I heard an episode of CBC Spark a while ago on which some prominent expert in game theory predicted that in the near future, games will be used to motivate us to do things other than sit in front of our TVs and computers. I started thinking about what that meant, and while I find creepy the idea that we’ll all be walking around plugged into games all day, being motivated to work by a set of arbitrary rules that have nothing to do with the real world, I started to realize that the idea of applying game theory to life might not be so creepy. What if, for example, you could motivate yourself to study for a final exam?
A few weeks later, inspiration struck while I was reading instead of studying for calculus. I had just read a passage about how loss is a better motivator than gain. For example, if I tell you that I’ll give you $25 if you build me a snowman, you’ll probably give it a try. But let’s say half way through you realize that you have exams of your own to study for, and you decide that while $25 is an attractive offer, you’re not any worse off without it and you should probably go study. However, if I tell you that I’m going to take $25 from you unless you build me a snowman (they call me the snowman mugger – I’m ruthless,) you’re probably going to sit there and build that snowman, because it’s your money and you want to keep it. Or you’ll just tell me to build my own snowman and to get lost.
But the point is that the threat of loss tends to be a better motivator than the promise of gain, and that’s the principle I decided to use to get myself to study. I had two days to study for my calculus final, which isn’t much time, especially when there are topics that you still don’t fully understand. I needed to get myself going. So I decided that if I didn’t finish a certain amount of studying, specified by the number of problems I did and the number of topics I fully reviewed, I would give a certain amount of money to the SETI institute. Giving money to a charity isn’t exactly a “punishment,” but I thought it was the best way to take money away from myself in a productive manner. After sitting down and deciding what topics to review and what problems to do on which of the two days I had to do them, I decided that $30 was a decent amount. $50 was the first number that popped into my head, and I thought, “Nah, that’s too much.” Then I realized that for loss to be an effective motivator, I needed to lose an amount of money that would really make me sweat. $30 isn’t chicken feed, but the fact that $50 made me immediately think it was a bit too much told me that $50 was the right amount. So $50 it was.
I have to say that it worked really well. I also played a game with myself trying to estimate how much time I would spend on each topic. I guessed how much time a topic would take to review, and then timed how long it actually took me. Then I calculated a correction factor based on the error percentage and updated the rest of my estimates to try and fix my estimates, assuming they were off by a constant factor. Unfortunately my estimates were way off. The highest error was 97% (I mistakenly allotted 20 minutes for Implicit Functions; silly me,) and the average error was 67%. In case you were wondering how my topic density and study-rate estimation skills are, now you know. At the end of my game (studying,) I felt more prepared than I’ve felt for any exam since high school. Then I threw up. Three times.
Yes, I got sick at 9:30 on the night before my exam. And I’m pretty sure it wasn’t from the studying, but you can never tell with math. The point is that I didn’t get to do my last set of review problems. In the end, I made only two compromises in my experiment. First, since I discovered that there were a lot more formulas to learn, I delayed my second set of practice problems to the day of my exam so that I could make flash cards, and so that I would have time to process the information I had just crammed into my brain (you usually perform better at something you’ve been practicing after sleeping.) The second compromise was that I eliminated that practice set, plus another that I had intended to do that night, after I started throwing up… because I was throwing up, and it’s hard to do calculus with your head in a toilet. I felt better in the morning, but two hours isn’t much time to do an entire practice exam, so I decided to do problems with which I knew I had trouble. In the end I chose my exam preparation over my experiment.
Did it work? Despite the fact that I had to alter my rules, I think it did! I studied really well for this exam, and I’m proud of the effort I put into it. Part of the effectiveness was due to the fact that I was excited about the method I was using for studying, which is an amazing tool for education. If you can get yourself or someone else to not just enjoy learning, but to be excited about it, then they’ll achieve an unparalleled level of comprehension with very little apparent effort. However, whenever I was tempted to slack off, the thought of $50 leaving my account was enough to get me back on track. And thinking back on it, the thought of losing $50 wasn’t what kept me going; it was the thought of losing. The thought of failing a class is a nebulous thing: if you fail, it might close a few opportunities, but it might not, and it might even show you opportunities that you never even knew existed (which is true about most things in life.) But giving myself a game to play that would affect me immediately made the consequences of slacking off real, and that’s what I needed to get me going.