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26 Dec 2011

Cooperation vs. Self-interest (Pt 6): Incentives & Rats

This entry is part 5 of 8 in the series Cooperation vs. Self-interest

In Part 4 of this series, I discussed the positivity of intrinsic rewards in the workplace. Let’s now address the negative impact of monetary motivations which are the primary extrinsic reward in today’s business world.

As Yochai Benkler in his article “The Unselfish Gene” of the July-August 2011 issue of the Harvard Business Review writes on page 84:

Whenever you design a policy that relies on monetary rewards, you have to assume that it will have side effects on the psychological, social, and moral dimensions of human motivation.

While it might be easy for us to see how monetary rewards encourage us to pursue our selfish interests, it’s difficult to see their deeper negative side effects. For instance, in many ways incentives encourage us to feel no better than rats in a maze. Rats seek out the cheese to guide them successfully through the maze. A right turn returns cheese while a wrong one does not. When businesses help employees navigate the maze of their business plans, making the “right” turns brings monetary rewards. When they make the “wrong” turn, the cheese is not forthcoming.

Now, many will claim, “I don’t feel like a rat.” However, as we come to understand ourselves better, we find much of this affects us subconsciously. We see this whenever we jokingly refer to the business world as the “rat race,” the “dog-eat-dog world,” or other similar descriptors. Of course, as Lily Tomlin pointed out, “The trouble with the rat race is that even if you win, you’re still a rat.

This isn’t to say we eliminate monetary rewards. It’s similar to eating; people require diverse foods to be healthy, so they also require diverse motivations for their professional health. In other words, we can’t create a cooperative culture on money alone.



Series Navigation<< Cooperation vs. Self-interest (Pt 4): Intrinsic RewardsHow Altruism in Groups Plays Out Against Self-interest >>

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