Last week, I wondered if money can buy happiness. It seems that people with more money are generally happier, especially if they spend it on others. It’s hard to say that the money causes the happiness, but it’s helpful to know what we can do to be happier. What if we want kids (ours or the ones we’re going to be working with when they graduate) to get good grades? Would it make sense to pay kids to work harder and be more likely to succeed in school?
My initial reaction is to be skeptical. Part of the reason is that I inherently dislike any form of incentive that I see as manipulative. As an example, in looking at happiness, we saw that it wasn’t just spending, but meaningful spending that made people happy. Learning, too, should be meaningful, and if we’re asking kids to do work that is pointless or repetitive, it shouldn’t come as a surprise if they don’t value the assigned busywork. The other part of the reason derives from an anecdote that I read in Freakonomics by Steven Levitt. He tells the story of a daycare that begins charging parents for arriving late, only to find that parents begin to arrive late more often, in proportion to their ability to afford the new fee. What they lost was the moral and social expectation that parents arrive on time. If we pay students for good grades, will they devalue learning and fail in proportion to not needing the money?
Michael Sandel, author of What Money Can’t Buy, explains that in America, the thinking that properly applied cash incentives can cure an ailing school system is gaining popularity. He relates a study that found that cash incentives could improve attendance, but not performance on standardized tests. Paying seven year olds $2 per book to read more, in Dallas, did improve reading comprehension. He doesn’t say, though, whether any of those kids grew up hating reading, thinking it was something you would only do if someone paid you enough. Even offering teachers incentives for raising their students’ test score had little effect.
Dan Pink may hold the clue. In his book, Drive, he explains that there are two different types of work that people do: physical tasks or thinking tasks. Physical tasks that can be done quicker or more accurately seem to respond well to rewards and punishments (incentives). Thinking tasks, on the other hand, don’t respond to incentives. In fact, performance might even suffer due to added pressures.
Have you experienced incentives at work? Were they effective? Should kids in school be bribed to perform?