The W. Edwards Deming Institute Blog

Cash Incentives Won’t Make Us Healthier by Alfie Kohn

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Dr. Deming referred to Alfie Kohn’s work and ideas when he was consulting, giving seminars and in The New Economics. Alfie Kohn will be a keynote speaker at our 1st annual Deming in Education Conference this November 6th to 8th in Seattle, Washington.

In this article (and the embedded presentation included below) Alfie Kohn explores how misuse of incentives, driven by a failure to understand the psychology of extrinsic and intrinsic motivation leads to failure: Cash Incentives Won’t Make Us Healthier

“Extrinsic” motivation (to get a reward or avoid a punishment) is much less effective than “intrinsic” (a commitment to doing something for its own sake). What’s more, the two are often inversely related. Scores of studies confirm that the more we’re rewarded for doing something – at work, at school, or at home — the more we’re apt to lose interest in whatever we had to do to get the reward.

First, address people’s motives and deeper concerns rather than just trying to change their behavior. Second, help people to get some control over their lives. Finally, build on their relationships with others to promote change. Couples and friends tend to lose weight together more effectively than do individuals.

Health can be a tough sell. But it’s clearly something that incentives can’t buy.

Alfie’s books on the problems with using incentives are excellent: Punished by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s, Praise, and Other Bribes and No Contest: The Case Against Competition.

For me, appreciating how important the problems with incentives, extrinsic motivation and the behaviors those lead to (the annual performance review based bonuses etc.) was difficult. Much of what Deming proposed came naturally to me, this part did not. But over time I came to appreciate the wisdom of such thinking.

Related: Peter Scholtes on Managing People and MotivationBuild a Work Environment Where Intrinsic Motivation FlourishesEliminate Sales Commissions: Reject Theory X Management and Embrace Systems Thinking


Categorised as: psychology


One Comment

  1. […] Cash Incentives Won’t Make Us Healthier by Alfie Kohn – Fundamental attribution error: attribute fault or defect to the individual without first […]

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