An Interview with Ruth Grant on The Ethics of Incentives

Ruth Grant, author of Strings Attached: Untangling the Ethics of Incentives, sat down with our co-publishers The Russell Sage Foundation for a brief Q&A in which she offers her take on what happens when you dig beneath the surface of incentives and view them as a form of power. Here are a few questions to whet your appetite, but head over to the Russell Sage Foundation site to read the complete interview:

Q: While incentives are largely viewed now as an alternative to social control, you look at the history of their use at the turn of the 20th century and find a much more controversial and worrying story. How were incentives perceived back then, and in what context were they discussed?

A: The term “incentives” was introduced in America in the early 20th century in several different contexts, including Frederick Taylor’s scientific management in industry and the new field of behaviorism in psychology. (Surprisingly, the term is not found in 18th century writers like Adam Smith). Incentives were introduced in industry as a tool of social engineering, while in psychology, behaviorists believed that they could gain social control by using incentives to induce desired behaviors. Incentives were quite controversial at the time. They were often criticized as dehumanizing, and in the form of piece-rate wages, they were a source of conflict between unionized labor and management.

Q: Someone defending incentives could say they merely offer a choice to the public. So, for example, states didn’t have to compete in the Race to the Top education program if they didn’t want the strings attached to the federal funds. But you suggest this focus on voluntariness relies on a rather narrow definition of freedom and rationality. Could you elaborate?

A: When incentives are viewed as a type of bargain or trade, the ethical focus is exclusively on whether or not the transaction is voluntary. So, for example, people argue over whether offering large sums of money to a poor person to participate in research is “coercive.” But this is not the only question. When incentives are viewed as a form of power – one way I can get you to do something you otherwise wouldn’t – additional ethical questions arise of the sort that always arise about the use and abuse of power. To return to the example — if the research is filling out a questionnaire, nobody would really worry about coercion. If the research involves invasive and painful procedures, then the first question is whether the researcher ought to be conducting this study on human subjects at all. (Of course, often the answer will be “yes”).

Incentives do offer a choice – but that is not sufficient. Mice in a maze also have choices: left or right? Studies have shown that incentives with human beings often backfire in situations where people find the incentives insulting. Incentives imply that you wouldn’t do the thing you are being asked to do for intrinsic reasons. Studies show that people tend to feel insulted by incentives when they take the place of persuasion; when they micromanage; or when they fly in the face of people’s generous impulses – for example, paying for blood “donations” can decrease the number willing to give. In other words, while incentives offer choices, they are based on a psychology that assumes people are reactive and malleable, like the mouse. They do not treat people as fully autonomous rational agents.

You can also read a sample from Ruth’s book here: