Thursday, January 20, 2011

Cash Rewards

Historically, there have been all kinds of theories about how to motivate people.  Rhetoric is one of the most ancient fields of study.  In the past few centuries we have developed psychology, sociology, and marketing, all of which study human motivation and how it can be manipulated.  All of these fields, and related ones, are very complex and murky.

Recently, economists have started popularizing and supporting a far simpler idea: The best way to motivate people is to set up carefully targeted material rewards for the behavior you want.  We have a lot of evidence to show that this works, and works well.  In many cases, people respond to prices much more than they respond to rhetoric or any of the other tools of manipulation.

In the last few years, a lot of people have been pushing back at this concept of motivation via material rewards.  Cognitive scientists will often claim that people cannot think rationally about money, and that they are mainly motivated by primitive desires like sex and social status.  They also claim that cash rewards destroy intrinsic motivation and make people less likely to to things on their own.

There have been a lot of lab experiments claiming to prove that humans are irrational or that money rewards do not work.  Some of them are decent and give good information, but almost all of these experiments feature undergraduate college students playing strange little games for minimal amounts of money.  It should be clear that if you put people in a situation they do not understand, and make the rewards artificial and irrelevant, then their behavior will not be anything like the behavior of people in a situation they know about working for things they care about.

My last homework assignment asked students to describe a situation from their personal experience that illustrates incentives.  Despite the fact that the book specifically mentions all kinds of non-monetary incentives, dozens of students wrote about situations when they had been motivated to work better or harder by cash rewards.  Often it was their parents offering them rewards for grades or housework.  All of the students who wrote about such things said that they had responded positively to these rewards.

Several of them even said that these rewards had helped them become more confident and motivated and that the rewards had started instilling good habits in them, which is exactly the opposite of what the non-economist social scientists say.  Here is an exact quote:

For example, my dad would always tell me that if I scored a goal in one of my soccer games I would earn ten dollars. That helped me to play as hard as I could and put my whole effort into it. Today, that is true with almost everything I do. I rarely do anything half-heartedly.

I had trouble believing this when I read it.  How could ten dollars mean anything compared to the thrill of scoring a goal for your team?  When I was a child, I valued money a lot and did not care at all about social status, but I do not think that any kind of cash reward could have made me put any more effort into playing sports.  I tried to do my best in baseball because it was fun to win and it made my parents proud.

This quote, and the other student papers like it, seem to be strong support for economic theories of motivation and Aristote's theory of virtue ethics.  Basically, this theory says that virtuous actions must be practiced, and once you practice them they become a part of your character.  It seems that this student practiced the virtue of focused hard work, and that this virtue remained a habit even after the cash reward that fueled it went away.

Now I will speculate and play devil's advocate for the social scientists:

This could be a generational thing.  Today's youth have grown up in a materialistic culture where talk is cheap. (Yesterday I had to put up with the nauseating spectacle of a woman walking down the hall outside my office, talking to her grandchild on a cell phone, and fulsomely and explicitly praising the kid for using a toilet.)  It could be that expressions of praise from parents mean almost nothing nowadays, so the only way to actually signal that the child has earned respect is to pay out cold hard cash.  The children might actually be chasing the respect and not the money.

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