Beyond self-interest

As I commented in the last post, I’m suspicious of theories of social action that require either complete selfishness or complete selflessness as their explanatory motor. Yochlai Benkler agrees in his talk at The Edge on “The End of Universal Rationality” (thanks to John McCreery for this reference). He doesn’t talk about teaching, but what he does say about motivation and cooperation hits some key points for different approaches to teaching.

Benkler draws an interesting contrast between what he calls the dominant American economic and management theory of the last 40 years, based on a self-interest model of motivation, and newer research that shows a more cooperative model to be more effective. He characterizes American businesses (GM, for example), as “monitoring and controlling” hierarchical systems based on the premise that people will work hardest to seek maximum return if you get the incentives just right, and shirk whenever they can get away with it. As he points out, this results in ponderous management systems where every worker and manager must be closely motivated, actions must be minutely specified and monitored — all the way up to CEOs, who are also presumed to be prone to shirking if not goosed with the right incentives.

Benkler says if you set up the social situation that way, people will indeed behave that way. But then all the pressure is on getting the incentives exactly right, and the game for workers is to see how much reward they can get for the least work and involvement (free-riding). As you know, Bob, one unintended consequence of this theory was that executive compensation was vastly multiplied by all sorts of short-term incentives tied to corporate performance that only motivated executives to cut corners, take quick fixes, and shirk all the more to stimulate another cycle of reward. Does this sound like any classrooms we know yet? Just substitute grade inflation for ballooning executive compensation and go from there.

In some sense the smart students are the ones who decide it’s a hamster wheel and step off. But fortunately, what management researchers have found is that setting up the social situation differently produces different behavior.

In all of these disciplines, the last 20 years and particularly the’ 90s onward, have seen emerging studies, some models, some experiments, some observational field studies, that are showing, A) that people systematically do not behave according to the traditions of selfish rationality under controlled conditions; B) that when you set up systems with different assumptions, you get different behavior, and you get actually better results. There is a beautiful study, for example, from two or three years ago about knowledge workers….

They… built a model and they built observational studies. What happens to knowledge-sharing within teams if on the one hand, you create explicit incentives, monitor the incentives, you share more, you get more; on the other hand, you build much more team spirit and you make it the thing that’s the right thing to do as a member of this team and create much more social relations within the team. What they found was … setting up a social dynamic that’s a team dynamic, and what’s understood to be the right thing to do achieves much greater internal knowledge flows than setting up an effort to create incentives. So you have very real implications.

OK. In order to get better knowledge flows, which I think is a pretty good description of teaching and learning, what I have to do is set up a social dynamic with team spirit and a performance ethic. Students need “a sense of self image and a sense of ‘I’m okay’ relative to the world…” that fits and feeds from the class’ task and process. Individual incentives and top-down monitoring are counterproductive. Well, that sounds a little tricky but a lot more rewarding than chasing the students around like naughty children, giving out candy every time they wipe their own noses.

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16 Comments

  1. Carl:”He characterizes American businesses (GM, for example), as “monitoring and controlling” hierarchical systems based on the premise that people will work hardest to seek maximum return if you get the incentives just right, and shirk whenever they can get away with it. As he points out, this results in ponderous management systems where every worker and manager must be closely motivated, actions must be minutely specified and monitored — all the way up to CEOs, who are also presumed to be prone to shirking if not goosed with the right”

    Kvond: But (as a Spinozist I have to argue this), isn’t the problem not incentives or selfishness, but rather an understanding of what the breadth of self-interest is. For instance large salaries and bonuses are great for the bank account, but they also function as social markers. I’ve read where making salaries available as public information has actually helped keep both salaries down, but also forced management to justify their inequalities to workers. If self-interest is always other-interest, isn’t the problem one of locating the performing self within the work-culture (whether they be students or widget makers). Creating an aptitude for aptitude. Are not individual incentives automatically collective ones?

  2. Thanks, John! Let us know if anything comes of it. I mean to do a synthesis of some reactions I’ve seen to the Taylor piece shortly, perhaps next week once I get my grades in.

    Kvond, that’s a great point. “The breadth of self-interest” is an interesting idea to play with, because I agree that self-interest is always other-interest – since the self is formed in relation to various others and incorporates them, and because that’s an ongoing process.

    In this sense, the discourses of self-interest are perverse (a ‘monstrosity’, as Durkheim said), because the way the reward structure works is actually to mask and defer our other-orientation behind a normative fiction of unembedded selfishness. Individual incentives are collective ones, but this fact is ideologically invisible. This means that it’s effectively impossible to bring the incentives into alignment with a more comprehensive understanding of the collective good, or even to pose the question. I take this to be part of Benkler’s point, although he does not express it very clearly.

    In the case at hand, you’re right that the money itself (or grades) becomes nothing but a magnitude to measure social rewards like respect, importance, even love. So in professional sports, which works much the same way, you get guys already making much more money than they know how to spend holding out for a larger number and shirking in their performance because other guys in their reference group are making more and they feel ‘disrespected’. (As I recall, Juliet Schor does some nice analysis of this dynamic in ordinary people’s lives in the first half of The Overspent American, although she then goes insane in the second half and starts prescribing voluntary austerities as if the whole dynamic she just showed is profoundly social is just a matter of individual choice.)

