### It's all about the incentives

It was not our finest moment. Erin was sitting by the front door looking disheveled, distraught, very near tears. I was exhausted, embarrassed and shaken. Erin looked up at me and pleaded, "He's a good kid, right? Please tell me he's a good kid and it's going to be okay." Our team captain was down and the relief pitcher (me) was getting shellacked on the mound. Not a pretty situation in the Johnson household.

The kid in question was down the hall splayed out in front of his room screaming his head off because he had been punished for refusing to put his shoes on as directed. As a result, I had just revoked his dessert privileges for the evening; this after revoking his DVD privileges for hitting me. In so doing I had exhausted two of our most important sources of leverage on the boy. Owen no longer had a reason to behave (or live, judging by his pitiful wailing), and I was seriously considering the "nuclear option" of paddling his butt. These liberal parenting techniques be damned, I was gonna give him something to cry about. While we eventually rallied without resorting to violence and got him calmed down, but it was clear that we needed to modify our tactics. We needed a carrot to go with our sticks.

One of my favorite authors is Tim Harford, the author of the book Freakonomics and the Slate.com column The Dismal Science. The main idea behind most of Harford's analyses is that complex and often seemingly irrational human systems (e.g. economies) can quite often be understood much better by simply seeking out and studying the underlying incentives. This is because people generally act in their best interests. There are plenty of examples given by Harford in his book and articles, but my favorite example is from my own experience.

When I was living in Berkeley, my friend Paul and I started a poker league called TREPS. We played tournaments every two weeks and our club had about 30 regular members. The problem we ran into is that we could never start on time. This meant that players who showed up at 6pm had to sit around for 30 min to an hour twiddling their thumbs while the later players trickled in. And since our tournaments tended to last 4-6 hours, if we didn't start until 7 we'd end up playing past midnight, which was a big problem since the rec room we used was only open until 11:30 pm. So how do you get people to show up on time without pushing them away by using punishments such as fines? To solve this problem, Paul and I came up with a pretty neat incentive scheme.

Each poker tournament typically started with 3000 chips, and players attempted to knock out other players by winning their chips, which also allowed them to accumulate more chips and stay alive longer. The last player with chips won the money in the prize pool. At the start of the next season we changed the starting stacks from 3000 to 2500. The incentive was that on-time players received 500 "bonus chips" to bring their stack up to 3000. Late players simply started with the "standard" amount of 2500, putting them at a small disadvantage to the on-time players. We instantly went from having only 10 out 30 players showing up on time, to having 28-29 players showing up on time. On the other hand, our previous methods of docking chips and/or money never improved the on-time rate and often drove players away.

This case shows that incentives don't even need to cost anything to be effective. It cost nothing for us to give out 500 extra chips. In fact, the extra chips didn't result in any more chips that players had in previous seasons! But the bonus was enough to make people leave their homes earlier and check traffic reports in order to get to the games on time. Pretty cool solution.

So what does this have to do with 3-year-olds? Everything, as it turns out. We're trying to teach Owen that following directions is an extremely important and worthwhile thing to do. But Owen is 3 and has a hard time seeing past his own interests. So why not harness his selfishness to get him to do what we want? After all, it works for grown-ups

After much thought and research, we eventually came up with a very effective incentive scheme. Every time Owen follows directions he gets a sticker on the "Following Directions Chart" posted right above his bed. Five stickers and he gets a treat ranging from an ice cream cone to a Matchbox model car. Neither of these things cost us much of anything. Each prize costs about a buck, but we were regularly giving him these types of treats anyway (because he's our first born and we spoil him, I admit it). But just like the poker example, the value of the incentive is irrelevant. By earning stickers he gets the immediate satisfaction of knowing he pleased us and that he did a good thing, while being able to visibly track his progress to a wonderful prize. All we need to do is gradually increase the required sticker count and he'll eventually learn that following directions leads to more natural rewards. Namely, sane parents who can stand looking at his smug little face. (Just kidding. Mostly.)

