Tag: Incentives

Better Thinking & Incentives: Lessons From Shakespeare

At Farnam Street, we aim to master the best of what other people have figured out. Not surprisingly, it’s quite a lot. The past is full of useful lessons that have much to teach us. Sometimes, we just need to remember what we’re looking for and why.

Life can be overwhelming. It seems like there’s a new technology, a new hack, a new way of doing things, or a new way we need to be every five minutes. Figuring out what to pay attention to is hard. It’s also a task we take seriously at Farnam Street. If we want to be a signal in the noise, we have to find other signals ourselves.

That’s why we spend a lot of time in the past. We like reading about history, and we like to look for timeless ideas. Learning information that is going to stay relevant for one hundred years is a better time investment than trying to digest information that will expire next week.

However, the past is a big place containing a lot of information. So it’s always appreciated when we find a source that has curated some timeless lessons from the past for us. In his book How to Think Like Shakespeare, professor Scott Newstok dives into history to pull out some of what humanity has already learned about better thinking and applying incentives.

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Better thinking and education

“Doing and thinking are reciprocal practices.”

How do we get better at thinking? When you think about something, hopefully you learn more about it. But then the challenge becomes doing something with what you’ve learned. Often, we don’t want our knowledge to stay theoretical. We’ve learned something in order to do something. We want to put our knowledge into practice somehow.

The good news is, doing and thinking reinforce and augment each other. It’s a subtle but powerful feedback loop. You learn something. Armed with that new information, you do something. Informed by the results of your doing, you learn something new.

Throughout his book, Newstok weaves in many ideas on how to think better and how to engage with information. One of the ways to think better is to complement thinking with doing. For centuries, we’ve had the concept of “craft,” loosely understood as the knowledge one attains by doing. Newstok explains that the practice of any craft “requires—well, practice. Its difficult-to-codify habits are best transmitted in person, through modeling, observation, imitation, [and] correction adjustment.” You develop a deeper understanding when you apply your knowledge to creating something tangible. Crafting a piece of furniture is similar to crafting a philosophical argument in the sense that actually doing the work is what really develops knowledge. “Incorporating this body of knowledge, learning how to improvise within constraints, [and] appreciating how limited resources shape solutions to problems” lies at the core of mastery.

The application of what you’ve ingested in order to really learn it reminds us of the Feynman Learning Technique. To really master a subject, teach it to a novice. When you break down what you think you know into a teachable format, you begin to truly know something.

Newstok writes, “It’s human to avoid the hard work of thinking, reading, and writing. But we all fail when technology becomes a distraction from, or, worse, a substitute for, the interminable yet rewarding task of confronting the object under study.” Basically, it’s human to be lazy. It’s easier to cruise around on social media than put your ideas into action.

Better thinking takes strength. You have to be able to tune out the noise and walk away from the quick dopamine hits to put the effort into attempting to do something with your thoughts. You also need strength to confront the results and figure out how to do better next time. And even if your job is figuring out how to be better on social media, focusing on the relationship between doing and thinking will produce better results than undirected consumption.

The time and space to do something with our thoughts is how we transform what we learn into something we know.

Admittedly, knowing something often requires courage. First, the courage to admit what you don’t know, and second, the courage to be the least smart person in the room. But when you master a subject, the rewards are incredible. You have flexibility and understanding and options to keep learning.

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Applying incentives

“If you create an incentive to hit the target, it’s all the less likely you will do so.”

Newstok explains how the wrong incentives do far more damage than diminishing our motivation to attain a goal. Applying bad incentives can diminish the effectiveness of an entire system. You get what you measure, because measuring something incentivizes you to do it.

He explores the problem of incentives in the American education system. The priority is on the immediate utility of information because the incentive is to pass tests. For students, passing tests is the path to higher education, where they can pass more tests and get validated as being a person who knows something. For teachers, students passing tests is the path to higher rankings, more students, and more funding.

Newstok suggests we don’t need to worry so much about being right and feeding the continual assessment pressure this attitude creates. Why? Because we don’t know exactly what we will need to know in the future. He writes, “When Shakespeare was born there wasn’t yet a professional theater in London. His ‘useless’ Latin drills prepared him for a job that didn’t yet exist.…Why are we wasting precious classroom hours on fleeting technical skills—skills that will become obsolete before graduates enter the workforce?” It seems that a better approach is to incentivize teaching tools that will give students the flexibility to develop their thinking in response to changes around them.

Considering the proper application of incentives in relation to future goals has ramifications in all organizations, not just schools.

A common problem in many organizations is that the opportunities to accrue further reward and compensation can only come by climbing ever higher in the pyramid. Thus people are incentivized to get into management, something they may have no interest in and may not be any good at. Not everyone who invents amazing widgets should manage a group of widget inventors. By not incentivizing alternate paths, the organization ends up losing the amazing widget inventors, handicapping itself by diminishing its adaptability.

We’ve written before about another common problem in so many offices: compensation is tied to visibility, physical presence, or volume of output and not to quality of contribution. To be fair, quality is harder to measure. But it is really more about organizational attitude. Do you want people to be busy typing or busy thinking? We all say we want thinkers. We rarely give anyone the time to think. In this case, we end up with organizations that end up being able only to produce more of the same.

And paying people by, say, profit-sharing can be great, as it incentivizes collaboration and commitment to the health of the organization. But even this needs to be managed so that the incentives don’t end up prioritizing short-term money at the expense of long term success—much like students learning only to pass tests at the expense of their future knowledge and resiliency.

Newstok suggests instead that “we all need practice in curiosity, intellectual agility, the determination to analyze, commitment to resourceful communication, historically and culturally situated reflectiveness, [and] the confidence to embrace complexity. In short: the ambition to create something better, in whatever field.” We don’t need to be incentivized for immediate performance. Rather, we need incentives to explore what might need to be known to face future challenges and respond to future opportunities.

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The most fascinating thing about Newstok’s book is that it rests on ideas that are hundreds of years old. The problems he explores are not new, and the answers he presents to the challenges of better thinking and aligning incentives are based on perspectives provided in history books.

So maybe the ultimate lesson is the reminder that not every problem needs to be approached as a blank slate. Humanity has developed some wisdom and insight on a few topics. Before we reinvent the wheel, it’s worth looking back to leverage what we’ve already figured out.

