research (in that reflecting on personal core-values led to the health message being more effective) but also highlighted the brain’s response to such messages in that the messages appeared to active the part of the brain associated with self-relevant information.

While information obtained through brain scans remains controversial and the sample size here was extremely small (67), it does throw up some interesting ideas of how the affirmation of core-value and other self-relevant information might help to ‘nudge’ learners in the right direction even before a message has been presented. It also raises a few questions concerning how positive emotional attributes could be ‘triggered’ prior to an important message or test situation.


Falk, E.B., O’Donnell, M.B., Cascio, C.N., Tinney, F., Kang, Y., Lieberman, M.D., Taylor, S.E., An, L., Resnicow, K. & Strecher, V.J. (2015). Self-affirmation alters the brain’s response to health messages and subsequent behavior change. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. [Online]. p.p. 201500247. Available from:

Putwain, D. & Remedios, R. (2014). The scare tactic: Do fear appeals predict motivation and exam scores? School psychology quarterly?: the official journal of the Division of School Psychology, American Psychological Association. [Online]. Available from: [Accessed: 21 April 2014].