Is Education an Effective Way to Modify Behavior?

By Dom Nozzi

I have been shouting this message from rooftops for most of my life, with very little understanding on the part of others to show for it. I continue to hear the vast majority of people make the claim that “education” is an effective way to change behavior.

Nonsense.

Mostly, I hear this utterly naïve claim from political conservatives, and the cynical part of me thinks that they do so because they know “education” will not be an effective way to change unsustainable consumption behavior (behavior that many conservatives support). “Let’s use education to increase conservation.” “Let’s educate to convince people not to destroy valuable wetlands.” “Let’s use education to reduce suburban sprawl.”

Advocacy of “education” as a tactic is equivalent to recommending that nothing be done. Which is why it is plausible that political conservatives like to call for using “education.”

Notice, of course, that conservatives don’t call for “education” when it comes to crime or military action or subsidized parking or robbing banks – in these cases, in is perfectly legitimate to adopt coercive laws and higher prices.

For the vast majority of us, effective behavior change can only come from changes in material conditions – usually, that means change in prices for goods and services we consume, the layout of shops and houses in our community (more compact layouts promote more walking, bicycling, and transit use), street design (more narrow streets with fewer travel lanes promote safer, more livable driving), or adopting laws. If you want gas/electricity consumption to go down, you need to increase the price of gas/electricity. Calling for “educating” people about the merits of reduced gas/electricity consumption is another way of calling for nothing to be done.

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Filed under Economics, Politics

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