Why Fining People Can Actually Increase That Activity... An Economics Lesson

from the fascinating! dept

I was recently having a discussion with a friend where I pointed out one of the biggest mistakes that people make in trying to understand economics is to assume, incorrectly, that "marginal benefit" or "marginal cost" means money. And, yes, this is actually a mistake that many economists themselves make -- and, in part, it's because the marginal benefit is often measured in monetary terms. So, people seem to think that if there isn't a monetary component it doesn't count. This makes for silly statements like "economics doesn't properly understand how people act." Almost every time that's said, when you look at the details, it's wrong. It's just that people assume that because someone does something for a non-monetary reason, economics can't account for it. That's simply not true. If people do things for a non-monetary reason, it's because they're receiving marginal benefits in some other manner, whether it's attention, pride, happiness, joy or "just because I want to." Those are all marginal benefits.

In fact, Clive Thompson points us to a study that highlights this in a really strong way. It's a series of studies that show that when people overestimate the monetary benefits (or costs) and underestimate the nonmonetary ones, they often set up really bad incentives.

For example, they've found that fewer people give blood when they're paid for it. For someone who thinks only in terms of the monetary benefits, this would make no sense. Why would giving people money lead to less of the activity. But the reasoning is that the real marginal benefit that people get from giving blood is the belief that they're doing good in the world and helping to save lives. Getting paid for it, actually hinders that feeling, by making the whole thing feel like a transaction. And the money paid is apparently a lot less than the decreased "good feelings" from the marginal benefit.

On the flip side, other experiments showed that fining people over certain actions (such as picking up their kids from daycare too late), actually increased the number of tardy parents. Again, if you think of this solely in monetary terms, this makes no sense. It now costs more, monetarily, to be late to pick up a kid. But, in making it a monetary transaction, it removed non-monetary costs -- such as the "guilt" of being late. As the article notes:
The fine seems to have reduced their ethical obligation to avoid inconveniencing the teachers and led them to think of lateness as simply a commodity they could purchase.
This is really fascinating stuff that is important for people to understand in setting up any sort of incentive structure. Money -- either on the cost or benefit side -- is not the only incentive. And thinking that it is often leads to miscalculating a series of other, potentially more important, costs and benefits. That doesn't mean that economics is wrong. It can handle all of that. The problem is when people assume that it's only the direct monetary costs and benefits that go into the equation. It is, unfortunately, a common problem, and leads to all sorts of confused thinking both about business models, but also about the economics profession itself.

Filed Under: economics, fines, incentives, marginal benefit, money

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    scarr (profile), 6 Oct 2009 @ 1:43pm


    I don't know if you can "lift" the factual results of an experiment, but you're right that a lot of this was covered in a bestseller. Sadly, that doesn't mean lots of people learned the lessons it taught.

    I think stuff like this should be taught in high school. I (who have an engineering degree) wasn't exposed to it until I read Freakonomics this year. The more people can learn about this, the better we'll all be.

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