15 July 2013

The revolution might not be televised, but what about development?

One of the latest big things in education research is the importance of what economists have labelled "non-cognitive skills," psychologists call "psychosocial competencies", and humans have been known to call "character." Various studies have found that "cognitive skills" - literacy, numeracy, etc, actually don't do a fantastic job of explaining success later in life, and that it is a bunch of other soft skills which really do matter - things like perseverance, curiosity, conscientiousness, optimism, and self-control (perhaps someone should tell Michael Gove?).

All of this was the subject of Stefan Dercon's plenary at Young Lives last week (slides here). The good news is that these characteristics appear to be malleable even into adulthood.

Apparently there is one question to measure "locus of control" which correlates highly with aspirations and investing in the future. The question is simple - which of the following two statements do you most agree with:

  1. “Each person is primarily responsible for his/her success or failure in life.”
  2. “One’s success or failure in life is a matter of his/her destiny/fate.”

If how you think about this question determines how much you save and invest for the future and your attitudes towards this can be positively shifted, then maybe there is a "fatalism trap" which intervention can break. Stefan presented results from an experiment run in Ethiopia to see if optimism could be cultivated by showing poor remote villagers mini-documentaries of inspirational success stories on TV. The shows told the stories of local people who had worked their way out of poverty. The experiment also included both a regular control group and a "placebo" regular TV show, without the particular success stories.

Six months later - the villagers were still talking excitedly talking about the TV show, and more importantly actually spending more on investing in education for their kids.

Of course, the tragic danger is whether these newly raised aspirations will turn out to be a false hope if the economic opportunities to make these investments pay off aren't available.

Yet another reason why TV will save the world?

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