John List and Uri Gneezy have appeared on our blog many times. This guest post is part a series adapted from their new book The Why Axis: Hidden Motives and the Undiscovered Economics of Everyday Life. List appeared in our recent podcast “How to Raise Money Without Killing a Kitten.”
Money is important. For a long time, economists thought that it was the only thing that mattered. And, in fact, if you want people to do what you want, money can be incredibly useful. Out to entice the best workers? Pay more. Want to sell a product? Discount it, a lot. Want to discourage a bad behavior? Impose a monetary fine.
It seemed a little silly to us though (as well as to other behavioral economists doing work back in the 1990s) to think that money was the only thing that mattered. So we set out to learn exactly when and how monetary incentives work. Along the way, we discovered some environments where incentives don’t work at all.
The most compelling example of one such environment comes from an unlikely source: day care centers in Israel. In Haifa, day care centers almost uniformly closed at 4pm, and simply depended on the good intentions of parents to pick up their kids on time. Somehow, this worked: parents picked up their children on time and rarely, if ever, came after 4:30pm.
Why were parents rarely late? As Uri will tell you in our book, being late meant relying on the generosity of one teacher, who would inevitably stay late to look after your child. Being late meant facing that same teacher and having to apologize to her for the inconvenience of waiting.
All of which prompted us to wonder: what would happen if these day care centers stopped relying on generosity and started relying on a financial incentive — like a fine — to discourage parents from showing up late? Few would have predicted what we found: introducing a financial penalty for showing up late actually caused parents to do just that. Parents stopped showing up on time entirely.
To come to our surprising conclusion, Uri ran an experiment: Out of 10 daycare centers across Haifa, they randomly chose six and introduced a small fine for parents who showed up more than 10 minutes late in each of them. In day cares where the fine was introduced, parents immediately started showing up late, with tardiness levels eventually leveling out at about twice the pre-fine level. That is, introducing a fine caused twice as many parents to show up late. What about the remaining four day care centers that remained fine-free? Tardiness didn’t change at all.
The picture that emerged from this experiment, co-authored with Aldo Rustichini, was that parents had a whole set of non-financial incentives for being on time – incentives that were completely incompatible with money. Like, for example, avoiding the guilt of inconveniencing the day care workers. As soon as parents had the option to pay a small fine and avoid that guilt, they took it en masse. [Ed.: this experiment was also discussed in Freakonomics.]
Clearly, there was more to explore, we thought, and our book The Why Axis: Hidden Motives and the Undiscovered Economics of Everyday Life, details our adventures in learning about incentives. When and why do they work? Can we predict their success or failure, and what is needed to achieve the results we want?
If you want to explore our world further, take the Why Axis Challenge: visit www.thewhyaxischallenge.com, post a photo of your copy of The Why Axis, and be entered to win prizes, including a meeting with Uri, John and Freakonomics author Steven Levitt! Be sure to stay tuned for more posts to come, which will give a glimpse into more ‘undiscovered economics.’