What would you do: take the commons test

what would you doA psychology professor from the University of Maryland recently posed an offer to his class to earn extra credits for their term paper. The offer was they could choose to add two points or six points to their individual grade, but with one important catch. If more than 10% of the class selected six points, no one would get any extra marks.

This challenge went viral when one of his students shared it on Twitter. I read about it in this Toronto Star article.

More than 10% chose the six points, so none of the class got extra grades. In the 7-8 years he’s been doing this test, only one class achieved a 2 point increase for everyone. He said many professors in his field have been using this test for years with similar results.

What’s interesting about this challenge is it forces students to consider whether they should only focus on advancing their own interests, or think globally for the greater good.

I’ve always been a firm believer that as human beings we are inherently selfish. We are wired to think about ourselves first and act in a manner that forwards our own interests. The best we can do is to try to make choices that benefit us while benefitting others at the same time.

The professor uses this test to teach his students more than social psychology, but as a reality check for today’s generation. With real and very scary problems like global warming, limited food supply and other issues facing us on a global scale, the lesson here is obvious. We need to start thinking and acting globally, even if it means sacrificing individual gains in order to survive and thrive as a society.

Some of the insights in the article were fascinating. One study looked at the success hotels had in encouraging guests to reuse towels. Researchers found that it was more effective if the message appealed to social norms. The message “Join your fellow guests in helping save the environment” resulted in more guests reusing their towels than a direct plea to save the environment.

This week’s #HappyAct is to pass the commons test the next time you are challenged to choose between your own interests and the greater good. This is an election year in Canada. Let’s give the commons test new meaning as we prepare to elect representatives to our own House of Commons. Let’s demand our leaders do away with partisan politics and address and take action on the important issues that affect all Canadians and our planet.

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