Solve Problems Before They Happen by Developing an “Inner Sense of Captaincy”

Too often we reward people who solve problems while ignoring those who prevent them in the first place. This incentivizes creating problems. According to poet David Whyte, the key to taking initiative and being proactive is viewing yourself as the captain of your own “voyage of work.”

If we want to get away from glorifying those who run around putting out fires, we need to cultivate an organizational culture that empowers everyone to act responsibly at the first sign of smoke.

How do we make that shift?

We can start by looking at ourselves and how we consider the voyage that is our work. When do we feel fulfillment? Is it when we swoop in to save the day and everyone congratulates us? It’s worth asking why, if we think something is worth saving, we don’t put more effort into protecting it ahead of time.

In Crossing the Unknown Sea, poet David Whyte suggests that we should view our work as a lifelong journey. In particular, he frames it as a sea voyage in which the greatest rewards lie in what we learn through the process, as opposed to the destination.

Like a long sea voyage, the nature of our work is always changing. There are stormy days and sunny ones. There are days involving highs of delight and lows of disaster. All of this happens against the backdrop of events in our personal lives and the wider world with varying levels of influence.

On a voyage, you need to look after your boat. There isn’t always time to solve problems after they happen. You need to learn how to preempt them or risk a much rougher journey—or even the end of it.

Whyte refers to the practice of taking control of your voyage as “developing an inner sense of captaincy,” offering a metaphor we can all apply to our work. Developing an inner sense of captaincy is good for both us and the organizations we work in. We end up with more agency over our own lives, and our organizations waste fewer resources. Whyte’s story of how he learned this lesson highlights why that’s the case.

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A moment of reckoning

Any life, and any life’s work, is a hidden journey, a secret code, deciphered in fits and starts. The details only given truth by the whole, and the whole dependent on the detail.

Shortly after graduating, Whyte landed a dream job working as a naturalist guide on board a ship in the Galapagos Islands. One morning, he awoke and could tell at once that the vessel had drifted from its anchorage during the night. Whyte leaped up to find the captain fast asleep and the boat close to crashing into a cliff. Taking control of it just in time, he managed to steer himself and the other passengers back to safety—right as the captain awoke. Though they were safe, he was profoundly shaken both by the near miss and the realization that their leader had failed.

At first, Whyte’s reaction to the episode was to feel a smug contempt for the captain who had “slept through not only the anchor dragging but our long, long, nighttime drift.” The captain had failed to predict the problem or notice when it started. If Whyte hadn’t awakened, everyone on the ship could have died.

But something soon changed in his perspective. Whyte knew the captain was new and far less familiar with that particular boat than himself and the other crew member. Every boat has its quirks, and experience counts for more than seniority when it comes to knowing them. He’d also felt sure the night before that they needed to put down a second anchor and knew they “should have dropped another anchor without consultation, as crews are wont to do when they do not want to argue with their captain. We should have woken too.” He writes that “this moment of reckoning under the lava cliff speaks to the many dangerous arrivals in a life of work and to the way we must continually forge our identities through our endeavors.”

Whyte’s experience contains lessons with wide applicability for those of us on dry land. The idea of having an inner sense of captaincy means understanding the overarching goals of your work and being willing to make decisions that support them, even if something isn’t strictly your job or you might not get rewarded for it, or sometimes even if you don’t have permission.

When you play the long game, you’re thinking of the whole voyage, not whether you’ll get a pat on the back today.

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Skin in the game

It’s all too easy to buy into the view that leaders have full responsibility for everything that happens, especially disasters. Sometimes in our work, when we’re not in a leadership position, we see a potential problem or an unnoticed existing one but choose not to take action. Instead, we stick to doing whatever we’ve been told to do because that feels safer. If it’s important, surely the person in charge will deal with it. If not, that’s their problem. Anyway, there’s already more than enough to do.

Leaders give us a convenient scapegoat when things go wrong. However, when we assume all responsibility lies with them, we don’t learn from our mistakes. We don’t have “our own personal compass, a direction, a willingness to meet life unmediated by any cushioning parental presence.

At some point, things do become our problem. No leader can do everything and see everything. The more you rise within an organization, the more you need to take initiative. If a leader can’t rely on their subordinates to take action when they see a potential problem, everything will collapse.

When we’ve been repeatedly denied agency by poor leadership and seen our efforts fall flat, we may sense we lack control. Taking action no longer feels natural. However, if we view our work as a voyage that helps us change and grow, it’s obvious why we need to overcome learned helplessness. We can’t abdicate all responsibility and blame other people for what we chose to ignore in the first place (as Whyte puts it, “The captain was there in all his inherited and burdened glory and thus convenient for the blame”). By understanding how our work helps us change and grow, we develop skin in the game.

On a ship, everyone is in it together. If something goes wrong, they’re all at risk. And it may not be easy or even possible to patch up a serious problem in the middle of the sea. As a result, everyone needs to pay attention and act on anything that seems amiss. Everyone needs to take responsibility for what happens, as Whyte goes on to detail:

“No matter that the inherited world of the sea told us that the captain is the be-all and end-all of all responsibility, we had all contributed to the lapse, the inexcusable lapse. The edge is no place for apportioning blame. If we had merely touched that cliff, we would have been for the briny deep, crew and passengers alike. The undertow and the huge waves lacerating against that undercut, barnacle-encrusted fortress would have killed us all.”

Having an inner sense of captaincy means viewing ourselves as the ones in charge of our voyage of work. It means not acting as if there are certain areas where we are incapacitated, or ignoring potential problems, just because someone else has a particular title.

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Space and support to create success

Developing an inner sense of captaincy is not about compensating for an incompetent leader—nor does it mean thinking we always know best. The better someone is at leading people, the more they create the conditions for their team to take initiative and be proactive about preventing problems. They show by example that they inhabit a state rather than a particular role. A stronger leader can mean a more independent team.

Strong leaders instill autonomy by teaching and supervising processes with the intention of eventually not needing to oversee them. Captaincy is a way of being. It is embodied in the role of captain, but it is available to everyone. For a crew to develop it, the captain needs to step back a little and encourage them to take responsibility for outcomes. They can test themselves bit by bit, building up confidence. When people feel like it’s their responsibility to contribute to overall success, not just perform specific tasks, they can respond to the unexpected without waiting for instructions. They become ever more familiar with what their organization needs to stay healthy and use second-order thinking so potential problems are more noticeable before they happen.

