Friday, August 31, 2007

Give Bloomberg an A for Effort and an F for Research

Mike Bloomberg was on NPR this past week touting his plan to pay poor people (from private funds) to go to the library, get good grades, etc. (Listen here and also hear Steven Inskeep ask Bloomberg whether he's running for President about a half dozen times. Bloomberg says no each time.)

Traditional liberals have been cool to Bloomberg's proposal, arguing that it insults poor people. (See Diane Ravitch's reaction here.) But Bloomberg has three reasonable responses: 1) This is a capitalist society in which people respond to incentives; 2) If it's not insulting to pay wealthy agribusinesses not to grow crops, it shouldn't be insulting to pay poor kids to go to the library; and 3) It's just a pilot program so let's see if it works.

I'm all for experiments and thinking outside the box, but the problem here is that we have tons of evidence that paying people to do things usually undermines their intrinsic motivation to do those things. Translation: Give a kid $50 to go to the library and he'll go each time you give him another $50, but won't go just for the joy of reading.

It's possible to get around this effect: Perhaps the idea is that the kid gets $50 the first time simply to go somewhere he wouldn't otherwise go, then gets there, looks around and says "omygod, this library is the most totally awesome place in the freakin' world. i'm gonna borrow the complete works of Proust." Aha.

Given the wealth of empirical evidence on extrinsic versus intrinsic motivation, it's a little odd that Bloomberg concocted this plan. Perhaps he hasn't seen the studies. Maybe he needs to go check them out of the library. I wonder how big a check it would take to motivate him to do so.

22 comments:

Paul said...

I am not sure those studies are relevant here. Paying a kid $50 to go to the library may decrease his intrinsic enjoyment of the library. Paying him $50 for each "A", may mean the kid is not going to be motivated to learn for the sake of learning. But so what? Those goals seem to be aiming too high.

If a kid gets good grades and learns things from visiting the library, that is going to be a great advantage to her irrespective of her motivations for doing so. The vast majority of people end up getting paid to do a job they really don't care about. You can consider that sad, but it is a lot better than being impoverished.

If Bloomberg's program ends up meaning that poor children have better opportunities later in life at the expense of reducing the probability that a particular child might fall in love with reading and learning, I think that is probably worth the cost.

Michael C. Dorf said...

I agree completely with Paul's comment, except that I think Bloomberg's idea is to provide "seed money" for the kids to continue to go to the library, not to pay them each time, etc.

Tam said...

I don't know anything about the field, and the following comes from the result of a 30-minute google session, but it seems that the decrease in intrinsic motivation (IM) occurs in contexts with high/moderate IM. Seems like the program is intended for those kids who have no IM to go to a library and read a book to begin with.

I completely agree that it has a very low chance of succeeding, because, as you say, the plan is to hook them and take the reward away, rather than continuing to pay them. But if we can hook just 1 out of 1,000 kids who take up the offer, don't you think that's a well-spent $50k?

I suppose the answer to that depends on how else that $50k could be spent. Given the continuing unresolved issues surrounding the CFE litigation, for instance, I can see why one would think the Mayor's efforts and city's money could be better directed.

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Did the Freakonomics guys say anything about this?

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