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The new, not so affluent society

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Returning to work after a long Christmas break I was particularly receptive to an article by the New Economics Foundation (NEF) which argued that a thirty hour week could be more productive and sustainable, increase our well-being and spread paid work more evenly throughout the population.

In the UK, there is still perverse kudos to be gained from working long hours and a 50 hour week is sometimes upheld by the weary as a badge of honour. Moaning about marathon work sessions in the pub on a Friday night is indulged rather than dismissed as puzzling self-sabotage as it might be in Denmark, Germany or the Netherlands. In 2012 the BBC found that the average British worker manages 1,647 hours a year, far less than the table topping South Koreans with a whopping 2,193 but still more than the average German who clocks up 1,408, just above bottom of the table Netherlands with 1,377.

In part this is due to a long recession and shrinking public sector. Academics, who are to some extent able to structure research time around teaching and administrative obligations, are nevertheless working longer hours as funding is cut and pressure to publish increases. At the University of East London, for example, 53.7 per cent of respondents to a 2012 University and College Union survey said that they worked more than 50 hours a week. But these differences are also a reflection of the cultural value of work, and varying relationships between work, identity and citizenship.

In the second half of the 1960s a discussion about these issues grew out of a Chicago symposium ‘Man the Hunter’, which featured the work of Marshall Sahlins. Sahlins used numerous case studies to support the general argument that hunter gatherers were ‘the original affluent society’, a theory he developed in his best known book, Stone Age Economics.

Sahlins and colleagues were challenging dominant representations of nomadic foraging groups as materially and therefore socially ‘primitive’: poverty stricken and miserable, limited to mere survival by their simple technologies. In fact, Sahlins argued, their immediate needs were easily met and they enjoyed ‘a  kind of material plenty’. Lee’s work with the !Kung in the Dobe area of Botswana and McCarthy and McArthur’s work in Arnhem Land in the north eastern corner of the Northern Territory of Australia suggested that hunter gatherers could meet their basic needs with as little as fifteen to twenty hours work each week.

Far from facing a daily struggle for survival, ‘Man the Hunter’ was, by today’s standards, radically underemployed. When people had enough to eat, they simply stopped working. As a result, these groups had plenty of spare time for elaborate storytelling, relaxation and other forms of social maintenance. Possessions were not accumulated as they were inimical to mobility. As a result, inequality was minimal. The allegorical power of the symposium attracted public attention, and in the process hunter gatherers were presented as proto communists, closely resembling, in some cases, those who had chosen to study them.ID-10026678

Sahlins’ thesis was subject to much criticism. The symposium title ‘Man the Hunter’ was misleading for several reasons. It placed undue emphasis on hunting rather than gathering, which takes up the bulk of time, and provides the majority of calories. It also universalises gendered roles which are in practice culturally determined. It perpetuates a ‘cave man’ image which implies that hunter gatherers are remnants of a prehistorical past, rather than full members of contemporary society. Overall, his thesis paid insufficient attention to differences in quality of life between ages and genders, and risked homogenising and freezing in time a diverse and fluid social category – those who subsist without farming.

Despite these limitations it is worth revisiting Sahlins’ description of hunter gatherers as ‘uneconomic men’ (sic) in order to reflect on our own understandings of wealth. According to his argument, the freedom from acquisitiveness enjoyed by hunter gatherers is not the result of overcoming base instincts, but an indication that unlimited wants are not universal. On the contrary, they are a reflection of a particular economic system: a necessary part of the self-image that keeps us working long after our immediate needs have been fulfilled, in search of a surplus which we have become accustomed to desire.

Campaigners for the thirty hour week in the UK face many difficulties including ensuring that the lowest paid can receive a living wage and enlisting the support of business leaders concerned about the costs of regulation. They may also wish to reopen more profound but basic questions about the purpose of work. In order to decide whether we want to work more or less, we first need to establish what we are working for.


Written by samkelly2014

March 21, 2014 at 10:00 am

Show me the money

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Do bonuses make us work harder? Should disruptive students be paid for attending school? Should public programs intended to encourage smokers to quit include financial incentives? Neoclassical economics suggests that individuals work harder for greater rewards. Although late capitalist societies have embraced this principle, bonuses are imprecise tools and have been found to have some counter intuitive effects. Can studies of non-capitalist societies help to explain these effects?