Whyte realized that the near-disaster had a lot to do with their previous captain, Raphael. He was too good at his job, being “preternaturally alert and omnipresent, appearing on deck at the least sign of trouble.” The crew felt comfortable, knowing they could always rely on Raphael to handle any problems. Although this worked well at the time, once he left and they were no longer in such safe hands they were unused to taking initiative. Whyte explains:

Raphael had so filled his role of captain to capacity that we ourselves had become incapacitated in one crucial area: we had given up our own inner sense of captaincy. Somewhere inside of us, we had come to the decision that ultimate responsibility lay elsewhere.

Being a good leader isn’t about making sure your team doesn’t experience failure. Rather, it’s giving everyone the space and support to create success.

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The voyage of work

Having an inner sense of captaincy means caring about outcomes, not credit or blame. When Whyte realized that he should have dropped a second anchor the night before the near miss, he would have been doing something that ideally no one other than the crew, or even just him, would have known about. The captain and passengers would have enjoyed an untroubled night and woken none the wiser.

If we prioritize getting good outcomes, our focus shifts from solving existing problems to preventing problems from happening in the first place. We put down a second anchor so the boat doesn’t drift, rather than steering it to safety when it’s about to crash. After all, we’re on the boat too.

Another good comparison is picking up litter. The less connected to and responsible for a place we feel, the less likely we might be to pick up trash lying on the ground. In our homes, we’re almost certain to pick it up. If we’re walking along our street or in our neighborhood, it’s a little less likely. In a movie theater or bar when we know it’s someone’s job to pick up trash, we’re less likely to bother. What’s the equivalent to leaving trash on the ground in your job?

Most organizations don’t incentivize prevention because it’s invisible. Who knows what would have happened? How do you measure something that doesn’t exist? After all, problem preventers seem relaxed. They often go home on time. They take lots of time to think. We don’t know how well they would deal with conflict, because they never seem to experience any. The invisibility of the work they do to prevent problems in the first place makes it seem like their job isn’t challenging.

When we promote problem solvers, we incentivize having problems. We fail to unite everyone towards a clear goal. Because most organizations reward problem solvers, it can seem like a better idea to let things go wrong, then fix them after. That’s how you get visibility. You run from one high-level meeting to the next, reacting to one problem after another.

It’s great to have people to solve those problems but it is better not to have them in the first place. Solving problems generally requires more resources than preventing them, not to mention the toll it takes on our stress levels. As the saying goes, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

An inner sense of captaincy on our voyage of work is good for us and for our organizations. It changes how we think about preventing problems. It becomes a part of an overall voyage, an opportunity to build courage and face fears. We become more fully ourselves and more in touch with our nature. Whyte writes that “having the powerful characteristics of captaincy or leadership of any form is almost always an outward sign of a person inhabiting their physical body and the deeper elements of their own nature.”

The Code of Hammurabi: The Best Rule To Manage Risk

Almost 4,000 years ago, King Hammurabi of Babylon, Mesopotamia, laid out one of the first sets of laws.

Hammurabi’s Code is among the oldest translatable writings. It consists of 282 laws, most concerning punishment. Each law takes into account the perpetrator’s status. The code also includes the earliest known construction laws, designed to align the incentives of builder and occupant to ensure that builders created safe homes:

  1. If a builder builds a house for a man and does not make its construction firm, and the house which he has built collapses and causes the death of the owner of the house, that builder shall be put to death.
  2. If it causes the death of the son of the owner of the house, they shall put to death a son of that builder.
  3. If it causes the death of a slave of the owner of the house, he shall give to the owner of the house a slave of equal value.
  4. If it destroys property, he shall restore whatever it destroyed, and because he did not make the house which he builds firm and it collapsed, he shall rebuild the house which collapsed at his own expense.
  5. If a builder builds a house for a man and does not make its construction meet the requirements and a wall falls in, that builder shall strengthen the wall at his own expense.

Hammurabi became ruler of Babylon in 1792 BC and held the position for 43 years. In the era of city-states, Hammurabi grew his modest kingdom (somewhere between 60 and 160 square kilometers) by conquering several neighboring states. Satisfied, then, with the size of the area he controlled, Hammurabi settled down to rule his people.

“This world of ours appears to be separated by a slight and precarious margin of safety from a most singular and unexpected danger.”

— Arthur Conan Doyle

Hammurabi was a fair leader (from the little we know about him) and concerned with the well-being of his people. He transformed the area, ordering the construction of irrigation ditches to improve agricultural productivity, as well as supplying cities with protective walls and fortresses. Hammurabi also renovated temples and religious sites.

By today’s standards, Hammurabi was a dictator. Far from abusing his power, however, he considered himself the “shepherd” of his people. Although the Babylonians kept slaves, they too had rights. Slaves could marry other people of any status, start businesses, and purchase their freedom, and they were protected from mistreatment.

At first glance, it might seem as if we have little to learn from Hammurabi. I mean, why bother learning about the ancient Babylonians? They were just barbaric farmers, right?

It seems we’re not as different as it appears. Our modern beliefs are not separate from those of people in Hammurabi’s time; they are a continuation of them. Early legal codes are the ancestors of the ones we now put our faith in.

Whether a country is a dictatorship or democracy, one of the keys to any effective legal system is the ability for anyone to understand its laws. We’re showing cracks in ours and we can learn from the simplicity of Hammurabi’s Code, which concerned itself with practical justice and not lofty principles. To even call it a set of laws is misleading. The ancient Babylonians did not appear to have an equivalent term.

Three important concepts are implicit in Hammurabi’s Code: reciprocity, accountability, and incentives.

We have no figures for how often Babylonian houses fell down before and after the implementation of the Code. We have no idea how many (if any) people were put to death as a result of failing to adhere to Hammurabi’s construction laws. But we do know that human self-preservation instincts are strong. More than strong, they underlie most of our behavior. Wanting to avoid death is the most powerful incentive we have. If we assume that people felt and thought the same way 4000 years ago, we can guess at the impact of the Code.

