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Exactly Wrong

I’m always fascinated by how “common sense” works. All too often, the first part (“common”) is presumed to imply the second (“sense”) when it does no such thing. I came across a great example today.

I was having brunch with Greg and Ben after today’s radio show, when Greg mentioned someone he’d recently heard go off on an anti-open source rant. “If I have a problem, I want the person helping me to be someone I’m paying, not some bunch of teen-aged geeks–”

“What?!?” I cut Greg off. I don’t do that to people often. Really. I did not actually put my face in my hands, but I was tempted.

Okay, here’s the problem. This guy, I’ll call him ClueBoy, was assuming that he’d get better service from the paid person than from the enthusiast because money would be a reward. That puts us in the realm of operant conditioning, a field about which most people know just enough to make psychologists cringe:

Behavior + Reward = Increased Behavior

Well, kind of. It is, like most things, a bit more complex than that. Some of those complications involve the kinds of behavior it’s possible to shape through operant conditioning. Others involve the effects of reinforcement on behavior that isn’t being reinforced. That’s where this guy’s “common sense” failed him.

Money as a reward is interesting. First–and least relevant to this discussion–it’s not rewarding in itself, but is a proxy for other rewards. Second, it’s incredibly difficult to structure pay schedules in such a way that they correspond with effective reward schedules for desired behavior. In fact, in the case of piece work, it’s illegal under a lot of circumstances (think minimum wage laws). There are big careers and consultancies built out of trying to solve this problem.

So, in the case of your average tech support geek, let’s look at how money really functions as a reward. In fact, let’s take two geeks, both of whom are good at and really enjoy solving tech problems. GeekA gets himself a job for, say, Dell and starts getting paid for tech support. GeekB goes to work managing a server farm in corporate obscurity, but she checks in on the forums while she waits for processes to run at work. Neither one is all that challenged by the job.

GeekA, at the beginning of his new job, gets an extra reward, in the form of a paycheck, for this task he already loves to do. W00t! He gets more helpful. If ClueBoy calls him for help right now, he gets everything he thinks he should from the transaction–money-motivated super service. It takes a little time, but ClueBoy’s truly obscure problem gets tracked down and eradicated. Stomped flat.

Then GeekA has a little talk with his supervisor. That extra time it took to help ClueBoy? Yeah, that didn’t help GeekA’s productivity. It turns out that GeekA isn’t really being paid to help people like ClueBoy. His incentives are all structured to reward volume of work tickets closed. The money rewards ending transactions, not fixing difficult problems. GeekA’s helpful behavior drops.

But it gets better.

There’s a lovely little paradox that’s been demonstrated in operant conditioning, called a negative contrast effect. In short, adding an extrinsic reward for a behavior that a subject already finds intrinsically rewarding lessens the effect of the intrinsic reward. In terms of our scenario, this means that when it is made clear to GeekA that he’s not being paid to solve problems, his problem-solving behavior doesn’t just drop to pre-job levels. He actually gets less helpful than he was before he got paid.

If ClueBoy comes along now, what does he get? Let’s just say it’s not what he thinks he’s paying for.

GeekB, on the other hand, never gets money for her problem-solving. The currency of a forum is recognition and appreciation. Considering that she gets very little of that at work, much less the opportunity to indulge in problem-solving in the company’s conservative setup, that’s extremely rewarding. Assuming that ClueBoy doesn’t patronize her for her unpaid status, she’s going to be very motivated to find him a fix.

ClueBoy and his “common sense” had this one exactly backward. Then again, what do you expect from someone who really believes that cost equals value?


  1. says

    One of the things that occurs to me is that the practice of science grew out of the desire to fix the problems caused by an over-reliance on “common sense.”

  2. says

    Anybody who has ever been involved with any kind of help desk will attest that the least rewarded activity, if you get caught doing it, is “going the extra mile” to help somebody without respect to the bottom line.First line of defense against providing expert (and perhaps costly) tech support: Automated menus. Second line of defense: “free” tech support morons who are scarcely more helpful than the menus, and conditioned to get people off the phones as quickly as possible or direct them to line of defense number 3: prohibitively expensive second level support for which only a masochist or totally desperate Luddite would pull out their credit card.Lost in all this is service, a reliable fount for useful information.When my car breaks down, the first thing I do is consult my neighbor, who knows a thing or two about cars. He’s happy to oblige, because this gives him the opportunity to demonstrate his know-how and kindly prevent me from getting hosed by some unscrupulous mechanic. Doing so appears to have its own intrinsic rewards.

  3. says

    I'd love to send this to my boss. Except now I've posted here with my real name on it, and he's actually really sympathetic with my open-source predilections.I'm actually pretty lucky with my job presently. I get a salary that does not change based on the amount of work I do, and I am given a free hand to perform whatever work in whatever order I see fit — so long as all the urgent stuff gets done first, fires are put out as quickly as possible, and nothing lingers for too long, then I can actually free myself up for R&D. I seem to be one of a very small handful of the company's IT folk that is not only allowed, but expected, to seek out and attempt to implement new technologies at my own discretion. The reward for keeping everything running smoothly comes in being able to play with open-source software and develop my site how I please. Therefore, the better I do, the more "play time" I get. No monetary reward in and of itself, but it keeps me happy.

