Punished by Freakonomics

I just watched Freakonomics on Netflix Instant Watch. There was some really interesting stuff there, like the theory about Roe v. Wade being responsible for most of the 90s’ drop in crime rate. But having read Punished by Rewards, the stuff about incentives was depressing.

The last section of the film documents an experiment where financial incentives are used to attempt to get more kids to pass 9th grade. And exactly as Kohn described for these sorts of studies, it was a short-term one which drew all the wrong conclusions.

In fact, there are telltale signs throughout the film of the failings of extrinsic motivators (about cheating in Sumo, 9th grade, and elsewhere, and even an anecdote from Stephen D. Levitt himself about his attempt to use M&Ms as incentives to potty train his daughter). Levitt says in the film that if there’s a worldview to their book Freakonomics, it’s that “incentives matter,” and he talks proudly about how much he uses them with his kids: “I can get anything I want at home for fifty cents.” Then they go on to conclude that with their work they hope to inspire people to challenge the traditional ways of looking at things.

Am I the only one who sees the irony here?

Levitt’s worldview and even, it seems, his entire sense of self is deeply rooted in a traditional way of looking at things (pop behaviorism, to use Alfie Kohn’s term) which is sorely in need of being challenged and discarded. I have strong doubts that at this point he would be able to fully consider the possibility that extrinsic motivators don’t work or are ethically objectionable. Of course I don’t know him at all, so I emailed him to ask whether he had read Punished by Rewards, hoping to (if he has) find out  what his response to it is or (if he hasn’t) convince him to and then get his response. If I ever get a response I will ask for permission to post it here.

Meanwhile, if you have read or intend to read any Freakonomics book, please also read Punished by Rewards. And if you don’t, you should read Punished by Rewards anyway.

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