Imagine yourself as a Babylonian builder. Each time you construct a house, there is a risk it will collapse if you make any mistakes. So, what do you do? You allow for the widest possible margin of safety. You plan for any potential risks. You don’t cut corners or try to save a little bit of money. No matter what, you are not going to allow any known flaws in the construction. It wouldn’t be worth it. You want to walk away certain that the house is solid.

Now contrast that with modern engineers or builders.

They don’t have much skin in the game. The worst they face if they cause a death is a fine. We saw this in Hurricane Katrina —1600 people died due to flooding caused in part by the poor design of hurricane protection systems in New Orleans. Hindsight analysis showed that the city’s floodwalls, levees, pumps, and gates were ill designed and maintained. The death toll was worse than it would otherwise have been. And yet, no one was held accountable.

Hurricane Katrina is regarded as a disaster that was part natural and part man-made. In recent months, in the Grenfell Tower fire in London, we saw the effects of negligent construction. At least 80 people died in a blaze that is believed to have started accidentally but that, according to expert analysis, was accelerated by the conscious use of cheap building materials that had failed safety tests.

The portions of Hammurabi’s Code that deal with construction laws, as brutal as they are (and as uncertain as we are of their short-term effects) illustrate an important concept: margins of safety. When we construct a system, ensuring that it can handle the expected pressures is insufficient.

A Babylonian builder would not have been content to make a house that was strong enough to handle just the anticipated stressors. A single Black Swan event — such as abnormal weather — could cause its collapse and in turn the builder’s own death, so builders had to allow for a generous margin of safety. The larger the better. In 59 mph winds, we do not want to be in a house built to withstand 60 mph winds.

But our current financial systems do not incentivize people to create wide margins of safety. Instead, they do the opposite — they encourage dangerous risk-taking.

Nassim Taleb referred to Hammurabi’s Code in a New York Times opinion piece in which he described a way to prevent bankers from threatening the public well-being. His solution? Stop offering bonuses for the risky behavior of people who will not be the ones paying the price if the outcome is bad. Taleb wrote:

…it’s time for a fundamental reform: Any person who works for a company that, regardless of its current financial health, would require a taxpayer-financed bailout if it failed should not get a bonus, ever. In fact, all pay at systemically important financial institutions — big banks, but also some insurance companies and even huge hedge funds — should be strictly regulated.

The issue, in Taleb’s opinion, is not the usual complaint of income inequality or overpay. Instead, he views bonuses as asymmetric incentives. They reward risks but do not punish the subsequent mistakes that cause “hidden risks to accumulate in the financial system and become a catalyst for disaster.” It’s a case of “heads, I win; tails, you lose.”

Bonuses encourage bankers to ignore the potential for Black Swan events, with the 2008 financial crisis being a prime (or rather, subprime) example. Rather than ignoring these events, banks should seek to minimize the harm caused.

Some career fields have a strict system of incentives and disincentives, both official and unofficial. Doctors get promotions and respect if they do their jobs well, and risk heavy penalties for medical malpractice. With the exception of experiments in which patients are fully informed of and consent to the risks, doctors don’t get a free pass for taking risks that cause harm to patients.

The same goes for military and security personnel. As Taleb wrote, “we trust the military and homeland security personnel with our lives, yet we don’t give them lavish bonuses. They get promotions and the honor of a job well done if they succeed, and the severe disincentive of shame if they fail.”

Hammurabi and his advisors were unconcerned with complex laws and legalese. Instead, they wanted the Code to produce results and to be understandable by everyone. And Hammurabi understood how incentives work — a lesson we’d be well served to learn.

When you align incentives of everyone in both positive and negative ways, you create a system that takes care of itself. Taleb describes Law 229 of Hammurabi’s Code as “the best risk-management rule ever.” Although barbaric to modern eyes, it took into account certain truisms. Builders typically know more about construction than their clients do and can take shortcuts in ways that aren’t obvious. After completing construction, a builder can walk away with a little extra profit, while the hapless client is unknowingly left with an unsafe house.

The little extra profit that builders can generate is analogous to the bonus system in some of today’s industries. It rewards those who take unwise risks, trick their customers, and harm other people for their own benefit. Hammurabi’s system had the opposite effect; it united the interests of the person getting paid and the person paying. Rather than the builder being motivated to earn as much profit as possible and the homeowner being motivated to get a safe house, they both shared the latter goal.

The Code illustrates the efficacy of using self-preservation as an incentive. We feel safer in airplanes that are flown by a person and not by a machine because, in part, we believe that pilots want to protect their own lives along with ours.

When we lack an incentive to protect ourselves, we are far more likely to risk the safety of other people. This is why bankers are willing to harm their customers if it means the bankers get substantial bonuses. This is why companies that market harmful products, such as fast food and tobacco, are content to play down the risks. Or why the British initiative to reduce the population of Indian cobras by compensating those who caught the snakes had the opposite effect. Or why Wells Fargo employees opened millions of fake accounts to reach sales targets.

Incentives backfire when there are no negative consequences for those who exploit them. External incentives are based on extrinsic motivation, which easily goes awry.

When we have real skin in the game—when we have upsides and downsides—we care about outcomes in a way that we wouldn’t otherwise. We act in a different way. We take our time. We use second-order thinking and inversion. We look for evidence or a way to disprove it.

Four thousand years ago, the Babylonians understood the power of incentives, yet we seem to have since forgotten about the flaws in human nature that make it difficult to resist temptation.

The Power of Incentives: The Hidden Forces That Shape Behavior

Incentives are what drive human behavior. Understanding incentives is the key to understanding people. Conversely, failing to recognize the importance of incentives often leads us to make major errors.

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“Never, ever, think about something else when you should be thinking about the power of incentives.”

— Charlie Munger

According to Charlie Munger, there are only a few forces more powerful than incentives. In his speech The Psychology of Human Misjudgment, he reflects on how the power of incentives never disappoints him:

Well, I think I’ve been in the top 5% of my age cohort all my life in understanding the power of incentives, and all my life I’ve underestimated it. And never a year passes but I get some surprise that pushes my limit a little farther.

