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May 29 2014

TBT: Exactly Wrong

This was originally published in May 2009. I may have a bit of button, easily pushed by people using simplistic (mis)understandings of behavioral psychology.

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?

5 comments

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  1. 1
    Raging Bee

    When it comes to choosing between paid tech support and open-source, the problem (for businesses who have their own clients to answer to at least) isn’t really one of which gets you the best service; it’s one of reliability and liability. In the eyes of a businessman, I suspect that open-source solutions are suspect, not because they ALWAYS deliver less quality, but because the businessman doesn’t always know who is working on his problem, or whether he/she really understands his particular business needs; so he can’t really account for the results he gets; and if things go wrong, he can’t necessarily pin down who is liable or who can be fired or sued.

    There’s also a problem of confidentiality and security. If you manage a system containing or using privileged information, would you really want to be the one who decided to trust that system to something called “open” anything?

  2. 2
    Forbidden Snowflake

    I think the same phenomenon was called “Overjustification effect” on You Are Not So Smart.
    Raging Bee: yeah, I thought about the liability problem too. It doesn’t end with motivation.

  3. 3
    Forbidden Snowflake

    Yay, broken link!
    The link is: youarenotsosmart.com/2011/12/14/the-overjustification-effect

  4. 4
    Nentuaby

    Also, approaching it from a completely different perspective: there are totally companies whose core business is offering pro tech support on open source tech. Canonical, for one. So the original statement (which granted is more a trigger than a topic for the OP, but this still amuses me) is a false dichotomy.

  5. 5
    maddog1129

    I laughed out loud at Rene Descartes’ Discourse on Method where, in chap 1, he observes something to the effect of:

    Common sense must be that thing which is the most abundant in the world, because no one thinks they need any more of it than they already have.

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