Skip to main content

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 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...


Amy Van Hook 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 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 :)

Popular posts from this blog

An annual note to all the (NSF) haters

It's that time of year again: students have recently been notified about whether they received the prestigious NSF Graduate Student Research Fellowship. Known in the STEM community as "The NSF," the fellowship provides a student with three years of graduate school tuition and stipend, with the latter typically 5-10% above the standard institutional support for first- and second-year students. It's a sweet deal, and a real accellerant for young students to get their research career humming along smoothly because they don't need to restrict themselves to only advisors who have funding: the students fund themselves!
This is also the time of year that many a white dude executes what I call the "academic soccer flop." It looks kinda like this:

It typically sounds like this: "Congrats! Of course it's easier for you to win the NSF because you're, you know, the right demographic." Or worse: "She only won because she's Hispanic."…

Culture: Made Fresh Daily

There are two inspirations for this essay worth noting. The first is an impromptu talk I gave to the board of trustees at Thatcher School while I was visiting in October as an Anacapa Fellow. Spending time on this remarkable campus interacting with the students, faculty and staff helped solidify my notions about how culture can be intentionally created. The second source is Beam Times and Lifetimes by Sharon Tarweek, an in-depth exploration of the culture of particle physics told by an anthropologist embedded at SLAC for two decades. It's a fascinating look at the strange practices and norms that scientists take for granted.
One of the stories that scientists tell themselves, whether implicitly or explicitly, is that science exists outside of and independent of society. A corollary of this notion is that if a scientific subfield has a culture, e.g. the culture of astronomy vs. the culture of chemistry, that culture is essential rather than constructed. That is to say, scientific c…

The subtle yet real racism of the Supreme Court

Judge Roberts, a member of the highest court in the land, which is currently hearing the sad story of mediocre college aspirant Abigail Fischer, recently asked, "What unique ­perspective does a minority student bring to a physics class? I’m just wondering what the benefits of diversity are in that situation?" 
Did you catch the white supremacy in this question? If not, don't feel bad because it's subtly hidden beneath the cloaking field of colorblind racism. (As for Scalia's ign'nt-ass statements, I'm not even...)
Try rephrasing the question: "What unique perspective does a white student bring to a physics classroom?" The answer is, of course, absolutely nothing! Why? Because race isn't biological, and is therefore not deterministic of cognitive abilities. Did you perhaps forget that you knew that when considering Roberts' question? If so, again, it's understandable. Our society and culture condition all of us to forget basic facts …