Sometimes the solution to a behavior problem is simply to revisit incentives and make sure they align with the desired goal. Munger talks about Federal Express, which is one of his favorite examples of the power of incentives:

The heart and soul of the integrity of the system is that all the packages have to be shifted rapidly in one central location each night. And the system has no integrity if the whole shift can’t be done fast. And Federal Express had one hell of a time getting the thing to work.
And they tried moral suasion, they tried everything in the world, and finally somebody got the happy thought that they were paying the night shift by the hour, and that maybe if they paid them by the shift, the system would work better. And lo and behold, that solution worked.

If you’re trying to change a behavior, reason will take you only so far. Reflecting on another example where misaligned incentives hampered the sales of a superior product, Munger said:

Early in the history of Xerox, Joe Wilson, who was then in the government, had to go back to Xerox because he couldn’t understand how their better, new machine was selling so poorly in relation to their older and inferior machine. Of course when he got there, he found out that the commission arrangement with the salesmen gave a tremendous incentive to the inferior machine.

Ignoring incentives almost never works out well. Thinking about the incentives of others is necessary to create win-win relationships.

We can turn to psychology to obtain a more structured and thorough understanding of how incentives shape our actions.

The Science of Reinforcement

The science of reinforcement was furthered by Burrhus Frederic Skinner (usually called B.F. Skinner), a professor of psychology at Harvard from 1958 to 1974.

Skinner, unlike his contemporaries, refused to hypothesize about what happened on the inside (what people or animals thought and felt) and preferred to focus on what we can observe. To him, focusing on how much people ate meant more than focusing on subjective measures, like how hungry people were or how much pleasure they got from eating. He wanted to find out how environmental variables affected behavior, and he believed that behavior is shaped by its consequences.

If we don’t like the consequences of an action we’ve taken, we’re less likely to do it again; if we do like the consequences, we’re more likely to do it again. That assumption is the basis of operant conditioning, “a type of learning in which the strength of a behavior is modified by [its] consequences, such as reward or punishment.” 1

One of Skinner’s most important inventions was the operant conditioning chamber, also known as a “Skinner box,” which was used to study the effects of reinforcers on lab animals. The rats in the box had to figure out how to do a task (such as pushing a lever) that would reward them with food. Such an automated system allowed Skinner and thousands of successors to study conditioned behavior in a controlled setting.

What years of studies on reinforcement have revealed is that consistency and timing play important roles in shaping new behaviors. Psychologists argue that the best way for us to learn complex behaviors is via continuous reinforcement, in which the desired behavior is reinforced every time it’s performed.

If you want to teach your dog a new trick, for example, it is smart to reward him for every correct response. At the very beginning of the learning curve, your failure to immediately respond to a positive behavior might be misinterpreted as a sign of incorrect behavior from the dog’s perspective.

Intermittent reinforcement is reinforcement that is given only some of the times that the desired behavior occurs, and it can be done according to various schedules, some predictable and some not (see “Scheduling Reinforcement,” below). Intermittent reinforcement is argued to be the most efficient way to maintain an already learnt behavior. This is due to three reasons.

First, rewarding the behavior takes time away from the behavior’s continuation. Paying a worker after each piece is assembled on the assembly line simply does not make sense.

Second, intermittent reinforcement is better from an economic perspective. Not only is it cheaper not to reward every instance of a desired behavior, but by making the rewards unpredictable, you trigger excitement and thus get an increase in response without increasing the amount of reinforcement. Intermittent reinforcement is how casinos work; they want people to gamble, but they can’t afford to have people win large amounts very often.

Finally, intermittent reinforcement can induce resistance to extinction (stopping the behavior when reinforcement is removed). Consider the example of resistance outlined in the textbook Psychology: Core Concepts:

Imagine two gamblers and two slot machines. One machine inexplicably pays off on every trial and another, a more usual machine, pays on an unpredictable, intermittent schedule. Now, suppose that both devices suddenly stop paying. Which gambler will catch on first?

Most of us would probably guess it right:

The one who has been rewarded for each pull of the lever (continuous reinforcement) will quickly notice the change, while the gambler who has won only occasionally (on partial reinforcement) may continue playing unrewarded for a long time.

Scheduling Reinforcement

Intermittent reinforcement can be used on various schedules, each with its own degree of effectiveness and situations to which it can be appropriately applied. Ratio schedules are based on the number of responses (the amount of work done), whereas interval schedules are based on the amount of time spent.

  • Fixed-ratio schedules are used when you pay your employees based on the amount of work they do. Fixed-ratio schedules are common in freelancing, where contractors are paid on a piecework basis. Managers like fixed-ratio schedules because the response to reinforcement is usually very high (if you want to get paid, you do the work).
  • Variable-ratio schedules are unpredictable because the number of responses between reinforcers varies. Telemarketers, salespeople, and slot machine players are on this schedule because they never know when the next sale or the next big win will occur. Skinner himself demonstrated the power of this schedule by showing that a hungry pigeon would peck a disk 12,000 times an hour while being rewarded on average for only every 110 pecks. Unsurprisingly, this is the type of reinforcement that normally produces more responses than any other schedule. (Varying the intervals between reinforcers is another way of making reinforcement unpredictable, but if you want people to feel appreciated, this kind of schedule is probably not the one to use.)
  • Fixed-interval schedules are the most common type of payment — they reward people for the time spent on a specific task. You might have already guessed that the response rate on this schedule is very low. Even a rat in a Skinner box programmed for a fixed-interval schedule learns that lever presses beyond the required minimum are just a waste of energy. Ironically, the “9-5 job” is a preferred way to reward employees in business.

While the design of scheduling can be a powerful technique for continuing or amplifying a specific behavior, we may still fail to recognize an important aspect of reinforcement — individual preferences for specific rewards.

Experience suggests that survival is propelled by our need for food and water. However, most of us don’t live in conditions of extreme scarcity and thus the types of reinforcement appealing to us will differ.

Culture plays an important role in determining effective reinforcers. And what’s reinforced shapes culture. Offering tickets to a cricket match might serve as a powerful reward for someone in a country where cricket is a big deal, but would be meaningless to most Americans. Similarly, an air-conditioned office might be a powerful incentive for employees in Indonesia, but won’t matter as much to employees in a more temperate area.

What About Punishment?

