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Dan Pink Builds a Case Against Pay for Test Scores

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Teacher motivation is front and center in educational policy, and many seem to think that rewarding teachers for higher test scores is the most efficient way to close the achievement gap and make the US more competitive. Some powerful evidence to the contrary is emerging from a surprising source – the world of business.


This week a video featuring Dan Pink came along from TED, where he builds a strong case that systems of rewards and punishments actually inhibit performance, especially in higher-order tasks. Pink, a former speech-writer for Al Gore, marshals several studies from sources such as the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston and the London School of Economics to make his case.

Our business operating systems are built entirely around these “extrinsic motivators,” around carrots and sticks. That is actually fine for 20th century tasks. But for 21st century tasks, that mechanistic reward and punishment approach often doesn’t work and often does harm.
If-then rewards work really well (for the sort of task) where there is a simple set of rules and a clear destination to go to. Rewards, by their very nature, narrow our focus, concentrate the mind – that’s why they work in so many cases. For tasks with a narrow focus, where you see the goal right there, and go straight ahead to it, they work really well. But for the REAL candle problem [a creative challenge], you don’t want to be looking straight ahead – you want to be looking on the periphery. You want to be looking around. The reward actually narrows our focus and restricts our possibility.

Pink shares research done by Dan Ariely of the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, who tested the effect different levels of bonuses had on performance and found that:

As long as the task involved only a rudimentary skill, bonuses worked as they would be expected: the higher the pay, the better the performance. But once the task involved “even rudimentary cognitive skill,” a larger reward “led to poorer performance. “

They went over to India to see if this were still true – and yes it was. In fact, “In eight of the nine tasks we examined across three experiments, higher incentives led to worse performance.”

Next he goes to Dr. Bernd Irlenbusch, of the London School of Economics, who recently concluded a meta-analysis of 51 studies, and concluded: “We find that financial incentives can have an overall negative impact on overall performance.”

Pink uses these studies to warn his audience to think twice about motivation.

What worries me as we stand here in the rubble of the economic collapse, is that too many organizations are making their decisions, their policies about talent and people based on assumptions that are outdated, unexamined, and rooted more in folklore than in science.

Pink goes on to suggest that the most powerful motivators are intrinsic -- “the desire to do things because they matter, because we like it, because they are interesting, because they are part of something important.” He calls on us to develop autonomy, mastery and purpose. Traditional management is great if you want compliance, he asserts, but if you want engagement, autonomy works better.

What do you think of Dan Pink’s perspective and the case he has built against a carrot and stick approach? Why is it that policymakers seem to be ignoring what science has learned about motivation?

Image provided through Creative Commons, credit to Borman818.

1 Comment

Thanks for calling more attention to this video. It's very worthwhile viewing for anyone who cares about education or business. I usually shy away from putting those two words in the same sentence, but what Pink and Ariely have shown is the importance of human performance often dismissed as "touchy feely" when teachers talk about them. Turns out that autonomy and a sense of purpose work in ways that external incentives don't. So, with economists and business consultants on our side, will the results-oriented, market-driven critics back off when teachers talk about methods that cultivate intrinsic motivation and stop telling us to get tough, life is a test, etc. etc.?

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