Epilogue: You may have noticed the second chart in the movie. This other chart is for calming down on his own, rather than escalating from merely sad to fully apoplectic. In the movie, there's only one sticker on the Calming Down Chart, but Owen has actually calmed down twice. On the second one, he noticed he had only one sticker to go to get to a car on the Following Directions Chart, and he asked if he could transfer the sicker over. Erin, seeing that the logic of his argument was unassailable, happily relented and allowed the procedural change. Owen not only earned a Mercedes SL55, but also learned the art of negotiation. This will be good in the long term, and potentially challenging for us in the short term...

Anonymous said…
is that the BBB he's standing on in that video?

excellent idea. i especially like that he also has a calming down chart!
karinms said…
I wish someone would set this up for me. If I could have a "finish papers" chart or a "didn't resort to internet browsing" chart. Of course the prizes would have to be a bit more substantial...

You guys are brilliant!!
mquinn said…
I agree, karinms. I need a "went 10 minutes without checking email and worked on dissertation instead" chart. Though I'd never get the car.
mama mia said…
at some point you will have to do some random reinforcing...in order for this to continue to be effective...for the science on using reinforcement theory, I recommend Madeline Hunter, whose definition of teaching is "a constant flow of conscious decision making"...she is right and you guys are doing a great job...just don't look up BF skinner...don't want the boy in a skinner box :)

### On the Height of J.J. Barea

Dallas Mavericks point guard J.J. Barea standing between two very tall people (from: Picassa user photoasisphoto).

Congrats to the Dallas Mavericks, who beat the Miami Heat tonight in game six to win the NBA championship.

Okay, with that out of the way, just how tall is the busy-footed Maverick point guard J.J. Barea? He's listed as 6-foot on NBA.com, but no one, not even the sports casters, believes that he can possibly be that tall. He looks like a super-fast Hobbit out there. But could that just be relative scaling, with him standing next to a bunch of extremely tall people? People on Yahoo! Answers think so---I know because I've been Google searching "J.J. Barea Height" for the past 15 minutes.

So I decided to find a photo and settle the issue once and for all.

I then used the basketball as my metric. Wikipedia states that an NBA basketball is 29.5 inches in circumfe…

### Finding Blissful Clarity by Tuning Out

It's been a minute since I've posted here. My last post was back in April, so it has actually been something like 193,000 minutes, but I like how the kids say "it's been a minute," so I'll stick with that.
As I've said before, I use this space to work out the truths in my life. Writing is a valuable way of taking the non-linear jumble of thoughts in my head and linearizing them by putting them down on the page. In short, writing helps me figure things out. However, logical thinking is not the only way of knowing the world. Another way is to recognize, listen to, and trust one's emotions. Yes, emotions are important for figuring things out.
Back in April, when I last posted here, my emotions were largely characterized by fear, sadness, anger, frustration, confusion and despair. I say largely, because this is what I was feeling on large scales; the world outside of my immediate influence. On smaller scales, where my wife, children and friends reside, I…

### The Force is strong with this one...

Last night we were reviewing multiplication tables with Owen. The family fired off doublets of numbers and Owen confidently multiplied away. In the middle of the review Owen stopped and said, "I noticed something. 2 times 2 is 4. If you subtract 1 it's 3. That's equal to taking 2 and adding 1, and then taking 2 and subtracting 1, and multiplying. So 1 times 3 is 2 times 2 minus 1."

I have to admit, that I didn't quite get it at first. I asked him to repeat with another number and he did with six: "6 times 6 is 36. 36 minus 1 is 35. That's the same as 6-1 times 6+1, which is 35."

Ummmmm....wait. Huh? Lemme see...oh. OH! WOW! Owen figured out

x^2 - 1 = (x - 1) (x +1)

So $6 \times 8 = 7 \times 7 - 1 = (7-1) (7+1) = 48$. That's actually pretty handy!

You can see it in the image above. Look at the elements perpendicular to the diagonal. There's 48 bracketing 49, 35 bracketing 36, etc... After a bit more thought we…