From the department of “things that could be said about almost anything”

If you want to change the behavior, you have to change the incentives. Moralistic huffing and puffing won’t cut it.

That sentence jumped out at me as being true of just about every domain of public policy.

(In this case it’s from Dean Dad’s blog post about public higher ed outsourcing growth to private higher ed. My own institution has essentially done this internally. Our finances are more like a public institution with regard to in-state students, and like a private with regard to out-of-state students. Since our state’s contribution to higher ed is dismal and dropping, the higher-ups have decided to balance the budget through growth — but that’s almost entirely by admitting more out-of-state students.)

7 thoughts on “From the department of “things that could be said about almost anything”

  1. Afterthought: That being said, it might be nice if there was actually a little more huffing and puffing about my state disinvesting in higher education…

  2. Hear hear (on both accounts). I think there should be more huffing and puffing about changing the incentives to change behavior, and less of the moralistic kind.
    I can accept that we all have some free will, but acting as if everyone has the same amount of free will in all situations is really not a way to run a government. Why doesn’t everyone just choose to stay in school? Why don’t people choose to not drink soda, or smoke, or not eat at McDonald’s, or therefore choose not to get diabetes? Why don’t people choose not to go to a payday advance place and pay 500% interest on an advance on their next paycheck?
    We know that we have influence on these things, why don’t we use public policy to nudge (or maybe even stronger sometimes) people in one direction or the other?
    Intro psych textbooks are full of descriptions of biases, mindbugs, and the like, why don’t our governments act like we know these things, and design policies accordingly? It seems like we are mostly caught in thinking we can affect behavior by banning something entirely (see: marijuana, cocaine) or allowing it unfettered access to our stupid shortsighted selves, because to act to prevent such a thing would be a horrible constraint on our freedom (see:

    Anyways, I am a fan of Dean Dad too. Always worth reading.

  3. Cedar, I’m guessing that your use of the word nudge wasn’t accidental.

    Off-topic, regarding the cover photo on that book: there’s a restaurant in Portland that serves a hamburger on a Voodoo Doughnut. My wife had one once and said it’s delicious.

  4. Continuing in in the spirit of let’s be practical instead of huffing and puffing.

    Behaviors that are rewarded multiply. Behaviors that are punished tend to decline. The former is a more reliable effect than the latter. So the most effective way to change incentives is to rethink the carrot distribution (rather than bring in more sticks).

  5. Of course, moralistic huffing and puffing rewards the huff/puffer with that satisfying feeling of self-righteousness (even if nothing changes), so I’m afraid that is a rather difficult behavior to extinguish. A pity…. as it tends to have a punishing effect on others…

  6. The carrot/stick asymmetry reminds me of an anecdote about regression to the mean that Danny Kahneman told in his Nobel speech. Click here and scroll down a couple of screens to the paragraph that begins “I had the most satisfying Eureka experience of my career…”

  7. That’s a really good point of Kahneman’s about how we are rewarded for punishing people, just because of regression to the mean. I love the aviation psychology examples, there are a bunch of good ones in Atul Gawande’s excellent new book (
    I am a huge fan of donuts, and I would drive into dark alleys to buy them if I had to. But I think our society might be just a little better off (cheaper healthcare, more healthy people, more productive) if donuts (and soda, and awful junk food) cost more than broccoli, not less.
    And, yes, I was referencing Thaler and Sunstein. Interestingly, I think we are actually nudging in the opposite direction, as far as junk food goes:

Comments are closed.