What Motivates Us to Work, Why Incentives Fail, and How Our Ideas About Human Nature Shape Who We Become

What Motivates Us to Work, Why Incentives Fail, and How Our Ideas About Human Nature Shape Who We Become

Reality is what we take to be true. What we take to be true is what we believe… What we believe determines what we take to be true.”

Work is more often a source of frustration than one of fulfillment for nearly 90 percent of the world’s workers. Think of the social, emotional, and perhaps even economic waste that this statistic represents. Ninety percent of adults spend half their waking lives doing things they would rather not be doing at places they would rather not be.
Does the market cater to consumer desires or does it create consumer desires? Do the media cater to people’s tastes in news and entertainment or do the media create those tastes? We are all accustomed to the difficulties surrounding discussion of these issues in modern society, and we may all have fairly strong opinions about the “cater/create” debate. Questions of just this sort are all around us, and finding the right answer to them can have profound consequences for the future of society. In a sense, the distinction I’m making is between discovery and invention. Discoveries tell us things about how the world works. Inventions use those discoveries to create objects or processes that make the world work differently. The discovery of pathogens leads to the invention of antibiotics. The discovery of nuclear energy leads to bombs, power plants, and medical procedures. The discovery of the genome leads, or will lead, to untold changes in almost every part of our lives. Of course, discoveries also change the world, by changing how we understand it and live in it, but they rarely change the world by themselves.

When a scientist, or anyone else, discovers something, it doesn’t occur to us to ask whether that discovery should exist. In other words, though discoveries often have moral implications, they do not, by themselves, have moral dimensions. If someone were to suggest that the Higgs boson shouldn’t exist, we’d wonder what mind-altering substance he’d ingested. Inventions, in contrast, are a whole other story. Inventions characteristically have moral dimensions. We routinely ask whether they should exist. We wonder what’s good (life improving) about them, and what the drawbacks are. We debate whether their wide distribution should go forward, and if so, with what kind of regulation.
Social science has created a “technology” of ideas about human nature… In addition to creating things, science creates concepts, ways of understanding the world and our place in it, that have an enormous effect on how we think and act. If we understand birth defects as acts of God, we pray. If we understand them as acts of chance, we grit our teeth and roll the dice. If we understand them as the product of prenatal neglect, we take better care of pregnant women.If we understand the concept of “technology” broadly, as the use of human intelligence to create objects or processes that change the conditions of daily life, then it seems clear that ideas are no less products of technology than are computers. However, there are two things about idea technology that make it different from most “thing technology.” First, because ideas are not objects, to be seen, purchased, and touched, they can suffuse through the culture and have profound effects on people before they are even noticed. Second, ideas, unlike things, can have profound effects on people even if the ideas are false… False ideas can affect how people act, just as long as people believe them… Because idea technology often goes unnoticed, and because it can have profound effects even when it’s false — when it is ideology — it is in some respects more profound in its influence than the thing technology whose effects people are so accustomed to worrying about.


Good data drive out bad theories. But there’s a crucial difference between theories about planets, atoms, genes, and diseases and theories about at least some aspects of human nature. Planets don’t care what scientists say about their behavior. They move around the sun with complete indifference to how physicists and astronomers theorize about them. Genes are indifferent to our theories about them also. But this is not true of people. Theories about human nature can actually produce changes in how people behave. What this means is that a theory that is false can become true simply by people believing it’s true. The result is that, instead of good data driving out bad data and theories, bad data change social practices until the data become good data, and the theories are validated.An Israeli day care center was faced with a problem: more and more parents were coming late — after closing — to pick up their kids. Since the day care center couldn’t very well lock up and leave toddlers sitting alone on the steps awaiting their errant parents, they were stuck. Exhortation to come on time did not have the desired effect, so the day care center resorted to a fine for lateness. Now parents would have two reasons to come on time. It was their obligation, and they would pay a fine for failing to meet that obligation.

But the day care center was in for a surprise. When they imposed a fine for lateness, lateness increased. Prior to the imposition of a fine, about 25 percent of parents came late. When the fine was introduced, the percentage of latecomers rose, to about 33 percent. As the fines continued, the percentage of latecomers continued to go up, reaching about 40 percent by the sixteenth week.

When we lose confidence that people have the will to do the right thing, and we turn to incentives, we find that we get what we pay for.


There is really no substitute for the integrity that inspires people to do good work because they want to do good work. And the more we rely on incentives as substitutes for integrity, the more we will need to rely on them as substitutes for integrity. We may tell ourselves that all we’re doing with our incentives is taking advantage of what we know about human nature… But in fact, what we’re doing is changing human nature.

And we’re not merely changing it; we’re impoverishing itHuman beings are not scorpions. People aren’t stuck being one way or another. But nor are they free to invent themselves without constraint. When we give shape to our social institutions — our schools, our communities and yes, our workplaces — we also shape human nature. Thus, human nature is to a significant degree the product of human design. If we design workplaces that permit people to do work they value, we will be designing a human nature that values work. If we design workplaces that permit people to find meaning in their work, we will be designing a human nature that values work.


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