Carrots and Sticks

I came across an article on The Economist about how the threat of less is a better incentive than the promise of gain. Researchers ran an experiment at a Chinese electronics factory, offering groups of worker one of two deals:

  • The group would receive a bonus if a certain target production threshold was met.
  • The group has been awarded a bonus, but if production falls below a threshold it will be lost.

What do you think happened? Apparently, the second deal was a more effective incentive. The article didn’t say HOW much more, but it did mention that the result was sustained over time. Apparently, when we think something is already ours, we are motivated to value it higher than if it is something that we have to earn. I remember reading something similar to this in Stumbling On Happiness, though I’ll have to reread the book to find the reference.

In the design of my productivity tools, I avoid punishing users for not doing something, preferring to use accrual as the means to encourage a particular behavior. The reason for this approach comes from an early experience during the World of Warcraft alpha and beta tests. There was considerable debate about how death should be managed. One camp said that when you died, you should lose some of your equipment as punishment for being lame enough to die; it was probably your fault, so by penalizing players you’d make sure they would be a little smarter. Everyone agreed, however, that dying in the game sucked. Eventually, the design team decided that death itself was penalty enough; you would lose time recovering your corpse, which pretty much killed your ability to finish quests at higher levels, and BOY did that suck. You would retain all your equipment, though eventually a “wear” was applied to so it cost money to maintain your equipment. As for more drastic penalties like loss of experience points? That seemed like too much, especially for the broader audience that Blizzard hoped to attract. It’s interesting to think how loss of points might apply to an incentive tool…what I like about it is that it implies a sense of continuity without having to actually record it. All that is necessary is the idea that, “I earned these points” and harnessing the idea that you shouldn’t lose them; therefore, you would have to act in some way to maintain a certain level of production. However, because there is no monetary value built-into the forms themselves, it’s a difficult carrot-and-stick methodology to implement effectively. I’ll have to think about it.