Q&A with Duke political science prof Ruth Grant on the murky ethics of incentives

We are pleased to have just published Duke political science professor Ruth W. Grant’s fascinating new book about the uses–and abuses–of incentives called STRINGS ATTACHED: Untangling the Ethcis of Incentives. Her new book is a must-read for every politician, businessperson, and manager.

STRINGS ATTACHED is co-published with the Russell Sage Foundation and they have recently conducted a terrific Q&A with Ruth on the book and her work

Q: When you consider the controversies that currently dominate the political debate, the use of incentives isn’t high on the list. People seem more vexed about policies like the health care mandate or income taxes than, say, the use of a tax deduction to encourage charitable donations. Why did you become interested in the use of incentives as a form of power, and why do you think we should talk about them more?

A: I think that I have always been uncomfortable with certain kinds of incentives in my own experience; for example, incentives in the workplace that undermined team spirit or incentives in my child’s classroom that really made her feel manipulated. Other incentives don’t bother me at all. I began to notice that incentives have become the preferred tool of policy in all kinds of settings – governments, businesses, schools, prisons, hospitals – and it seemed important to think through which uses of incentives are innocuous and which are not. The fact that we have invented a new verb – “to incentivize” – is an indication of how much this approach has seeped into the culture. “To incentivize” is a much narrower concept than “to motivate,” which includes incentives, inspiration, arousing curiosity, etc. Something is lost if we automatically consider only incentives when we want to influence people. It seems important to discuss these issues precisely because incentives are pervasive, but also taken for granted.

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