The Unbearable Lightness of Being a Student- Or Poorly Constructed Scientific Excuses for Exam Performance

From the simplest worms to remarkably complex animals – like us – we have the ability to learn and remember. Due to neuroplasticity, our brains change throughout life, which enable us to adapt and alter our behaviour. While it seems that learning – thus changing – is essential to our survival, we are not always open to change and we are not always keen on studying for exams. Why is that so? Before concerning this question, let’s look at some potential excuses that you could apply in case of academic emergency:

  1. The effect of studying might be worrying based on the assumption that learning would lead to change in your brain, thus in your “self”. So, you could insist on staying exactly the same person as you were before the exam. (Un)fortunately, thanks to the consistency paradox, we perceive our personality consistent despite the fact that our behaviour can significantly change in particular situations.
  2. Furthermore, from an evolutionary perspective, when we actually consider human behaviour as a result of solving problems in human ancestral contexts, like evolutionary psychologists do, one could argue that due to our evolutionary path, we are simply not accustomed to our modern forms of studying or writing exams per se.

Since I actually wouldn’t recommend using the aforementioned arguments in a scholarly environment, let us consider another approach. I believe that most of us would assume that being a student has something to do with learning, fitting into society, self-actualization or an attitude best described as “life has no meaning and I’ve got nothing better to do”. Although I believe these are all legitimate reasons for having an education, we may agree on learning as a central component. But do we really want to learn? What if we generally prefer the current state of affairs? The status quo bias, a common term in behavioral economics, is a cognitive bias referring to this very preference: to stay the same by doing nothing.3752760775_b12b325e40_b

In 1988 William Samuelson and Richard Zeckhauser performed a series of decision-making experiments in order to detect this effect. In the canonical model, the rational choice is the most preferred alternative based on the ranking of the options. However, when making new decisions in real life situations we usually need to choose between the status quo (maintaining the current position or doing nothing) and something new. The question is that “framing of an alternative – whether it is in the status quo position or not – will significantly affect the likelihood of its being chosen.” They found compelling evidence of status quo effects and actually concluded that this can account for “the difficulty of changing public policies, preferred types of marketing techniques, and the nature of competition in markets.” Since we might conclude that the status quo effect could prevent you from having innovative ideas and being open towards change, which are basic elements in learning, it is suggested to have an elevated awareness regarding decisions and to apply strict analysis in your decision making process.

What implications does this have on student life in general? As students we are supposed to learn, but sometimes it might be difficult to face the consequent change, since we have a tendency to prefer things as they currently are. On the other hand, change is occasionally required to occur prior to learning. Look at a Rothko painting and try not to think about asking the museum guard to provide some guidelines for interpretation. So, beside the fact that we have another well-established excuse for complaining about the difficulty of the privileged position of the student, this contributes to the many antagonisms that we can encounter in life. Although I like to think what Nietzsche said in the Twilight of the Idols:

 “One is fruitful only at the cost of being rich in contradictions”

No Comments Yet

Leave a Reply