First Words

Limited incentives

Incentivizing good behavior can suffocate morality.

I’ve only fired one Sunday school teacher in my life. Fired is probably too strong a word to use for a volunteer, but it’s what came to mind when I told Bob that he either had to alter his incentive-based teaching method or be done with our fifth-graders. When he refused to alter his method, I asked him to excuse himself from this voluntary role. Bob and his wife, who had only been church members for two years, summarily quit the church. Eight years elapsed before I’d see him again, this time a headshot of him in his obituary in our local newspaper a few weeks ago.

Bob’s teaching strategy was to dole out dimes and quarters to students who successfully memorized Bible verses he had personally selected. I was miffed to learn that he had jettisoned the set curriculum and decided payments to kids were an effective way to teach the gospel, all done without the awareness of the children’s ministry staff. Upon further probing, I learned that one fifth-grader in the class had taken home upward of eight dollars.

It’s no secret that many elements of our society are built on incentives. Bonuses, profit sharing, and pricing are fundamental to economic theory. Trophies and medals await athletes who outperform their peers. Parents sometimes pay their kids for getting good grades. Incentives to motivate human behavior are everywhere. In fact, a standing assumption is that in order to get people to do something, you have to inspire their psyche and make it seem worth their while. The very root of the word incentive, from the Latin incendere—“to set on fire”—suggests as much.