How to inspire people with prize money


Would you put in more effort if you thought you could win a large cash prize?

What about if that prize was broken up into a series of smaller prizes – how hard would you work then?

‘In praise of big prizes’ at the Freakonomics site, had some advice for a professor at the University of Texas who changed his practice of handing out cash prizes to students in favour of a more level system.

The author writes that actually,

“larger top prizes and a steeper prize gradient will elicit more effort than a flatter gradient, one with more prizes of smaller amounts (Lazear and Rosen, 1981).”

He suggests that a large amount of prize money is what motivates top sports people such as Tiger Woods, and that perhaps the professor could adapt and use this approach in an educational setting:

“he would get better written work if he went back to the old system, just as Tiger Woods is better motivated by a big winning prize for a whole tournament than he would be by small prizes for having the best score in a particular round.”

In a previous post on Fourcultures about Fatalist development aid I noted how schemes to randomly assign cash handouts to poor people seem to work quite well. According to the Economist, though, there are situations in which conditional handouts work better. In one example, would-be aid recipients were required to submit a business plan before going into the lottery.

Perhaps these schemes using contrived randomness, a Fatalist strategy, would be better if they used high value tournaments instead – a very Individualist strategy.

One small problem is that the prize money that seems to motivate Tiger Woods to get out of bed is slightly higher than that available in college classes or in development aid programmes.

First prize for the 2013 US Masters  tournament was $1,440,000. That’s quite a lot of money. Even the 50th placed golfer still won $20,160.

In contrast, the top University of Texas student paper won $1,500. In even starker contrast, Kenyan villagers identified by the charity Give Directly receive $200.

“We send each recipient household a total of $1,000 over one to two years, or $200 per household member for the average household. Our analysis suggests that this amount is fair, well-understood, and potentially transformative.”

When Individualism can provide a US Masters level of money to colleges and to poor villages in Africa, maybe then its policy prescriptions will be more credible.

See also: Fatalist development aid

[image credit: public domain, pixabay]

Four types of institutional control

This diagram comes from a book edited by Christopher Hood (et al.) It shows how contrived randomness can be seen as a method of social control in public institutions (Hood et al. 2004:8).

As mentioned in a Fourcultures post on how to beat the odds and escape your fate, Hood wrote:

“Contrived randomness denotes control of individuals… by more or less deliberately making their lives unpredictable in some way”.

Hood et al., eds (2004) Controlling Modern Government. Variety, Commonality and Change. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar Press. p.8.

And as eagle-eyed readers of Fourcultures will observe, this scheme of control is modeled closely on the wider typology of grid-group cultural theory. You can compare the diagram above with this diagram of Cultural Theory to note the consistency.

Mutuality – Egalitarian
Oversight – Hierarchical
Competition – Individualist
Contrived Randomness – Fatalist

I’m interested in Hood’s work because he is one of the few proponents of Cultural Theory who recognize the salience of what may be termed Fatalist Activism – the idea that the Fatalist cultural bias is just as active as the other three biases and constantly seeks to shape our institutions.

This work is very useful for understanding all kinds of social contexts and institutional arrangements. Fourcultures has previously shown how the four cultural biases can be marshalled to develop a fourfold typology of educational equity. Hood et al.’s four types of control can be added to this kind of analysis. In the next post I’ll show how Cultural Theory and especially the concept of fatalist activism is highly relevant for the specific case of public policy on gambling.

Tempting fate in schools: contrived randomness as educational policy

Australian economist Andrew Leigh has entered into public discussion with Noel Pearson about Aboriginal inequality by proposing that randomised trials should be initiated for those educational innovations supposedly aimed at improving outcomes for disadvantaged groups. He takes his cue from Harvard economist Roland Fryer, who is well known for testing the effectiveness of cash rewards on academic achievement. Provocatively, Leigh has called proponents of the approach ‘the randomistas‘. (You can also hear about randomised education trials).

The rhetoric of the scientific method sounds very sensible. After all, if it works in medicine, why shouldn’t it work in education? Indeed we can go further: since we don’t accept medicine that hasn’t been tested in a randomised trial framework, why should we accept education without similar confirmation of its effectiveness? The point Fryer and now Leigh have been making is that much educational policy is ideologically driven, rather than evidence driven. We need proper evidence and for them, randomisation is the mark of proper evidence.

So is there any downside? Continue reading