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A study of incentives

A reading of the Freakonomics books by the Steph(v)en’s Dubner and Levitt provided me with an insightful way to analyse and predict human behaviour: People do things because an incentive exists.

Simple speaking, an incentive is a motive for doing something. “I wish to eat that slice of chocolate cake in the fridge; I believe it will be delicious.”

As an incentive can motivate a person to action, a disincentive discourages action. “I will not eat that slice of chocolate cake, as it will ruin my diet.” Seen differently, a disincentive is merely an incentive in the opposite direction. Semantics, although I distinguish between no action and an opposing action. What is the opposite of eating cake? Throwing the cake away? Feeding it to the dog?

Generally, there are multiple incentives to consider in any particular scenario, some more obvious than others. “The cake looks particularly delicious; I would be willing to forgo my diet, if only I didn’t have to get up from this comfy couch in order to do so. Also, it’s my husbands slice of cake…”

And, in any particular scenario, new incentives can enter the fray, or the balance of power between existing (dis)incentives can shift. “Damnit, I’m hungry!”

Frequently in such situations, it’s the final straw that gets all the attention…the catalyst incentive that eventually shifts the balance of power sufficiently to inspire action. “Why did you eat my cake?” “I was hungry and there was nothing else in the fridge…”

I often like to visualise incentive systems such as these as a Newtonian vector diagram: A body exists at rest on a couch.

  1. Cake deliciousness exerts a constant force of twenty incenti-units towards the fridge. (+20)

  2. Fear-of-diet-breaking exerts a constant force of minus 14 incenti-units towards the fridge. (or a force of plus 14 away from it…) (+20-14)

  3. Fear-of-husband exerts a force of minus 1 incenti-unit towards the fridge. (+20-14-1)

  4. Laziness exerts a force of up to 10 incenti-units away from the fridge (think friction, although uni-directional). (+20-14-1-(up to 10) = 0)

  5. Hunger exerts a force beginning at 0 incenti-units towards the fridge, accelerating at a rate of 1 incenti-unit per five minutes.

After twenty five minutes, all forces will be perfectly balanced, and our protagonist will be on the verge of eating a delicious slice of cake. Depending on whether hunger is applied discretely or continuously, it will take up to five minutes for her (though it could be him) to get up for the cake.

There’s probably something wrong with me.

But as my example so beautifully demonstrates (to my mind, at least), predicting human behavior is extraordinarily simple. It’s cataloging the incentives that’s hard.

The antidisincentive that is prejudice

If people are xenophobia’ing all over the place, it stands to reason that there must either be a powerful enough incentive to do so, or a removal of the fundamental disincentives, or quite probably a healthy dose of both.

Basic human needs – for food, for shelter and so forth – are powerful incentives. Sometimes, even when your needs are met in the present, fear of losing them creates an equally powerful incentive.

Likewise there’s typically a strong disincentive for civil disorder (such as looting shops and killing foreigners) – that is, in any sufficiently strong administration, the likelihood of getting arrested, and perhaps being tear-gassed or shot with rubber bullets. Or real bullets.

Another major disincentive is a loss of comfort, which is why you so rarely see the middle and upper class engaging in street marches, violent or otherwise. It’s easy to tweet from the comfort of your couch with a bowl of popcorn and a movie on the PVR. Marching in the rain, on the other hand, not so comfortable.

In the context of incentives, prejudice (of which xenophobia is subclassification) is simply the absence of a disincentive (oh, gosh, now we have incentives, disincentives and antidisincentives).

If we are well bred and have been properly socialised by society (and our families), we are taught to dislike being horrible to other people. That’s not quite the same as being conditioned to be nice – I would argue that a disincentive to meanness is less common than in incentive to niceness, though prejudice might affect the two similarly.

In the context of the “horribleness disincentive” (I consider that phrase now freshly coined), prejudice is a biased value system which equates perceived differences between people with varying levels of humanity. Being horrible is not okay, but it’s more okay to be more horrible to someone who is less human, and the degree of tolerable horribleness scales with the degree of perceived difference.

And in THAT context, prejudice is merely just one of a large pile of incentive forces acting on the population.

“Dealing with xenophobia”

Fine, so we’ve identified the incentives for the recent spate of violence (we haven’t, but lets pretend), and established that prejudice is one of many forces at play, and not an outcome in and of itself. What now?

Well, the next logical step, after identifying any series of motivators, is to sort them in order of seriousness, and then address them in descending order until the problem is solved. If not eating the cake is the goal, then the quickly escalating hunger issue can be solved with a good chicken salad (who am I kidding?). Addressing the deliciousness of the cake (say by tossing it into the bin or letting it go stale) is only a short term solution since a sufficiently hungry person will eat anything.

My view is that, while prejudice is potentially an enormously destructive force, people whose needs are met and who have no looming fears simply have no reason to be raging asshats. That is not to say the prejudice should not be addressed, but that it might not be the most serious problem.

In a society where slavery is acceptable, addressing the prejudice that ranks some people alongside property is more important than addressing people’s fear of losing said ‘property’.

But in a country where 25% of the population goes to bed hungry (https://www.oxfam.org/en/pressroom/pressreleases/2014-10-13/south-africa-hunger-strips-away-dignity-perpetuates-inequality) and slavery isn’t a legitimate social structure, maybe prejudice ITSELF is not the biggest problem.

Rather, like the escalating hunger of our protagonist, it gets all the credit when the balance tips.

To come: A listing of incentives

Back to that list of incentives we earlier pretended to have identified. I won’t pretend I understand them now, or that I can even identify them all. But I have been reading a lot of opinions – I will share those with you, along with a “review” of some of those opinions, and I may even apply some of my information cataloging talents.

I won’t do it here, yet, because that may turn into a lot of words and there are already enough of those here. I’ll want your feedback (all three of you reading) – I fear my network of sources may still be too narrow, and my insights too naive. Especially if you disagree. If you have an opinion to share out of public eye, let me know somehow and I’ll try and get it from you (I’m still working on allowing anonymous comments).

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