In 1920 Max Weber recorded the effect of doubling the wages of an agricultural labourer in Silesia employed to mow land on contract: he halved his output. Weber labelled this indifference to incentives as ‘primitive traditionalism’ and predicted that it would soon be overcome by the spirit of capitalism. Bronislaw Malinowski described the frustration of European traders who could not persuade Trobriand Islanders to dive for pearls when their gardens were producing enough to meet their everyday needs. Expressed in the language of the time, Malinowski was told: ‘the god-damn niggers won’t swim even if you stuff them with kaloma*and tobacco’ (1935). In 1970 Edwin Ardener described how the Bakweri of the West Cameroon were drawn reluctantly into waged labour. Those who accepted wages from plantation owners were described as witches who killed their relatives and children, turning them into zombies and forcing them to work on a distant mountain, driving lorries for their wage paying overlords.


Historical resistance to incipient capitalism is to be expected: the forging of a working class from the peasantry is a cultural, as well as an economic shift. One might expect fewer of these clashes of ideals among contemporary European workers, and anticipate that increases in wages and in particular incentives and bonuses function unequivocally to improve performance. However, economists suggest that this relationship is anything but straightforward.

Where tasks are mechanical and repetitive, well designed incentives may increase productivity. However, if applied to creative tasks incentives can be ineffective or even counterproductive. In one experiment Teresa Amabile of the Harvard Business School, asked 23 professional artists to present ten commissioned and ten non-commissioned works to an expert panel who were not informed about the purpose of the study. The panel rated the commissioned works far lower in terms of creativity and technical quality.

The most frequently cited evidence for the negative impact of incentives on heuristic, creative or other regarding tasks is based on experiments with blood donors, including Richard Titmuss’s 1970 book, The Gift Relationship. Titmuss criticised the commercialization of the blood donation in the US, comparing it unfavourably with the voluntary system in the UK. He argued that financial incentives reduced rather than increased participation and created significant inefficiencies, including the high incidence of serum hepatitis among American recipients.

Titmuss’s work has been influential, but also contested. Repeat experiments have produced mixed results. In 2005 Mellstrom and Johannesson showed that the effects of financial incentives on Swedish blood donors were statistically insignificant among a group of 262 subjects, and also among the 109 men. However, among the 153 women 52% of those asked to donate blood voluntarily agreed to do so while only 30% agreed to do so when offered a financial incentive, suggesting that the impact of incentives on donation may be gendered.

The most recent application of this insight has been to charitable giving and the practice of offering ‘premiums’, or ‘thank you’ gifts to donors. George Newman and Jeremy Shen, researchers at Yale, found that premiums have a negative impact on contributions. Their explanation was that the gifts activated self-regarding motivations, ‘crowding out’ altruism. Kevin Schulman of Donor Voice refers to premiums as ‘crack cocaine’ suggesting that they wreck donor lifetime values by contaminating philanthropic intentions with base, selfish instincts.

You might be tempted to think, ‘well that’s alright for charities and artists, but back in the real world: money talks’. However, the evidence suggests that this distinction is not so clear cut. In 2009 Bernd Irlenbusch of the London School of Economics used 51 cases of performance related pay to conclude that, ‘the provision of incentives can result in a negative impact on overall performance’ because ‘financial incentives may indeed reduce intrinsic motivation and diminish ethical or other reasons for complying with workplace social norms such as fairness’.

A number of firms, including Apple and Zappos, the North American online shoe seller, are paying heed. Rather than offering performance related rewards, based on a model of extrinsic motivation, they offer new employees an incentive to leave, currently $1000 at Zappos.  The purpose of this offer is to identify those employees who do not share the vision of the company, which is to exceed customers’ expectations regarding service. Experience has taught them that it makes more sense to pay the people who don’t share this vision to leave than it does to attempt to pay them to change their minds.

*shell discs


Written by samkelly2014

March 18, 2014 at 10:15 am

Posted in News

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