Ross: Can we incentivize good behavior with money?

Dec 20, 2021, 7:50 AM | Updated: 11:11 am

I saw a story about a professor at the University of Tennessee who had a suspicion that his students were completely ignoring the syllabus for his music seminar. So, he was careful at the beginning of the semester to tell them to read every word.

But then he went further. Without telling his students, on the second page of this three-page syllabus — in the middle of a paragraph about class rules – he slipped in this line, in parentheses, like a written whisper: “(Free to the first who claims; locker one hundred forty-seven; combination fifteen, twenty-five, thirty-five.)”

That was it.

Had anyone gone to that locker and used that combination, they’d have found $50 in cash.

Well, of course, at the end of the semester, the cash was still there, proving that no one had read the syllabus. And now the students feel stupid, and the professor is doing interviews.

But I have to say, this is a terrible experiment. For one thing, I know that even if I had read the syllabus and found the clue, I sure as heck would not have tried to open someone else’s locker. To me, it would feel too much like a sting operation.

But the worst part about this stunt is that it didn’t accomplish anything. It didn’t get the students to do what the teacher presumably wanted, which was to read the syllabus at the beginning of the semester. There is a way to do that – just be upfront about it: “Class – if you read the entire syllabus tonight, one of you could be $50 richer by tomorrow.”

I have a feeling the reason he didn’t take that approach was because, like a lot of educators, he’s uncomfortable with the idea of material incentives to do the right thing.

But given all the material incentives to do the wrong thing, why not fight back? Suppose, for example, you could make more money turning in your homework on time than shoplifting? That might solve two problems, and retail stores might even pay for the program!

And if we’re uncomfortable paying kids to do the right thing, then how about adults? Why not put five bucks into your toll account every time you drive from Bellevue to Lynnwood within five miles an hour of the speed limit?

Or your federal taxes! Think how mow much more the IRS would collect if every accurate tax return was entered into a drawing, with 100 truthful taxpayers each awarded $100,000.

Taxable, of course. We don’t want to go too crazy.

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Ross: Can we incentivize good behavior with money?