Sweeter Carrots and Sharper Sticks


Image: Rocky Grimes, "Carrot and Stick", screen print and mixed media, 2009

It’s been fascinating to watch political leaders (on the right and on the left) cut off unemployment insurance to millions of unemployed Americans they will ask to vote for them this November. “Nearly five” job seekers for every job opening doesn’t dissuade them from their “common sense” notion that continuing unemployment insurance payments is a disincentive for the unemployed to go back to work. In January, South Carolina Lieutenant Governor Andre Bauer gave a twisted primer on using hunger as an incentive for driving the unemployed back into jobs that aren’t there:

“My grandmother was not a highly educated woman, but she told me as a small child to quit feeding stray animals. You know why? Because they breed. You’re facilitating the problem if you give an animal or a person ample food supply. They will reproduce, especially ones that don’t think too much further than that. And so what you’ve got to do is you’ve got to curtail that type of behavior. They don’t know any better.”

Speaking of not knowing any better, the blind faith such conservatives have in the power of incentives to control others’ behavior is misplaced. Yet it is fundamental to the way many Americans think about the world and about capitalism. Incentives, the rhetoric suggests, are as mechanistic (and as magical) as the Market. The problem is, commonsense folk wisdom — like the Earth being flat — is sometimes wrong even if you learned it at your grandmother’s knee. “Sweeter carrots and sharper sticks” don’t always work the way common sense suggests. Sometimes they work just the opposite, studies have shown. But folk wisdom dies hard, especially if it reinforces your underlying ideology, and if facts that don’t support your ideology are dismissed as not “true facts.”

Daniel Pink summarizes the current research on incentives. For the kind of work more Americans will be doing in the 21st century, for tasks requiring “even rudimentary cognitive skill,” the traditional extrinsic incentive model doesn’t work:

“Those if-then rewards, the things around which we’ve built so many of our businesses, don’t work … This is not a feeling, okay? I’m a lawyer. I don’t believe in feelings. This is not a philosophy. I’m an American. I don’t believe in philosophy. This is a fact. Or as they say in my hometown of Washington, D.C., a true fact.

Categories : Economy, Republicans, Science


  1. Big Ivy says:

    Cynthia Davis,(R) State Representative, Missouri
    Davis wrote that “bigger governmental programs take away our connectedness to the human family, our brotherhood and our need for one another.” Why not “get a job during the summer by the time they are 16” to feed themselves? “Hunger can be a positive motivator.” Such programs, she fretted, only increase government spending.

    Andre Bauer, (R) Lt. Gov., S.C. … We already know what he said. He also said he received free school lunches as a child because his family was so poor. ?? By his charming grandmother’s logic, which he subscribes to, doesn’t that lead to some alarming logical conclusions?

    Mark Sanford, R, Gov., S.C….. Well, we already know about him too. Those nasty unemployment benefits actually prevent people from working at those all too plentiful jobs in S.C.

    Personally, I would like for the cable news programs to revisit a few of the talking heads who declared manufacturing jobs obsolete, etc., and confidently stated that Americans would be much better off once most of the jobs were off-shore. You see, we are a “consumer” and “technological” society and off-shoring our jobs will make us rich beyond our wildest dreams. Where are those all-knowing pundits?

    I notice that the politicians and pundits who support “austerity” and believe that punishing the lower income levels (most of whom are just regular working folks – NOT welfare recipients) NEVER suggest that politicians campaigns and lifestyles should be based on their personal money sans corporate, party, and PAC contributions

    It seems to me that there is a superstition that if you can find enough people to punish severely then things will come right in the end. Sort of like sacrificing the best bull to the gods, or if the situation is really dire perhaps sacrificing a child. That, along with the self-hatred that has arisen in the working and middle classes, does not bode well for our future as a nation.

    I don’t even want to start on the joke of national defense and security for a country that imports everything it uses.

    Short version – I’m in total agreement with you, Tom.

  2. Blind Faithiness says:

    That’s a really good TED talk. Thx for posting it.

    I can’t help but to be amazed when my own ‘common sense’ beliefs, like incentives are great motivators of creativity, are shaken by a great science based presentation such as Dan Pink’s TED.

    Anyone with the time should def watch.

  3. Big Ivy says:

    O.K. My apologies to all. My first comment has nothing whatsoever to do with Mr. Sullivan’s posting. I don’t know what dimension I was trundling around in.

    However, I do agree with the posting based on 40+ years work experience. The only quibble I have is that it works only for people who are already “self-directed” and have the mindset of getting something done so that is “right.” I’m not talking about compulsive perfection – just getting the work done so that it is correct and actually WORKS. Accuracy and workability often are not part of the job requirements.

    The paradigm does not work at all for those who are not personally invested in their work product, or those who are motivated only by money, or those who resist active thinking as part of their work.

    Again – apologies to all readers for my first, completely irrelevant comment. Sigh.

  4. Tom Sullivan says:

    Krugman is all over this today, calling Senate Republicans “a coalition of the heartless, the clueless and the confused.”

  5. Hazelite says:

    I like this version better, and it’s 10 min shorter!

  6. Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose. Really a great formula.

    Somehow, we’ve got to relate this back to CEO compensation and the super tilted toward the top compensation structures of most corporations. If one says when given complex assignments, increasing incentives decreases performance, that ought to spark some soul searching in boardrooms (I know, insert laughter here). How much was Tony Hayward paid? Or all the top executives of all the financial companies that went bust.

  7. Blind Faithiness says:

    Those RSA Animates are really cool. Thank you for the introduction.

  8. Tom Sullivan says:

    Facts are pesky things that comport with something we used to call “reality.”

    People who find reality bothersome invented “true facts,” factoids that aren’t necessarily true, but don’t conflict with their talking points.

  9. Blind Faithiness says:

    suetwo wrote: “Yes, of course, unemployment benefits should be extended”

    Too late. Many of the people on extended unemployment are scheduled to have payments cut-off in the next 1 to 2 weeks. Most have already been notified.

    Long-term solution to unemployment? A stable economy that created and sustained jobs would be the best solution, right? That isn’t a single-solution problem, though. Systemic change doesn’t come easy.