    In sports this social marking of money then leads to a perverse situation in which one or two players are eating up the compensation pool, which means the team can’t get a full roster of quality guys, which means the ‘stars’ have to try to carry the team themselves, which never works for long. So the manifest collective goal of team success is actively sabotaged by the latently collective individual reward structure.

  3. Picking up on that last point of manifest collective goals sabotaged by latently collective individual rewards: This is what happens in business too, where the quality or at least the morale of the group is gutted by shifting compensation to the ‘stars’.

    But in the situation of education the dynamic is a little different, because up to a point the rewards are much more elastic: there’s not a bottom-line ‘budget’ of A’s, so teachers can escalate individual rewards for a time without overspending in any obvious way. The crunch comes later in this scenario when the social-marking value of the high grade is deflated by its indiscriminate ubiquity. In this sense grade inflation is like going into debt or printing money.

  4. Yes, I think I did have in the back of my mind sports salaries, and the way that the numerical value is really a social ranking. The sense of respect is significant here. When discussing self-interest I’ve always been draw to the Spinozist notion that the more self-interested we become, in some kind of objective way, the more invested we become in others. We realize the full extent of our connectivity and reliance. Its very hard to finese “respect” though. One supposes that when abstracted value came to stand in for real, interactive value, a human engine of productivity became lost. Perhaps society is swinging the other way (without lapsing into totalitarianism, one hopes).

  5. “One supposes that when abstracted value came to stand in for real, interactive value, a human engine of productivity became lost.”

    Interesting that you’re getting from Spinoza what I usually get from Durkheim. In The Division of Labor he argues that demographic expansion and the diversification of tasks in a highly-articulated division of labor in the modern world pretty much guarantees that many of our interactions will be unsatisfyingly superficial, values will be abstracted, and individuals will be cut adrift. In that and later work he wrestles with how to realign collective moral order to maintain these disconnected individuals’ sense of embeddedness in something larger than themselves, given that we cannot structurally return to the kinds of closeness that characterized earlier societies.

  6. Carl: “Interesting that you’re getting from Spinoza what I usually get from Durkheim.”

    Kvond: Functionalism, the analytic that everything is already in some way fitting together and playing its role, can be considered a specification of Spinoza’s metaphysics which says this of all things. One need only have a more objective (adequate) idea of what those roles are, and how they are played out (it is also on this accord that Althusser makes a Spinoza/Marx connection as well).

  7. I suppose that when you see how things are functioning, you can make (and argue for) value judgments for how it “should” function. Do we really want to live like that? If you don’t know how things are functioning, and see only “disfunction”, you can end up pulling a single string and unraveling the whole sweater, unknowingly.

    And then there are those that love to look for just such a string.

  8. “If you don’t know how things are functioning, and see only “disfunction”, you can end up pulling a single string and unraveling the whole sweater, unknowingly.”

    That’s the genius of Burke in a nutshell. Saw folks pulling on strings over in France and said hey wait, you’re gonna unravel that sweater. To which the Jacobins replied, this bonfire will keep us warm.

    Re: living like that, I guess I find critiques of function more compelling the more they’re able correctly to identify mismatched costs and benefits for particular groups of people in a given social order (one group pays the costs, another enjoys the benefits), as for example in Marx’s class struggle analysis. But even then it seems important to me, as it did to Marx, to fully understand how any given set of ‘oppressive’ structures is both constraining and enabling in ways we all might miss if it was gone.

  9. Carl: “But even then it seems important to me, as it did to Marx, to fully understand how any given set of ‘oppressive’ structures is both constraining and enabling in ways we all might miss if it was gone.”

    Kvond: This for me is the brilliance of Spinoza’s approach to human others. Ultimately it is an ecological approach in which human beings are seen as vast resources that it simply is unwise to waste in stupidities. For this reason he counters Hobbes’s “man is a wolf to man” with “man is a god to man”. If you understand that there is already an ecological situation, and nothing is “unnatural,” one can make judgements about the kind of freedoms, the kinds of combinations we would want. I like very much this point that oppressions are also enabling (and not just for the oppressors). In fact, I have trouble with the concept of oppression, and prefer constraints.

    Constraints in this way:

    http://kvond.wordpress.com/2008/06/14/the-production-of-constraints-work-and-annealing/

  10. What you say about annealing there also reminds me of teaching and learning. You want to get the students heated up so their old structures break down, without going too far and melting them. Then let them cool and settle so a new, better structure can form. Then do it again. There is a tempo to it. The really tricky thing is that all of us have different heating tolerances and ideal tempos.

  11. Carl: “There is a tempo to it. The really tricky thing is that all of us have different heating tolerances and ideal tempos.”

    Kvond: Isn’t this true. This is precisely why Nietzsche preached tempo (and not “truth”). It is an art form. What is interesting about annealing as a metaphor, its the cooling schedule that is most important. Not so much how you heat it up, but how slowly you allow it to cool. Perhaps a lesson here.

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