They also contacted students who wanted to go the Final Four but did not win tickets in the lottery, asking them how much they would be willing to spend to buy one.

Students who had a ticket to the game agreed to sell it for an average price of $1,400, about eight times more than what students interested in buying were willing to pay ($170).

This is known as the “endowment effect,” a concept introduced by behavioral economist Richard Thaler, which suggests that owners of an item evaluate it significantly more favorably than nonowners. This explains why people expect much more to give up an object than they are willing to pay to obtain it.

In a study using coffee mugs, marketing professor at Boston University Carey Morewedge and his colleagues suggested that ownership plays an important role in our perceived value of an item. Often, what we own has also sentimental value for us besides just its functional value.

Motivation in the classroom

As the semester ended, I shared with my students in both classes what happened and asked for their thoughts.

“I didn’t want to give it up,” said one student referring to having the right to the optional final. Other classmates nodded in agreement.

Given that ownership in this case was not about a tangible object, it is hard to imagine that the “endowment effect” was due to sentimental reasons. Yet, it was strong enough to affect the students’ motivation and performance.

The fact that they had the right to an “optional final” made them perceive it as more valuable than their counterparts who did not have it. Consequently, it increased their motivation to do what was necessary to not lose it.

As “loss aversion” suggests, the disappointment for losing the optional final would have been higher than the excitement for earning it. The motivation of the students in the two classes seems to have been affected accordingly.

So, how can we use these findings to get our students more motivated?

Traditionally we use rewards to encourage desired behavior in the form of “if you do this, then you earn that.” But by framing it this way, we may unintentionally devalue the reward and make students less likely to appreciate it.

Lack of ownership (even for nontangible objects) may lead to lower motivation.

Instead, what if we would offer the reward to everyone but then take it away from those who did not engage in the desired behavior? It seems a bit harsh, but it may also be more effective.

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