postheadericon Defying behavioral physics – the carrot and the stick?

I am sure any number of individuals in this class will tackle the testing, the GPA, the grading – I much prefer to watch that particular battle play out among those more committed to a side than I. I will sneak in with my commentary and cry havoc, Sith style, and slip away undetected.

In the video lecture “Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us,” the speaker points out a compelling, and counterintuitive, set of repeatable experiment/research results that indicate the metaphoric carrot at the end of the stick, the reward for the completion of a task, the incentive for doing a job, is only effective in jobs, tasks, sticks, that do not require high levels of thought.

Incentives (carrots) work, he states, as long as whatever task that leads to the acquisition of the carrot only requires mechanical skill, or low levels of cognition. The surprising part, at least, to me (and likely others, as I have never heard of these experiments or results and tend to think, however erroneously, I have my finger close to the pulse of such things) is that the more one has to think about a task or job, the more cognitive skill required for its completion, the incentive or carrot actually detracts from performance level.

Mechanical skill + financial incentive = better performance.

Cognitive skill + financial incentive = decreased performance.

The speaker rightly says these results defy laws of behavioral physics. Doesn’t make sense on the surface. But then I began to think about all the examples of products, items, programs, things I integrate into my everyday life, that I readily identify with, that people create because they can and not for the sake of an incentive. An example: Open-source software. VLC. Linux. Tons of little applications created, hacked open, released on the Internet for anyone and everyone to integrate, use, exploit. I personally never learned Linux, but know programmers that swear by it, and its numerous modifications from users that just want to make a decent, free access workable operating system that doesn’t require corporate backing. I do not use Linux, but I do, however, regularly utilize a plethora of fantastic open-source programs for a variety of tasks. I’d always questioned the motivations behind creating and maintaining those programs – they are not simple constructs, and are constantly updated to remain useful, secure. Why do these people create these things for free and give them away? Are they motivated solely by the satisfaction of knowing their products are in use? There is no carrot here.

The speaker suggests taking the carrot out of the equation altogether. In terms of corporate or technological innovation, pay idea people, innovators, everyone capable and willing to employ high cognitive skill to solve a problem, take on a research project, seek definitive answers, enough money to where the money itself is not a factor. Offer these individuals the autonomy to direct their own lives, seek satisfaction not in carrots but in cognitive engagement.

The mastery of cognitive engagement and control for the sake of personal satisfaction. I think that’s a stellar idea.

Non sequitur observation addendum – what’s with this trend in videos we watch and the disembodied hand drawing pictures relative to the narrator?

6 Responses to “Defying behavioral physics – the carrot and the stick?”

  • Kristine:

    Thank you for this entertaining post with interesting ideas! Although my instinct is to reply to your last disembodied hand question with random speculations, I’ll address the behavioral physics aspect instead. The ceiling effect on “carrots” is interesting, as noted. I believe that this effect exists because we will stop looking for a greater motivation once we find any motivation at all. For mundane tasks, it is difficult to find a motivation beyond a simplistic, tangible prize at the end of tedious, seemingly pointless work. With more difficult tasks, however, I believe it is easier to find motivation beyond the immediate gratification; people can relate their performance on a difficult task to their intelligence levels, and motivate themselves by trying to test (to prove) their skills. This motivation would not exist for a simple task, however, and this issue stresses the importance of cognitive engagement in relation to motivation.

  • Homero:

    I also think that removing the carrot from the equation will bring a lot of gains in our higher educational system.

    I’m curious to ask you, have you ever been in an academic situation (at any level of your formal education) where you needed to develop your high level cognitive skills and the “carrot” has pushed you back? Or have you or anyone you know being benefited by the “carrot” to develop mechanical skills?

    I’m trying to find a lot of examples to explain this to other people that might be reluctant to this fascinating concept.

    Thanks for sharing.