So far we’ve talked about positive reinforcement — the carrot, if you will. However, there is also a stick.

There is no doubt that our society relies heavily on threat and punishment as a way to keep ourselves in line. Still, we keep arriving late, forgetting birthdays, and receiving parking fines, even though we know there is the potential to be punished.

There are several reasons that punishment might not be the best way to alter someone’s behavior.

First of all, Skinner observed that the power of punishment to suppress behavior usually disappears when the threat of punishment is removed. Indeed, we all refrain from using social networks during work hours, when we know our boss is around, and we similarly adhere to the speed limit when we know we are being watched by a police patrol.

Second, punishment often triggers a fight-or-flight response and renders us aggressive. When punished, we seek to flee from further punishment, and when the escape is blocked, we may become aggressive. This punishment-aggression link may also explain why abusing parents come from abusing families themselves.

Third, punishment inhibits the ability to learn new and better responses. Punishment leads to a variety of responses — such as escape, aggression, and learned helplessness — none of which aid in the subject’s learning process. Punishment also fails to show subjects what exactly they must do and instead focuses on what not to do. This is why environments that forgive failure are so important in the learning process.

Finally, punishment is often applied unequally. We are ruled by bias in our assessment of who deserves to be punished. We scold boys more often than girls, physically punish grade-schoolers more often than adults, and control members of racial minorities more often (and more harshly) than whites.

What Should I Do Instead?

There are three alternatives that you can try the next time you feel tempted to punish someone.

The first we already touched upon — extinction. A response will usually diminish or disappear if it ceases to produce the rewards it once did. However, it is important that all possible reinforcements are withheld. This is far more difficult to do in real life than in a lab setting.

What makes it especially difficult is that during the extinction process, organisms tend to look for novel techniques to obtain reinforcement. This means that a whining child will either redouble her efforts or change tactics to regain the parent’s attention before ceasing the behavior. In this case, a better extinction strategy is to combine methods by withholding attention after whining occurs and rewarding more desirable behaviors with attention before the whining occurs.

The second alternative is positively reinforcing preferred activities. For example, people who exercise regularly (and enjoy it) might use a daily run as a reward for getting other tasks done. Similarly, young children learn to sit still by being rewarded with occasional permission to run around and make noise. The main principle of this idea is that a preferred activity, such as running around, can be used to reinforce a less preferred activity. This idea is also called the Premack principle.

Finally, prompting and shaping are two actions we can use together to change behavior in an iterative manner. A prompt is a cue or stimulus that encourages the desired behavior. When shaping begins, any approximation of the target response is reinforced. Once you see the approximation occurring regularly, you can make the criterion for the target more strict (the actual behavior has to match the desired behavior more closely), and you continue narrowing the criteria until the specific target behavior is performed. This tactic is often the preferred method of developing a habit gradually and of training animals to perform a specific behavior.

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I hope that you are now better equipped to recognize incentives as powerful forces shaping the way we and others behave. The next time you wish someone would change the way they behave, think about changing their incentives.

Like any parent, I experiment with my kids all the time. One of the most effective things I do when one of them has misbehaved is to acknowledge my child’s feelings and ask him what he was trying to achieve.

When one kid hits the other, for example, I ask him what he was trying to accomplish. Usually, the response is “He hit me. (So I hit him back.)” I know this touches on an automatic human response that many adults can’t control. Which makes me wonder how I can change my kids’ behavior to be more effective.

“So, you were angry and you wanted him to know?”

“Yes.”

“People are not for hitting. If you want, I’ll help you go tell him why you’re angry.”

Tensions dissipate. And I’m (hopefully) starting to get my kids thinking about effective and ineffective ways to achieve their goals.

Punishment works best to prevent actions whereas incentives work best to encourage them.

Let’s end with an excellent piece of advice that has been given regarding incentives. Here is Charlie Munger, speaking at the University South California commencement:

You do not want to be in a perverse incentive system that’s causing you to behave more and more foolishly or worse and worse — incentives are too powerful a control over human cognition or human behavior. If you’re in one [of these systems], I don’t have a solution for you. You’ll have to figure it out for yourself, but it’s a significant problem.

Footnotes

Under One Roof: What Can we Learn from the Mayo Clinic?

The Mayo Clinic is one of the top-rated hospitals in the US and enjoys remarkable success. In this post, we consider the reasons for the Mayo Clinic’s success and what we can learn from it to apply to our own organizations.

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The biologist Lewis Thomas, who we’ve written about before, has a wonderful thought on creating great organizations.

For Thomas, creating great science was not about command-and-control. It was about Getting the Air Right.

It cannot be prearranged in any precise way; the minds cannot be lined up in tidy rows and given directions from printed sheets. You cannot get it done by instructing each mind to make this or that piece, for central committees to fit with the pieces made by the other instructed minds. It does not work this way.

What it needs is for the air to be made right. If you want a bee to make honey, you do not issue protocols on solar navigation or carbohydrate chemistry, you put him together with other bees (and you’d better do this quickly, for solitary bees do not stay alive) and you do what you can to arrange the general environment around the hive. If the air is right, the science will come in its own season, like pure honey.

One organization which clearly “gets the air right” is the much lauded Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota.

The organization has 4,500 physicians and over $10 billion in revenue from three main campuses, and it is regularly rated among the top hospital systems in the United States in a wide variety of specialities, and yet was founded back in the late 20th century by William Worrall Mayo. Its main campus is in Rochester, Minnesota; not exactly a hub of bustling activity, yet its patients are willing to fly or drive hundreds of miles to receive care. (So-called “destination medicine.”)

How does an organization sustain that kind of momentum for more than 150 years, in an industry that’s changed as much as medicine? What can the rest of us learn from that?

It’s a prime example of where culture eats strategy. Even Warren Buffett admires the system:

A medical partnership led by your area’s premier brain surgeon may enjoy outsized and growing earnings, but that tells little about its future. The partnership’s moat will go when the surgeon goes. You can count, though, on the moat of the Mayo Clinic to endure, even though you can’t name its CEO.

Pulling the Same Oar

The Mayo Clinic is an integrated, multi-specialty organization — they’re known for doing almost every type of medicine at a world class level. And the point of having lots of specialities integrated under one roof is teamwork: Everyone is pulling the same oar. Integrating all specialities under one umbrella and giving them a common set of incentives focuses Mayo’s work on the needs of the patient, not the hospital or the doctor.

