Every attempt to manage academia makes it worse

Excellent post from Mike Taylor on the inevitable consequences of the use of incentives to shape a system (in this case, an educational system). As Mike notes, the problem is well-known and well understood, yet  otherwise intelligent people continue to rely on extrinsic incentives to attempt to shape behaviour. It’s a classic Monkey’s Paw problem – you get what you wish for but something very bad will inevitably happen, often worse than the problem you are trying to solve. We can make people do things with extrinsic incentives (reward and punishment), sure, but in doing so we change the focus from what we want to achieve to the reward itself, which invariably destroys intrinsic motivation to do what we want done, reinforces our power (and thus the weakness of those we ‘incentivize’), and ultimately backfires on us in tragically predictable ways, because what we actually want done is almost never the thing we choose to measure.

some consequences of incentives, Edwards and Roy (2017)

Our educational systems (and many others) are built around extrinsic incentives, from grades through to performance-related pay through to misguided research assessment exercises, evaluations based on publication records, etc. The consequences are uniformly dire.

Mike quotes Tim Harford (from http://timharford.com/2016/09/4035/) as providing what seems to me to be the only sensible solution:

“The basic principle for any incentive scheme is this: can you measure everything that matters? If you can’t, then high-powered financial incentives will simply produce short-sightedness, narrow-mindedness or outright fraud. If a job is complex, multifaceted and involves subtle trade-offs, the best approach is to hire good people, pay them the going rate and tell them to do the job to the best of their ability.”

Well said. Except that I would add that the effects on motivation of any incentive scheme are always awful, and that’s the biggest reason not to do it. It’s not just that it doesn’t achieve the results we hope for: it’s that it is unkind and dehumanizing. With that in mind, I wouldn’t tell them to do the job to the best of their ability. I might ask them. I might help to structure a system so that they and everyone else can see the positive and negative consequences of actions they take. I might try to nurture a community where people value one another and are mutually supportive. I might talk to them about what they are doing and offer my support in helping them to do it better. I might try to structure the system around what people want to do rather than trying to make them fit in the system I want to build. At least, that’s what I would do on a good day. On a bad day, under pressure from multiple quarters, overworked and overstressed, I might fall back on a three line whip or a plea to do their bit. I might make trades (‘do this and I will take away that’) or appeal to a higher authority (‘the Dean says we must…’) or to my own authority (‘this has to be done and you are the best one to do it..’), or to duty (‘it is in our contract that we have to do performance assessments…’).  And that’s where the problems begin.

Mike recommends Tim Harford’s ‘The Undercover Economist’ as a way out of this loop. I will read this, as I have read many books offering similar insights. It seems at first glance to fit very well with the findings of self-determination theory as well as behavioural economics. However, though the causes described here are the result of a failure to understand human motivation, this is, at heart, a systems problem of a broader nature: I recommend The Systems Bible (formerly Systemantics) by John Gall Systemantics by John Gall (formerly the Systems Bible) for a comprehensive set of explanations of the kinds of phenomena that give rise to stupid behaviour by groups of intelligent people. The book is deliberately funny, but the underlying theory on which it is based is extremely sound.

Address of the bookmark: https://svpow.com/2017/03/17/every-attempt-to-manage-academia-makes-it-worse/

How Do You Motivate Kids To Stop Skipping School?

Not like this!

This article starts with the line ‘it seems like a no-brainer’  and indeed it is. The no-brainer solution to low attendance is to make the schools relevant, meaningful and interesting to the kids.

However, bizarrely, that is not what seemed obvious to the writer of the article, nor to the ones that carried out this harmful and doomed research, who thought the obvious answer was an incentive scheme, and inflicted it on 799 kids, mostly age 9. Basically, they told the kids they would get two pencils and a cute eraser if they turned up 85% of the time during the 38-day study.

It seems that they did not bother with a literature review because, had they done so, they would have found out right away that rewards are totally the opposite of what is needed to motivate kids to attend school. There is over 50 years of compelling evidence from research on motivation, in many fields and from many disciplines, that demonstrates this unequivocally and beyond any reasonable doubt. The only possible consequence of this intervention would be to demotivate the kids so that, at best, they might revert to former behaviours at the end of it, and that many would be even less likely to attend when it was over.

Unsurprisingly, this is exactly what they found. The reward program did indeed increase attendance while it was in effect  (this is the allure of behaviourism and why it still holds sway – it does achieve immediate results) and, when it was over, kids were indeed even less motivated to attend than they had been before, exactly as theory and empirical research predicts. In fact, many of the kids got off very lightly: formerly high attenders and those that were not great attenders before but that succeeded in getting the reward only fell back to baseline levels as soon as it was over, which is actually pretty good going. A more significant reward or longer study period might have had worse consequences. Unfortunately, the effects on the ones that were the real target (those who were initially low attenders, 60% of whom failed to meet the goal) was disastrous: once the intervention was over, these already at-risk kids were only a quarter as likely to attend as they had been before the intervention began.

One of the surprised researchers said:

“”I almost felt badly about what we had done,” she says. “That in the end, we should not have done this reward program at all.”

Almost? Seriously. This borders on child abuse. I generally think of research ethics boards as an arguably necessary evil but, when I hear that experiments like this are still going on, I could easily become a fan.

Address of the bookmark: http://www.npr.org/sections/goatsandsoda/2015/05/22/407947554/how-do-you-motivate-kids-to-stop-skipping-school