  4. says

    Greg, duh. :)William, this is also why you don't accept free services from someone who does the same thing for pay. The only exception is when you can hand them a particularly juicy challenge.Jason, that's awesome. My husband was in a similar position, not with regard to open source as much as general R&D. It made him the happiest I'd ever seen him about work. Well, regular paid work. Then along came the cost justifiers and business analysts and a mandate that everything had to be approved before people could work on it–including research. It has not been pleasant. Work has somehow been less efficient, too.

  5. Dan J says

    I truly enjoy helping people with Linux problems when I am able to do so. It may take some research if it’s something I’m not familiar with, but tracking down a solution can be challenging and very rewarding (though not in a monetary sense).I’m the same way with some of the HTML/CSS work that I do. I spend a lot of time working on problems that probably don’t deserver the time I’m spending on them. They -do- cost me more than they’re worth sometimes. But then I have more knowledge that I’m able to put to use at a later date, making some of my work easier.

  6. says

    William, this is also why you don’t accept free services from someone who does the same thing for pay. The only exception is when you can hand them a particularly juicy challenge.Hey now Stephanie… The only time in the last four years that I’ve done any work that wasn’t fancy and/or extremely challenging, is when I was working for free or next to it. I was totally motivated by the need that people who couldn’t afford the bottom of the barrel, working for fucking beer money morons, had for home repairs. Being absolutely obsessive about things being done right, I never cut corners, even when there wasn’t even a few dollars thrown in from a local charity. And the extreme appreciation that I got most of the time, totally made up for the rare assholes who would find something to complain about, in spite of the job being done for free…And I am ever one to take care of my friends…

  7. says

    Not trusting tech support has led me into many problems, but also taught me most of what I know about computers though simple empiricism. For example, I got really annoyed with my last laptop’s pre-loaded XP (I don’t NEED 17ELEVENTY “trial” versions of useless crap!) and hacked away at it until it was a Frankenstein gemisch of XP and open-source stuff that ran very well and fast until I accidentally deleted part of the NFAT32 system. This led to uncontrolled power consumption and burned out the adapter inside the computer and outside, and it died an ignominious blue screen death. I will resurrect it one day.I have been accused of having absolutely no common sense before. Maybe that’s not such a bad thing?

  8. says

    so when are most profs gonna figure out negative contrast effect and what grades to to motivation for learning?i need to find a nice patent office to think in…

  9. says

    Toaster, why do you call yourself a mad scientist again? :)Becca, if you can figure out a grading system that provides extrinsic motivation for those who need it without interfering with the intrinsic motivation of the students who have that, I will…I will…. Nope, can’t think of anything that would add significantly to your motivation.William, I know. I cringe every time I hear about someone doing that. It just hurts.

  10. says

    My program at The U has such a grading system.If you do the work, you are done. There is a written response to your work by the faculty person you worked with. That’s it.

  11. says

    What I said may have been a bit misleading … research based courses students take IN our program are ‘graded’ this way. Students typically also take regular classes and stuff. But yes, we are looking for self directed, motivated students.

  12. says

    On a related note, our local government recently implemented an incentive to graduate from high school “smoke-free” by promising $5000 toward your first year university tuition if you can somehow prove you aren’t a smoker when you graduate. The radio spots suggest that you can get it if you’re presently a smoker and quit, though how they verify this independently I don’t know. While I laud the goal of getting kids to quit, how exactly is this going to make them quit and STAY quit, when I can think of a million ways to game the system? And if anything, when I was a teenager, I’m sure I was even more cynical than I am today (if that’s possible), so I probably would have done whatever I could to get the money whether I was a smoker or not.I have to wonder how much the intrinsic reward of quitting, improving your health, monthly expenditures, and relationship chances*, is nullified by a huge wad of cash that takes care of the latter two rewards temporarily, that you can probably get with minimal effort and no actual quitting.*(Hey, I can’t stand smokers, so not attractive. I admit my biases when I have them!)

  13. says

    Jason, find out more about that and blog it? If it’s larger than just your metro area, I’m guessing some planning has gone into how implement it. I’d be curious to see how they think they’ll make it work. DuWayne would probably also be interested for Quitters Blog. I will say that the research I’ve seen on quitting suggests that it often takes several tries, but if this manages to get people to quit for a while and know they can quit, it’s probably not all bad.On the attractiveness front, the one break-up I never asked any questions about was the guy in junior high who dumped me because he found out I’d been smoking.

  14. says

    Great piece over there. I was initially interested by the fact that the “reward”, in order to be exploited, required a beneficiary to park themselves in a classroom. There’s nothing wrong with incentives that work.Of course, judging by your report, the program in this case is a bag of dicks.

  15. says

    This is 100% true. When I accepted a job with my current employer, I had a job like GeekA's on the table that paid more money. I took the job that paid slightly less because I got the impression that the IT shop actively encouraged going the extra mile. In the long run it paid off. The time I've been able to spend doing R&D and tackling tough problems has directly translated into lower support and infrastructure costs for my employer, who has in turn rewarded me with recognition and a hire salary.