FREAK Shots: What Incentivizes You?

Incentives, or nudges, to get people to do things — like donate organs, lose weight, and pick up dog feces — are everywhere; some work better than others. Here are a few that various Flickr users have come across:

Is this encouraging fellowship or chaperoning?

Flickr user theritter thinks 5 cents is a little low for an incentive.

According to Flickr user nicolasnova, it says something like “Use the stairs to harden the butt.”

This one may help kids get better grades, but it will probably undo the effects of using the stairs.

Jim F

I think the Macdonalds incentive is very large for kids, especially in a lower income place where Macdonalds would be more of a luxury item. Weather it is socially correct to encourage kids to do better in school by pushing greasy food in their faces is another story.


I remember when I was in 1st grade my teacher had a contest to see who would read the most books in a month. The reward was a trip to McDonald's. I read 22 books and got 2nd place. Having McD's be a reward isn't bad. Having it be a meal plan, that's the problem.

Garrett Pendergast

Training (or educating) involves input and reward. If McDonald's works why not.

I don't think you would get very far with tofu burgers


actually 5 cents is a good idea for a few reasons. First, to huge purchasers like Ralphs, its probably more than they pay for the bag. So if they paid more they'd be losing money, not something they're likely to do voluntarily.

Second, there is a psychological principle that the most effective incentives for changing behavior are the smallest ones that work. As Festinger argued decades ago, small rewards creates a dissonance between 2 ideas: 1) I don't like doing X 2) I'm only doing X because I'm paid to do X. If the reward is small, 2 isn't a compelling explanation and people start to say their doing X because they like it. On the other hand if they are handomely paid to do X, there is no reason to change one's attitude about X.

So with small rewards, not only are shoppers induced to recycle bags or bring their own, they're being shaped to think they prefer to reuse bags and become more likely to do so in places where they're not paid for doing so.


Bobby G

I think the first one isn't encouraging anything, unless there is some awesome reason why people want to walk on the grass. It's more of a notice that they don't want to have to deal with tons of people walking across the grass, although the "senior members" are probably responsible enough to not make a mess.


Regarding bags, would a 5 cents per store-bag charge or tax be viewed differently than a 5 cents incentive or reward for not using the store's bags? I would bring my own bags to the store without any incentive or tax; however, some people change their behavior to receive the modest reward. I imagine some additional people would change their behavior to avoid the charge, even though it's essentially the same as the reward.


While the 5 cent incentive for reusing bags at Ralph's is fine, unfortunately penalties seem to be more effective. Ever since Ikea started charging 5 cents per bag used people will go to any length to get out of there without using a bag.


Many stores, not just Ralph's (I've recently moved to Mi from CA and have seen most chains offer the same 5 cents), will give you the credit for re-using any bag, including one you got from them.

Personally, I like the reusable ones because they're sturdier and usable for many things other than just groceries. The ones I have now were bought from a Bel Air grocery store in CA for $.99 a piece a couple years ago and I can assuredly say that my ROI is pretty good.

I think that the combination of the nickel, the quality and usefulness, and the "environmental" factor all collude to incentivizing me toward their use.


RE: the Ralph's bag incentive:

The Israeli daycare example of ch. 1 of Freakonomics addresses this conundrum well. By Ralph's putting such a small economic incentive in place it demotivates shoppers from potentially more potent social or moral incentives. How about an enthusiastic "thank you" for the shopper? How about some facts printed on the bag that helps the shopper understand the cost of waste? How about green candy at the register to give to children of parents who reuse bags, buy organic or local produce, or etc.?


By "green candy" I meant green coloured candy like Andes mints, apple- or lime-flavored sticks or suckers, taffy, fruit rolls or whatever. Small, easily administered economic incentive coupled with social incentives of children's peer pressure on parents.


The McDonald's add reminds me of Walter Mischel's marshmallow test. The kids that are willing to work hard all year just to get a free burger would probably work hard anyway, because they are motivated by many other gains from a good education.
The kids that are not generally motivated by future income and job opportunities will probably not work harder for a future free burger.

The only one of the above that would motivate me, personally, is the franch stair promotion.


5 cents is a worthless incentive for a bag. a 5 cent penalty also seems worthless though, but I take my own bags always.

and @#1, McD's isn' t so much a luxury in low income neighborhoods, it tends to be the staple. Particularly in urban neighborhoods.


Will makes a good point. I'm guilty of it myself. I never forgot my re-usable bags when I had to pay 5c/bag at Zhers, but when Safeway gives me a discount for bringing my own bag, I usually don't bother. Granted, Safeway's discount is less than 5c last time I checked.

Sean Quinn

I'm a high school student in Seminole County (FL). Our leadership class met with the Public Relations Officer for the District regarding the McDonald's controversy, and how it went everywhere - even Colbert.

Our report cards are not so endorsed, only those in elementary school, but it was quite an interesting story for sure. Long story short: McDonald's got free advertising because they paid to print the report cards. Still an interesting take on incentivization.

Sean Quinn

@ Jim F - Seminole County is a school district in with one of the highest per-capita incomes (per family, [I know per-capita is by head, but work with me]) in the state of Florida. Although low-income students do attend SCPS, that rationale serves to be in the minority.


I'm fine with the McDonalds one-Pizza Hut did a similar thing with their Book It program way back whan. I'll bet many books were read in pursuit of the personal pan pizza.


I work at home. What incentives would i have while i´m working along with my pijama and my teddy bear? : MONEY!

Avi Rappoport

@Bobby G - it's not about tidiness, it's a whole Tradition of who gets to walk on the grass. They enforce it because it's become steeped in History and it makes them feel special,_Cambridge,_Cambridge#Rules_and_traditions

Matthew R.

As someone who has worked with incentives for a living, I have always been surprised with often how little it takes to motivate someone. I tended to let applicants tell me what they wanted, and often they asked for less than what I was willing to give. People are often interested in non-monetary rewards -- priviledges, title, opportunities, time off, gifts. Even if a business owner can commodify these rewards and put a dollar value on them, people tend to value them more than they would the dollar value. Giving someone a company car may cost the company $6k per year in lease fees, insurance, gas, etc., but that person who receives it may value it more than they would a $6k bonus. Why? Because the car means more than the money: status, exclusivity, recognition by peers and superiors.

Ann Jun

5 cents a bag is certainly working in Toronto. Everyone seems to be carrying a reusable bag these days.