It’s the Incentives, Stupid

I was talking to a female friend the other day, and she asked my advice about an essay she was writing for her education degree.

The essay topic was Multicultural Education, a multi-faceted, neo-Marxist field of educational theory. To follow along here, it’s not important to understand the details of multicultural philosophical theory. Rather, let’s focus on the practical lessons that aspiring primary school educators learn from multicultural theory.

The first lesson that our aspiring educator was learning was, unsurprisingly, that multicultural education theory is really complicated. There’s lots of big words and jargon (eg: “racism, class oppression, sexism, and homophobia are all forms of right-wing essentialism” – English, bitch, do you speak it??), and very little in the way of simple concepts. As Einstein supposedly said, if you can’t explain it simply then you don’t understand it yourself.

As far as we could determine, our aspiring educator was being led to believe that academic underperformance amongst racial minorities was largely the fault of power imbalances in the classroom, and in wider society. If only we could further empower the minority members of our classroom, they would all become straight-A students in no time at all.

I can’t even be bothered tearing down this theory. So instead, let me present to you a different explanatory model for human behaviour, both in the classroom and out of it. I’ll call it the Incentives Model.

It’s rare that I can make an argument without referencing a favourite book or two. Apparently I’m not much good at having original ideas. In this case, the book is Freakonomics by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner. I don’t agree with everything in Freakonomics, and its sequel, SuperFreakonomics. Some of their analyses are simplistic, too hopeful or wrong. But their central thesis is brilliant.

What Levitt and Dubner argue, and I wholeheartedly believe, it’s that when you strip away all our bitching and bullshit and hypocrisy, everybody has one thing in common. This universal trait is a simple one: that people respond to incentives.

What’s more, people respond to incentives in a particular manner, one that has been bred into us by evolution.

Offer a test subject $20 now or $100 next year, and you’ll be hard pressed to find someone who turns down the $20. This is called hyperbolic discounting. People treat future rewards as being far less valuable than the same amount of money now, ie they discount those rewards. Hyperbolic refers to the fact that this discounting is non-linear, ie we require steeply increasing amounts of money to get the same motivation. $5 today is as good as $15 tomorrow is as good as $150 next month.

This goes part of the way to explaining our education paradox. The average student, regardless of race, would prefer to take an immediate reward (say, popularity) over a hypothetical future reward such as a lucrative, respected or enjoyable career. Our evolutionarily addled brains just aren’t interested in long-term rewards.

If students aren’t easily motivated by long-term rewards such as a good job, why do some of them still insist on studying? What incentives are they following?

The answer, for the most part, is that students are rewarded by social incentives. They don’t work hard for the money, either now or later. They’re doing it because they have created an identity for themselves as responsible, hard-working students, and they are reaping social rewards from that identity. And really, between incentives theory and hyperbolic discounting, there isn’t much else that could be motivating kids to work hard in school.

Now, this isn’t to say that hard work and discipline don’t also play a role. Research has shown that participation in household chores is one of the strongest predictors for success later in life. Chores teach discipline. Discipline is important. But sometimes even the most motivated students smoke pot and watch cartoons.

Learning because you’re forcing yourself is never as efficient as learning because you love it. Motivation comes in many forms, conscious and unconscious, and you need all of the above to be maximally effective. If you give me two equally bright students, one who is learning for the love of education, and another who is doing it because he thinks it’s the right thing to do, you can bet which one will do better. But the first student isn’t “intrinsically motivated”. He’s just responding unconsciously to external rewards, rather than consciously working out his best course of action.

If social rewards are the primary unconscious motivator of young nerdlings, the question is, how do we spread these rewards around the classroom, and what’s stopping certain kids from feeling socially motivated to work hard?

Without solid research, I would hazard that there are two main factors at work in determining which students perceive a social reward for good grades. The first factor is cultural. Simply put, some cultures simply value education more. There’s a great book called In The Plex, by Steven Levy, written about the rise of Google. In it, Levy documents how despite the fame and fortune achieved by founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin, both of their parents still wish they’d finish their PhDs. Parental behaviour that is described as normal for Jewish parents like the Pages and Brins.

A lot of things have been written about the intelligence of European Jews. One book, The 10,000 Year Explosion, even argues that selection pressures in medieval Europe made the Ashkenazi evolve to be more intelligent. But even without genes, a culture that still values a PhD over a multi-billion dollar payday is going to produce a lot of highly educated people.

Most Asian families I know are similar, although they are more likely to value education as a means to an end (ie wealth). In any case, the social rewards to good grades, and the social penalties for poor grades are both very high in these cultures. Most importantly, these social incentives come from not just parents, but extended family and peers. Doing well is normal. The fact is, power imbalances don’t play into it. Nazi Germany never stopped European Jews from winning Nobel Prizes.

Intelligence has a huge genetic component, and certain racial groups have experienced different selection pressures over the millennia. I don’t disagree when researchers like the authors of The 10,000 Year Explosion or A Farewell to Alms argue that intelligence and other pro-success traits vary between racial groups. But regardless of trends on the population level, at an individual level there exist both smart and stupid people in all races and cultures.

For educators like my friend, the important thing is to recognize how best to motivate individual students. And the biggest hindrance to education is a culture that doesn’t equate academic success to (short-term) social success. An MBA will eventually signal “successful black male”, but an armful of textbooks signals “no swag, trying to be white” right now. For many teenagers, especially males, academic success is only a viable choice if they are either too cool or too marginalized to care what other people think.

And even for students that aren’t immersed in strongly anti-academic cultures, it’s often still more motivating to do the wrong thing. This is especially true for boys. Skipping school is bad. Girls fuck bad boys. The “successful student” can be a rewarding identity for a nerd, but popular kids have options. Boys will follow these incentives even when they’re not entirely aware (consciously) that they exist.

But get the incentives right, motivate students properly and you don’t need to give them a $50,000 a year education or a politically correct, power-neutral classroom. A pen, paper and an internet connection will do just fine. The future belongs to cultures and groups that come to grips with this. Places like Silicon Valley will only further extend their dominance because of cultural factors like this. Even today, geography remains the easiest way to bind a culture together.

It’s a simple, powerful idea, especially when you compare it to convoluted ideas like multicultural education theory. Like much old the old-school arts department, it is, simply put, intellectually bankrupt. ME theory is just a bunch of words that produce prejudices without forming a strong mental model capable of any kind of useful prediction. It’s a theory that doesn’t tell you anything useful.

Remember: Students are people. People respond to incentives. Fix the incentives and you fix education.

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One thought on “It’s the Incentives, Stupid

  1. Pingback: Homosexuality and Social Status | johndraper

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