This extreme focus on patient needs and teamwork creates a unique environment that is not present in most healthcare systems, where one’s various care-takers often don’t know each other, fail to communicate, and even have trouble accessing past medical records. (Mayo is able to have one united electronic patient record system because of its deep integration.)

Importantly, they don’t just say they focus on integrated care, they do it. Everything is aligned in that direction. For example, as with Apple Retail stores (also known for extreme customer focus), there are no bonuses or incentive payments for physicians — only salaries.

An interesting book called Management Lessons from the Mayo Clinic (recommended by the great Sanjay Bakshi) details some of Mayo’s interesting culture:

The clinic ardently searches for team players in its hiring and then facilitates their collaboration through substantial investment in communications technology and facilities design. Further encouraging collaboration is an all-salary compensation system with no incentive payments based on the number of patients seen or procedures performed. A Mayo physician has no economic reason to hold onto patients rather than referring them to colleagues better suited to meet their needs. Nor does taking the time to assist a colleague result in lost personal income.

[…]

The most amazing thing of all about the Mayo clinic is the fact that hundreds of members of the most highly individualistic profession in the world could be induced to live and work together in a small town on the edge of nowhere and like it.

The Clinic was carefully constructed by self-selection over time: It’s a culture that attracts teamwork focused physicians and then executes on that promise.

One of the internists in the book is quoting as saying working at Mayo is like “working in an organism; you are not a single cell when you are out there practicing. As a generalists, I have access to the best minds on any topic, any disease or problem I come up with and they’re one phone call away.”

In that sense, part of the Mayo’s moat is simply a feedback loop of momentum: Give a group of high performers an amazing atmosphere in which to do their work, and eventually they will simply be attracted by each other. This can go on a long time.

Under One Roof

The other part of Mayo’s success — besides correct incentives, a correct system, and a feedback loop — is simply scale and critical mass. Mayo is like a Ford in its early days: They can do everything under one roof, with all of the specialities and sub-specialities covered. That allows them to deliver a very different experience, accelerating the patient care cycle due to extreme efficiency relative to a “fractured” system.

Craig Smoldt, chair of the department of facilities and support services in Rochester, makes the point that Mayo clinic can offer efficient care–the cornerstone of destination medicine–because it functions as one integrated organization. He notes the fact that everyone works under one roof, so to speak, and is on the payroll of the same organization, makes a huge difference. The critical mass of what we have here is another factor. Few healthcare organizations in the country have as many specialities and sub-specialities working together in one organization.” So Mayo Clinic patients come to one of three locations, and virtually all of their diagnoses and treatment can be delivered by that single organization in a short time.

Contrast that to the way care is delivered elsewhere, the fractured system that represents Mayo’s competitors. This is another factor in Mayo’s success — they’re up against a pretty uncompetitive lot:

Most U.S. healthcare is not delivered in organizations with a comparable degree of integrated operations. Rather than receiving care under one roof, a single patient’s doctors commonly work in offices scattered around a city. Clinical laboratories and imaging facilities may be either in the local hospital or at different locations. As a report by the Institute of Medicine and the National Academy of Engineering notes, “The increase in specialization in medicine has reinforced the cottage-industry structure of U.S. healthcare, helping to create a delivery system characterized by disconnected silos of function and specialization.

How does this normally work out in practice, at places that don’t work like Mayo? We’re probably all familiar with the process. The Institute of Medicine report referenced above continues:

“Suppose the patient has four medical problems. That means she would likely have at least five different doctors.” For instance, this patient could have (1) a primary care doctor providing regular examinations and treatments for general health, (2) an orthopedist who treats a severely arthritic knee, (3) a cardiologist who is monitoring the aortic valve in her heart that may need replacement soon, (4) a psychiatrist who is helping her manage depression, and (5) and endocrinologist who is helping her adjust her diabetes medications. Dr. Cortese then notes,”With the possible exception of the primary care physician, most of these doctors probably do not know that the patient is seeing the others. And even if they do know, it is highly unlikely they know the impressions and recommendations the other doctors have recorded in the medical record, or exactly what medications and dosages are prescribed.” If the patient is hospitalized, it is probably that only the admitting physician and the primary care physician will have that knowledge.

Coordinating all of these doctors takes time and energy on the part of the patient. Repeat, follow-up visits are done days later; often test results, MRI results, or x-ray results are not determined quickly or communicated effectively to the other parts of the chain.

Mayo solves that by doing everything efficiently and under one roof. The patient or his/her family doesn’t have to push to get efficient service. Take the case of a woman with fibrocystic breast disease who had recently found a lump. Her experience at Mayo took a few hours; the same experience in the past had taken multiple days elsewhere, and initiative on her end to speed things up.

As a patient in the breast clinic, she began with an internist/breast specialists who took the medical history and performed an exam. The mammogram followed in the nearby breast imaging center. The breast ultrasound, ordered to evaluate a specific area on the breast, was done immediately after the mammogram.

The breast radiologist who performed the ultrasound had all the medical history and impressions of the other doctors available in the electronic medical record (EMR). The ultrasound confirmed that the lump was a simple cyst, not a cancer. The radiologist shared this information with the patient and offered her an aspiration of the cyst that would draw off fluid if the cyst was painful. But comforted with the diagnosis of the simple cyst and with the fact that it was not painful, the veteran patient declined the aspiration. Within an hour of completing the breast imaging, the radiologist communicated to the breast specialist a “verbal report” of the imaging findings. The patient returned to the internist/breast specialist who then had a wrap-up visit with the patient and recommended follow-up care. This patient’s care at Mayo was completed in three and one-half hours–before lunch.

So what are some lessons we can pull together from studying Mayo?

The book offers a bunch, but one in particular seemed broadly useful, from a chapter describing Mayo’s “systems” approach to consistently improving the speed and level of care. (Industrial engineers are put to work fixing broken systems inside Mayo.)

Mayo wins by solving the totality of the customer’s problem, not part of it. This is the essence of an integrated system. While this wouldn’t work for all types of businesses; it’s probably a useful way for most “service” companies to think.

