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Strings Attached: Untangling the Ethics of Incentives

Chris Paulse points me to this book by Ruth Grant:

Incentives can be found everywhere–in schools, businesses, factories, and government–influencing people’s choices about almost everything, from financial decisions and tobacco use to exercise and child rearing. So long as people have a choice, incentives seem innocuous. But Strings Attached demonstrates that when incentives are viewed as a kind of power rather than as a form of exchange, many ethical questions arise: How do incentives affect character and institutional culture? Can incentives be manipulative or exploitative, even if people are free to refuse them? What are the responsibilities of the powerful in using incentives? Ruth Grant shows that, like all other forms of power, incentives can be subject to abuse, and she identifies their legitimate and illegitimate uses.

Grant offers a history of the growth of incentives in early twentieth-century America, identifies standards for judging incentives, and examines incentives in four areas–plea bargaining, recruiting medical research subjects, International Monetary Fund loan conditions, and motivating students. In every case, the analysis of incentives in terms of power yields strikingly different and more complex judgments than an analysis that views incentives as trades, in which the desired behavior is freely exchanged for the incentives offered.

Wow—this looks really interesting. It would be fun to arrange a debate between Ruth Grant and Roland Fryer on the topic of paying kids for grades in school.


  1. Ryan Ruff says:

    I think the argument of incentives in education underming student autonomy is a strong one. I had the pleasure of working with Fryer (and others on his EdLabs team) for a study at the NYC DOE. I used to be against incentives in public education, but now view it as a potential option for greater motivation. My big concern would be incentives only serving to affect the extrinsic motivation factor (I actually now wonder what Vallerand and colleagues think of incentives for motivation and achievement). The real research I’d be interested in is whether incentives in the “now” that spur children to achieve (soley for extrinsic purposes) translates to growth in intrinsic motivation later on, as students come to view success itself as a motivating factor.

    Anyway, looks like a good book. I had never considered the implications of power/exchange incentives.

  2. Zach says:

    Isn’t the debate is if money actually works as an incentive in school?

    for example:

  3. DK says:

    An anecdote on paying for learning:

    I was educated in the USSR. Not only the education was “free” but students were paid a stipend (minimal survival equivalent; janitor monthly was around 60 rubles and university student stipend was 40 rubles). The catch: the stipend was only awarded to students that did well enough. E.g., in my school a single “C” for the semester (typically 5 exams taken not counting several “pass” requirements) was a disqualification. And Soviets went even a little further into incentives territory: all “A” students were paid elevated stipend of 45 rubles (12.5% raise!).

    It certainly varied individually but the stipend was a single most important factor why I did pretty well in the university. Without the stipend, my motivation would have been much lower (particularly during first couple years, when courses were general and far away from my chosen field of interest).

  4. I don’t even understand what the social scientists and liberal artists mean by the terms “incentive” and “power”.

    When is A paying B for good or service X not considered an incentive?

    For instance, do we treat a kid as having a base salary of zero with bonus pay for good grades being the incentive? But what if we set the base pay for kids at the good grade level and impose a penalty if they don’t get good grades.

    Is power just the ability to control resources? So when I buy an avocado from the grocer, we both have power in that I control my wallet and they control the fruit?

    Obviously good grades are valuable to someone if they’re willing to pay for it. If kids unionized and all got bad grades unless incentives for good grades were increased, would they be exercising power?