Incentives Matter

Incentives are Powerful Extrinsic Motivators

Incentives are Powerful Extrinsic Motivators The bedrock premise of economics is that incentives matter. This is a powerful device because it applies to almost everything that humans do.

Changes in incentives—monetary and nonmonetary—can sway human behavior in foreseeable ways.

For instance, if a resource becomes more expensive or scarce, people will be less likely to choose it. Higher prices will reduce the quantity of goods sold. Fewer people visit outdoor recreational areas on chilly and rainy days. Whenever fuel prices soar through the roof over a prolonged period, consumers buy less gasoline—they eliminate less important trips, carpool more, and purchase fuel-efficient cars.

Incentives Shape Behavior

If the payback from a specific choice increases, people are more likely to choose it. Students focus in classes when their professors declare what course material will be on the examinations. Pedestrians are more prone to leaning down and picking up a quarter than they would a penny. Traditional incentive systems for executives give rise to corporate “short-termism”—executives’ annual bonuses are often awarded for achieving targets that are insubstantially linked to long-term value creation.

Incentives shape behavior. The economics of wrongdoing and crime suggest that fines be increased to offset the rewards from lawbreaking—for example, traffic fines for speeding are typically doubled in construction zones. Ryanair, Ireland’s pioneering discount airline, purposefully uses exasperating fees for checked bags, airport check-ins, and printing boarding passes to “reshape passenger behavior” and focus on getting passengers punctually to their destinations with the least overhead costs.

Incentives Can Backfire Even If Launched with the Best of Intentions

Incentives Can Backfire Even If Launched with the Best of Intentions The “incentives matter” framework of economics explains why bad behavior happens whenever the payoff for such behavior is high and the odds of getting caught and reprimanded are low.

People will scheme—even perpetrate fraud—to achieve the incentives they’re offered. If targets are impracticable and employees realize that they can achieve those targets by cheating, then they will cheat.

Incentive structures are partially to blame for the recent Wells Fargo accounts scandal. Even if Wells Fargo established incentive arrangements with the best of intentions, it tied a substantial percentage of employee compensation to immoderate sales targets. This compelled employees to open millions of sham bank accounts and credit cards in customers’ names, infringing on their trust, and costing them millions of dollars in fees for services they did not willingly sign-up for. As this case makes obvious, incentives intended to stimulate people to do their best can sometimes push them to do their worst.

Idea for Impact: A Little Incentive Goes a Long Way

Incentives matter. They influence choices that humans make. Changes in incentives influence their choices. However, designing effective incentives is a painstakingly difficult problem. Do not underestimate or ignore potential undesired results—increase in dishonest behavior, over-focus on one area while overlooking other parts of the business, imprudent risk-taking, deterioration of organizational culture, and diminished intrinsic motivation.

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