The Economics Behind Misbehaving In School To behave or make mischief? For many school kids it comes down to a kind of cost-benefit analysis. Act out and get noticed? There are rewards associated with being popular or the class clown. This Planet Money report focuses on the inner economic life of students.
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The Economics Behind Misbehaving In School

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The Economics Behind Misbehaving In School

The Economics Behind Misbehaving In School

The Economics Behind Misbehaving In School

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To behave or make mischief? For many school kids it comes down to a kind of cost-benefit analysis. Act out and get noticed? There are rewards associated with being popular or the class clown. This Planet Money report focuses on the inner economic life of students.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

As those kids return to school, see their friends, talk about their summers, they also engage in some economic decision making. Nothing having to do with money, strictly, just a rational calculation - to behave or to make mischief. Our Planet Money team's Chana Joffe-Walt stopped in on the first day of school in New York's lower east side.

CHANA JOFFE-WALT: Upstairs in the main office, the photocopier is jammed, the floors are shiny and all the kids are in the auditorium waiting for assembly to start, performing for one another.

Unidentified Woman: Outside of the line.

Ms. VANESSA SWINTON(ph) (Student): Hello? Yeah, ma, (unintelligible) the auditorium.

Unidentified Woman: Vanessa, turn off your phone so she…

JOFFE-WALT: Vanessa Swinton's performance involved telling me that cell phones are not allowed in school, and then proceeding to talk on her cell phone to her boyfriend and then her mom. Her peers love this. At one point an entire row is entertained.

A couple of rows up, boys put on hats, wearing headphones around their necks, knowing they, too, are banned items.

Dayla(ph) Gilmore(ph) teaches 12th grade government and economics here and she says the first week of school is amazing, because you basically watch all these little people walking around making cost benefit decisions. Do I act out? I'll get noticed, let people don't know who I am.

Ms. DAYLA GILMORE (Teacher): Is it a couple of different things, this is the adrenaline rush of doing it and not getting caught and getting one over the teacher. And just the shear excitement of it all, just being mischievous in school, you know? So it's a couple of things…

JOFFE-WALT: Those are the benefits.

Ms. GILMORE: Those are the benefits of it all, being the class clown, being the popular one, you know, being the cool one, those are the things that they're looking forward to. And I mean, in high school (unintelligible), sometimes that's just what it's about, being a popular kid.

JOFFE-WALT: What are the costs?

Ms. GILMORE: Detention.

(Soundbite of laughter)

JOFFE-WALT: In the auditorium, the principal walks onto the stage and she is masterful at getting the room quiet.

(Soundbite of crowd)

Unidentified Woman #2 (Principal): Okay.

JOFFE-WALT: She has this way of saying, we'll wait.

Unidentified Woman #2: We'll wait for your quiet attention, 9th graders.

JOFFE-WALT: Very effective.

Unidentified Woman #2: Again, there's couple of thing before we start an assembly - there shouldn't be any hats, any earphones. Okay, good morning.

(Soundbite of crowd)

JOFFE-WALT: The principal spends more time on the rules, then time on inspiration. And then this kid raises his hand. Now, to be clear, this is not question-and-answer time. There is no question-and-answer time. He just raises hand and says in front of the whole school, loud: Um, when is this going to be over?

(Soundbite of crowd jeering)

JOFFE-WALT: I find out later his name is Ron Ginsberg(ph). I find this out because his performance is talked about the rest of the school day. I see him after school, outside, he's got his hat, headphones and a crowd. And he tells me, the first day is very important. You have to establish who you are. Let people know you're important. And then he smiles, when I ask about thing in the assembly. He goes, oh, yeah, you can't get away with that kind of thing on the first day.

Mr. RON GINSBERG (Student): And usually they would've, like, kicked me out, but like, she just let it slide today.

(SOUNDBITE of crowd)

JOFFE-WALT: And why did she let it slide today?

Mr. GINSBERG: I don't know, because it's first day back, give everybody one chance before they start…

JOFFE-WALT: Do you know that, do you?

Mr. GINSBERG: Yeah.

JOFFE-WALT: Cost, benefit. He would be golden if an economist was grading him. Robert Frank at Cornell is an economist and is impressed. He says, think of it this way, there's this kid, it's the first day of school, and he's got the whole school - 500 potential friends to match up with. That could take forever.

Professor ROBERT FRANK (Economist, Cornell University): You know, if you're looking to hang out with a certain kind of person and you have to go privately and interview everybody in depth to figure out what kind of person each one is, that's going to take you a lot of time. Time's a scarce resource, just like any other, and if there are shortcuts that can speed that process long, that's in everyone's interest, really.

JOFFE-WALT: Frank says, Ron's misbehavior is perhaps helping out hundreds of kids. With one performance in the opening moments, he signals, I'm brave, I'm the kind of person who's willing to take risks. And if that appeals to you, now you know, there's someone you want to hang out with. If it doesn't, you know, steer clear. Frank says, if he can do that without high costs on day one, that is very efficient behavior.

Chana Joffe-Walt, NPR News.

INSKEEP: You can hang out with the Planet Money Web page, which sometimes gets itself into a little bit of trouble when you're checking the headlines throughout this day at npr.org/money.

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