Monday, January 26, 2015

Are Incentives Effective?

Incentive (noun) – something that incites or tends to incite to action or greater effort, as a reward offered for productivity. ( 

Basically, an incentive is a reward to preforming a desired action, or a punishment for not preforming that action. We have tax incentives, incentives to fill out surveys, work incentives, buy-one-get-one sales, and many more incentives competing for our attention every day. The tricky part of incentives is designing them so they actually work.

I once read of a study (I wish I could quote it, but I can’t find it now) of young children who liked to draw. On day one, researchers gave them crayons and ask them to draw as many pictures as they wanted. The children loved it, and created piles of pictures. On day two, the researchers divided them into two groups and offered to pay each child in one group $1.00 for each picture they produced. They drew even more pictures than the control group. Finally, on day three the researchers announced they would no longer pay for pictures. The control group that had never been paid still drew many pictures, but the paid group only drew a few. Apparently, once you’ve gone pro, it’s hard to go back to amateur status.

I’ve seen the same phenomenon in my own household. My husband has been faithfully exercising six days a week for over thirty years. He especially loves cross-country skiing and biking. Last year, his company decided to award points worth certain increasing incentives if their employees would log one, two, or three million or more steps in a year. Sounds great, right? Especially since he was already exercising.

Unfortunately,  he soon found he could get efficient steps strolling on a treadmill, but cross-country skiing, a much more intense exercise, logged fewer steps, because the glide portion only counted as one step. Biking didn’t register too well, either. So this program inadvertantly dis-incentivized him to work at his more aerobic sports, instead encouraging easy walking.

Free books may fall into this category, too. Many authors and publishers, in order to incentivize readers to take a chance on an unknown author, offer one or more of their books free. And it works, at least sometimes. But with so many free books out there, instead of encouraging readers to buy another book by the same author, a positive reading experience may just encourage them to pick up a different author’s free book. On the other hand, a negative experience may discourage them from trying out any new authors in the future.

We have to be careful with incentives. If we offer to pay kids for good grades, maybe they’ll choose easier classes instead of challenging themselves. If we teach the dog to bark when we command “speak” and give them a treat, the dog may bark every time we’re holding food.

Incentives are powerful, and like many powerful things, they can backfire. So before jumping in, carefully consider the possibilities, and use incentives wisely.


  1. I wasn't sure where this was going (I mean the first sentence) but I knew it would be interesting. Once I finished, I started mulling things over. What an interesting conclusion: see if there are other good free books... An overabundance of free books leading to readers choosing not to buy a book from one whose freebie they liked, but instead looking for another free one. Interesting and puzzling. ...or is it? I am still thinking...


  2. I have no evidence for this conclusion, but I know that I've picked up so may books that look interesting my to-be-read backlog is tremendous. When I finally get one read I downloaded months ago, even if I liked it, I don't necessarily run out and buy the next one because there are all those unread books waiting on my kindle. I don't know if I'm unusual or not.