30 June 2010

Does motivation matter? Motivation, incentive-based policies, and their interconnectedness.

The following is a free-flowing essay I wrote in May of 2009 after reading a post from a friend of mine on facebook which included a discussion on the effects of motivation. It turned out to be about a lot more. While I've thought about the topic very much since writing this piece perhaps it is of some use to stimulate thought and discussion. (The original post is here).

The question you raise about motivation is interesting. It seems to me that there are cases in which motivation has actual consequences, and they are particularly evident when the sphere of action is complex. Giving to a charity is an extremely simple form of action that one can engage in. And in today’s world of reducing everything to commodities the question is unfortunately rarely raised as to where/how the money came from/about. Of course, I’m not suggesting that we somehow ‘track’ motivations to money and only accept those which pass some kind of ‘test’. It just seems to me that even at this simple level, however, the motivation has a spiritual effect on the one who performs the deed and on society (e.g. directly or indirectly reinforcing particular motivations and/or contributing to the casting aside of sacredness). This idea requires further elaboration and thought.

In more complex forms of action, motivation can have more tangible, short-term effects. For example, a teacher who is motivated solely by their paycheck will likely teach differently than one who is motivated to engage students in an individually and socially transformative process. My discussion assumes that the purpose of education is more along the lines of the latter. Unfortunately, neoliberalistic approaches to solving problems reduce everything to the paycheck and depend on “getting the incentive structure right.” But how do you get the incentive structure right for an inherently creative and transformative process?

It is interesting to note in this light how the institutions we develop shape human behavior and even motivations. For example, the force of rampant materialism spreading around the world is encouraging decision-making to be increasingly concerned with that which can be monetized (or turning that which is not monetized into “money-equivalents”). The exercise in valuating non-market goods is not entirely bad. This can be tremendously useful in order to explore the human-centered, temporally- (and informationally-) sensitive, preference-based effects which policy can have. However, there are some general questions that are worth exploring. For example, I wonder to what degree this social force is narrowing people’s life purpose to the accumulation of monetary wealth—which, as we’ve seen recently around the world is different than real material wealth, interestingly enough. And this at the exclusion of other forms of wealth such as meta-physical attributes such as love, justice, and unity in one’s own life, in the life of one’s community, and in one’s conception of the deep interrelationship of the two. Here it seems that one can also identify the individualization effect that these same social forces appear to have reinforced. By this I mean the reducing of human consciousness to the individual’s self rather than the deep interconnection between one’s self, others, and one’s Creator—an interconnection which is impossible to perfectly understand but the consciousness of which can be seriously hampered by misconstructions of reality: the mirror turns towards the dust instead of towards the sun. But I digress (kind of).

In the last two paragraphs I do not mean to cast aside the importance of examining incentive structures. This appears to be a very important undertaking if we wish to ensure that institutions are rewarding and punishing the kind of behavior that would lead to the socially optimal outcome (however this may be described, e.g. under whichever moral philosophical framework). The point is, however, that if one recognizes that human beings have both a spiritual and material reality and that the true spiritual potential of man is as yet unrealized, then we must be careful not to produce institutional arrangements which hamper the fundamentally creative nature of man thereby limiting his true development.

But I must return to the question of the importance of motivation. Someone might counter my point about the teacher by saying that if we get the incentive structure right, then the teacher’s motivation to earn more money can be made beneficial for the students. For example, the person might argue, we can have merit-based pay where teachers are paid according to how well the students perform on exams. People have offered all kinds of counter arguments including for example, the effect that this can have on teachers helping students cheat or “teaching for the test” rather than for actual learning. But what is “actual learning” if not scoring high on an exam? The fundamental questions, it seems, are tied to the conception of education laid out above (i.e. education for individual and social transformation): how do we “track” the unfoldment of human potential when it cannot, by definition, be forecasted definitively? What value do we assign to this “transformation” if we are able to track it? and, furthermore, is it even appropriate to do all of this? Isn’t human consciousness and action intimately connected? If we assume that the more selfless a teacher is the more effectively students are trained (both spiritually and intellectually) then a self-centered material consequentalist perspective of reward will actually hamper student training (i.e. the teacher’s focus on the desire for wealth -> more self-centered material consequentialist perspective -> students and community’s true potential is less developed). So we find here neoliberal policies’ subtle reinforcement: a self-centered material consequentalist perspective. Like Dr. McLuhan said, “the medium is the message.” And the medium may be teaching us to discourage our true, higher nature thus limiting our true spiritual potential.

I’ve used what is perhaps the most clearly creative process as the field for exploring the power of motivations, neoliberal policies, and their interconnectedness: education. Other areas such as health and the environment, though less creative, do not remain impervious to the ideas in this exploration. It is important to be clear that this free-form essay is not meant to be an all-out attack of market-based approaches or consequentalist moral philosophy. The areas of education, health, and the environment and our relationship with them may very much benefit from a healthy dose of current neoclassical-economic-based ideas (incentive structures, flexibility mechanisms, etc.). This is merely an exploration of the limits of some of the neoliberal ideas in the light of certain spiritual assumptions*

* I believe the assumptions which were not-so-orderly presented throughout the paragraphs above are: (1) the human being has both a material and spiritual reality, (2) the human being has unlimited potential, (3) the purpose of education is to contribute to individual and social transformation in both material and spiritual terms (i.e. not simply to the acquisition of facts and skills which can be ‘tested’).


  1. I think policy makers would have an easier time taking steps to improve education if they didn't frame the challenge in a way that is so demeaning to teachers and the work they do. 'Abdu'l-Baha says that the teaching and training of children is among the most meritorious acts. Many people love teaching. Would it be so dangerous to make that assumption? Would teachers picket state legislatures to let them know that they don't actually enjoy teaching and that they're actually just in it for the money?

    I personally would love to teach, but in order to get certification I need to take a ton of classes. I suppose that's because I, and other people who want to teach, don't love learning. Therefore, before we can be allowed in a classroom, we should be forced to learn and pay money for it, during a recession.

  2. Was struck by the suggestion that "a self-centered material consequentialist perspective" will lead to "students and community’s true potential [being] less developed." In "The Prosperity of Humankind," the Baha'i International Community sets out the role of economics in development:

    "The most important role that economic efforts must play in development lies, therefore, in equipping people and institutions with the means through which they can achieve the real purpose of development: that is, laying foundations for a new social order that can cultivate the limitless potentialities latent in human consciousness."

    So if the discipline of economics is producing policy recommendations that are failing to "cultivate the limitless potentialities latent in human consciousness," then it's falling short of its true purpose.

    Also, the questions about "tracking" student progress recalled this quotation from the Ruhi Institute's "Learning about Growth":

    "...it is recognized that an individual's spiritual condition and his progress are matters that only God can judge and that human beings should not presume to measure. The Ruhi Institute, therefore, has adopted a pedagogical approach that concerns itself exclusively with way sin which individuals can be helped to increase their capacity to serve. This capacity, while intimately connected with spirituality, operates in relation to it in ways that need not be defined precisely. It suffices to understand that the field of service represents the environment within which spirituality can be cultivated" (page 28).

  3. Thanks for the great insights Lev and for posing such rseigel!