    • daa1815:

      You know, it’s really hard to say. I would like to think that with or without a motivator in place my decision-making in any given situation would remain consistent, but I do not believe that to be the case. Captain Hindsight to the rescue!!! (anyone? anyone?)

      With high-level cognitive skill in mind: When I was coming up in the early stages of public school, there were parental repercussions if I didn’t try or take a class seriously enough, and tangible rewards when I did. In high school, I set my own standards (which were not always very high, to be frank). By the time I decided to take college seriously (I am not a traditional student, and worked graveyard shifts full time to be able to support myself throughout my entire run at UNCW), being able to prove competency and share my knowledge got me through. And ultimately to earn a degree with the hope/promise of a better job than graveyard at a seedy hotel could certainly be depicted as a carrot, a motivator. There was a tangible need/desire for me to better myself and my station, for myself and for others in my life. And now, after finding a small amount of success as a professional before entering school at the graduate level, I can still trace my motivations to that.

      My purpose for learning, my research, my success (presumably I won’t fail out) in graduate school at Virginia Tech, is to expand my knowledge of communication, to become an effective researcher and more effective writer, to learn how to evolve into an effective educator, and I would be lying if I did not add the desire to eventually put myself in a position of economic security far beyond that of a night shift hotel clerk, or to return home after work without the smell of fry grease or garbage clinging to my clothes. I cannot with any integrity say my motivations are pure. I can say, however, the paycheck (especially at this level) is secondary, is not high on the list of incentives for me at this time – although when it comes down to it my rent still has to be paid. Selfishness, though, is not always a negative thing.

      As far as mechanical skills are concerned, as a kid the desire to win, the desire to be better than my competition, the desire to bring home the coveted trophy, while there, was never particularly strong with me. What can I say, I wasn’t the greatest athlete. As an autonomous young adult, the paycheck was vital and certainly the only motivation behind many, many decisions. The promise of an immediate, tangible reward influenced my decision-making and behavior in many personal, professional (and by this I mean during the period prior to where professionalism meant anything to me), and social situations. Without the presence of that reward under that set of circumstances, it’s hard to say what may have transpired.

      I do not believe altruism exists, nor to I believe in academic utopia. I do not align with the notion that every student, every child, is a delicate and unique snowflake with unlimited potential to excel in anything attempted, given enough personalized attention from an educator or mentor as provided in a perfectly designed and executed school system. That is certainly a noble and ideal notion, and it may be beneficial and the way to go given the perfect storm of opportunity, but it is not realistic. I do believe we can try to educate, execute effective strategies for learning as best we can given our varying circumstances. For some, “carrots” are all they care about, no matter how much we try to show them otherwise. I certainly went through public school with any number of these types, and came across many of then at the undergraduate level and in the professional world.
      But I do feel that if a student can effectively look beyond the immediate and into the future with a sense of urgency and purpose, the grade in any course may become less important than the knowledge gained that may ultimately clarify, define, and further that purpose.

      I don’t know if any of this is useful to answer your question in any way, but I’ve written it now so I may as well post it…
      Cheers!

  • Since Cristine did such a terrific job responding to the substance of your post, I will comment on the uptick in Whiteboard animations. The short answer is “I don’t know.” But my hunch (slow, emerging as it is) suggests three related possibilities 1) because we can (the apps for that are easier to use and more readily available); 2) even the most vain speaker might not relish the prospect of millions of anonymous viewers staring at their You Tube visage for an extended period of time; and 3) The graphic representation of what we hear might help the message stick. Illustrating a talk as it unfolds enriches the “delivery” and probably also makes it more digestible. Maybe?

  • daa1815:

    Hah – I see what you did there (hunch) – nice.

  • fdelamota:

    I would be interested to see if there are any studies looking at the efficacy of the carrot approach based on the birth order of siblings. Is the oldest sibling more likely to follow the carrot than the youngest one? From what I have witnessed, it appears to be so for the most part. Does the youngest sibling get the experience of the older ones and finds out sooner that the revenues of the carrot are not worth the effort?

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