Why is this lesson particularly important? Because it leads to all the others. Innovation in patient care, efficiency in service delivery, continuous adoption of new technology, “Getting the Air Right” to attract and retain the best possible physicians, and creating a feedback loop are products of the “high level” thought process below: Solve the whole problem.

Lesson 1: Solve the customer’s total problem. Mayo Clinic is a “systems seller” competing with a connected, coordinated service. systems sellers market coordinated solutions to the totality of their customers’ problems; they offer whole solutions instead of partial solutions. In system selling, the marketer puts together all the services needed by customers to do it themselves. The Clinic uses systems thinking to execute systems selling that pleasantly surprises patients (and families) and exceeds their expectations.

The scheduling and service production systems at Mayo Clinic have created a differentiated product–destination medicine–that few competitors can approach. So even if patients feel that the doctors and hospitals at home are fine, they still place a high value on a service system that can deliver a product in days rather than weeks or months.

[…]

Patients not only require competent care but also coordinated and efficient care. Mayo excels in both areas. In a small Midwestern town, it created a medical city offering “systems solutions” that encourage favorable word of mouth and sustained brand strength, and then it exported the model to new campuses in Arizona and Florida.

Moving the Finish Line: The Goal Gradient Hypothesis

Imagine a sprinter running an Olympic race. He’s competing in the 1600 meter run.

The first two laps he runs at a steady but hard pace, trying to keep himself consistently near the head, or at least the middle, of the pack, hoping not to fall too far behind while also conserving energy for the whole race.

About 800 meters in, he feels himself start to fatigue and slow. At 1000 meters, he feels himself consciously expending less energy. At 1200, he’s convinced that he didn’t train enough.

Now watch him approach the last 100 meters, the “mad dash” for the finish. He’s been running what would be an all-out sprint to us mortals for 1500 meters, and yet what happens now, as he feels himself neck and neck with his competitors, the finish line in sight?

He speeds up. That energy drag is done. The goal is right there, and all he needs is one last push. So he pushes.

This is called the Goal Gradient Effect, or more precisely, the Goal Gradient Hypothesis. Its effect on biological creatures is not just a feeling, but a real and measurable thing.

The Math of Human Behavior

The first person to try explaining the goal gradient hypothesis was an early behavioral psychologist named Clark L. Hull.

As with other animals, when it came to humans, Hull was a pretty hardcore behaviorist, thinking that human behavior could eventually be reduced to mathematical prediction based on rewards and conditioning. As insane as this sounds now, he had a neat mathematical formula for human behavior:

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Some of his ideas eventually came to be seen as extremely limiting Procrustean Bed type models of human behavior, but the Goal Gradient Hypothesis was replicated many times over the years.

Hull himself wrote papers with titles like The Goal-Gradient Hypothesis and Maze Learning to explore the effect of the idea in rats. As Hull put it, “...animals in traversing a maze will move at a progressively more rapid pace as the goal is approached.” Just like the runner above.

Most of the work Hull focused on were animals rather than humans, showing somewhat unequivocally that in the context of approaching a reward, the animals did seem to speed up as the goal approached, enticed by the end of the maze. The idea was, however, resurrected in the human realm in 2006 with a paper entitled The Goal-Gradient Hypothesis Resurrected: Purchase Acceleration, Illusionary Goal Progress, and Customer Retention. (link)

The paper examined consumer behavior in the “goal gradient” sense and found, alas, it wasn’t just rats that felt the tug of the “end of the race” — we do too. Examining a few different measurable areas of human behavior, the researchers found that consumers would work harder to earn incentives as the goal came within sight and that after the reward was earned, they’d slow down their efforts:

We found that members of a café RP accelerated their coffee purchases as they progressed toward earning a free coffee. The goal-gradient effect also generalized to a very different incentive system, in which shorter goal distance led members to visit a song-rating Web site more frequently, rate more songs during each visit, and persist longer in the rating effort. Importantly, in both incentive systems, we observed the phenomenon of post-reward resetting, whereby customers who accelerated toward their first reward exhibited a slowdown in their efforts when they began work (and subsequently accelerated) toward their second reward. To the best of our knowledge, this article is the first to demonstrate unequivocal, systematic behavioural goal gradients in the context of the human psychology of rewards.

Fascinating.

Putting The Goal Gradient Hypothesis to Work

If we’re to take the idea seriously, the Goal Gradient Hypothesis has some interesting implications for leaders and decision-makers.

The first and most important is probably that incentive structures should take the idea into account. This is a fairly intuitive (but often unrecognized) idea: Far-away rewards are much less motivating than near term ones. Given a chance to earn $1,000 at the end of this month, and each after that, or $12,000 at the end of the year, which would you be more likely to work hard for?

What if I pushed it back even more but gave you some “interest” to compensate: Would you work harder for the potential to earn $90,000 five years from now or to earn $1,000 this month, followed by $1,000 the following month, and so on, every single month during five year period?

Companies like Nucor take the idea seriously: They pay bonuses to lower-level employees based on monthly production, not letting it wait until the end of the year. Essentially, the end of the maze happens every 30 days rather than once per year. The time between doing the work and the reward is shortened.

The other takeaway comes to consumer behavior, as referenced in the marketing paper. If you’re offering rewards for a specific action from your customer, do you reward them sooner, or later?

The answer is almost always going to be “sooner.” In fact, the effect may be strong enough that you can get away with less total rewards by increasing their velocity.

Lastly, we might be able to harness the Hypothesis in our personal lives.

Let’s say we want to start reading more. Do we set a goal to read 52 books this year and hold ourselves accountable, or to read 1 book a week? What about 25 pages per day?

Not only does moving the goalposts forward tend to increase our motivation, but we repeatedly prove to ourselves that we’re capable of accomplishing them. This is classic behavioral psychology: Instant rewards rather than delayed. (Even if they’re psychological.) Not only that, but it forces us to avoid procrastination — leaving 35 books to be read in the last two months of the year, for example.

Those three seem like useful lessons, but here’s a challenge: Try synthesizing a new rule or idea of your own, combining the Goal Gradient Effect with at least one other psychological principle from The Psychology of Human Misjudgment, and start testing it out in your personal life or in your organization. Don’t let useful nuggets sit around; instead, start eating the broccoli.