Jul 31st, 2008 by ravi
Is it worth it, let me work it!

Scratch even a leftist in the West and you will often find a hippie-hating individualist/reductionist. Every since Dawkins and Sokal, Summers and Pinker did a number on their brethren, many leftists have been labouring (no pun intended) hard to distance themselves from any feel good, “new age”, hippie type framework or explanations. This has to be a bit embarrassing:

Shankar Vedantam – When Play Becomes Work – washingtonpost.com

Psychologists have long been interested in what happens when people’s internal drives are replaced by external motivations. A host of experiments have shown that when threats and rewards enter the picture, they tend to destroy the inner drives. Paychecks and pink slips might be powerful reasons to get out of bed each day, but they turn out to be surprisingly ineffective — and even counterproductive — in getting people to perform at their best.


Deci tracked a bunch of college students who were solving puzzles for fun. He divided them into two groups. One group was allowed to keep solving puzzles as before. People in the other were offered a small financial reward for each puzzle they solved.

The psychologist later evaluated the volunteers: He found that people given a financial incentive were now less interested in solving puzzles on their own time. Although these people had earlier been just as eager as those in the other group, offering an external incentive seemed to kill their internal drive.

Rewards and punishments guide the lives of most Americans. Young children are given stars for putting away their toys, kids earn a few bucks for mowing the lawn, and teens are told they will be grounded if they get in trouble. For adults, stock options, raises, demotions and firings become different kinds of carrots and sticks.

Beliefs about the utility of rewards and punishments in motivating human behavior are deeply ingrained, and most people don’t know that more than 100 research studies have shown that motivating people in this manner can have the unintentional effect of undermining their internal drives.

The striking thing about the research, said Roland Benabou, an economist at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University, is that it is so starkly at odds with bedrock economic principles.

“A central tenet of economics is that individuals respond to incentives,” Benabou noted in one research study. “For psychologists and sociologists, in contrast, rewards and punishments are often counterproductive, because they undermine intrinsic motivation.”

But wait, there’s more… the killer part, in fact:

But rewards and punishments are not always counterproductive, Benabou said. He drew a distinction between mundane tasks and those that carry meaning for people. In the first case, Benabou argued, rewards and punishments work exactly the way economists predict: They get people to do things.

External rewards and punishments are counterproductive when it comes to activities that are meaningful — tasks that telegraph something about a person’s intellectual abilities, generosity, courage or values.

Killer part because it spells out what any worker knows to be true — rewards and punishments (more often the latter) are employed to get us to do the dirty work of those handing out the rewards and punishments.

[ Link ]

[With apologies to Missy Elliot]

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