Monday, October 1, 2012

Uncomfortable truths

Open space office by jepoirrier, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License  by  jepoirrier

I've just read an article about how often behavioural research is disregarded because it clashes with ingrained traditions and beliefs. The article is in Swedish (Det är dags att tänka på hjärnan - Dagens Nyheter) but you can always try it via Google Translate. It features a researcher called Katarina Gospic and she lists examples of where brain research has produced uncomfortable truths that we prefer not to deal with.

One such uncomfortable truth is the fact that open-plan offices do not make people more creative. Research clearly shows that people do not work effectively in such environments since we need to use the most creative part of our brains to block out the surrounding noise and distractions. But, despite all research results, the open-plan office still dominates, in many cases with ever-shrinking square metres for each employee. Basically, the financial incentives to maximise the use of office space outweighs the research results.

Gospic also points to research showing that large financial bonuses have virtually no motivational effect on people who already earn high salaries. Bonuses can, however, have a postive effect on low wage earners. Once again these results have had little or no effect on business practice. Money talks.

It seems that although we like to believe that we rationally base our decisions on the latest research, if that research clashes with tradition or financial expediency then we conveniently disregard it. There is plenty of research into how learning is a social process, that we learn best in practical and real-life situations and that few people learn simply by listening and memorizing. However this clashes with fundamental beliefs in education (ie schools as institutions, lecturing, classrooms, age-group segregation etc) that are not only deeply ingrained in society but also are very cost-effective structures for mass-education. Changing the system may cost a lot of money and involve a major rethink of many of the central structures in society. Maybe best to simply keep Pandora's box firmly shut.

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