Why Fining People Can Actually Increase That Activity... An Economics Lesson
from the fascinating! dept
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.