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.

In Praise of Big Prizes

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]

Does Cultural Theory predict its own rejection?

Commenter ‘riskviews’ recently suggested:

I would guess that Grid-Group Theory would predict that it would not itself be widely accepted.
In fact, I belive that if it WERE widely accepted, then that would prove it false.

There are a few possible responses to this interesting proposition.

First, riskviews could be right. Cultural theory has been explored in many different academic fields, but not widely accepted in the way some other social science concepts have been. In particular it does seem to suggest a perspective that requires self-critique. This may be difficult.

Second, it may be that one way of achieving this is to somehow rise above the four cultures as described by Cultural Theory and see them as partially complete perspectives. Michael Thompson proposes that there may be a fifth cultural worldview- that of the autonomous ‘hermit’ – which does not enter into the coercive ways of organising and disorganising that the other four take for granted. So far from being widely accepted, Cultural Theory may be only narrowly accepted by a small section of society, which recognises ‘what’s really going on’ and then chooses to reject cultural bias. (For the record, I don’t find this line of thought very helpful).

Third, it may be argued that the four cultural biases only pause to reflect on their own partial nature when their proposed solutions to complex problems fail to have the desired effect. This kind of failure can be seen as a catalyst for better solutions which take account of something like Cultural Theory. This is the approach of Marco Verweij’s latest book, Clumsy Solutions for a Wicked World. The subtitle is optimistic about the possibility of accepting CT’s analysis and using it in policy formulation: ‘How to improve global governance’. Most writers on Cultural Theory seem to take the position that a wider understanding of its analysis might lead to better social outcomes. So, far from predicting its own rejection, Cultural Theory tends to argue for its own increasing adoption as a solution to a variety of problems.

Fourth, and this is my position, Cultural Theory, like many social science theories, can be seen not so much as a set of propositions to be believed, accepted, or verified, but more as a set of tools for thinking with. It’s quite possible to use it without accepting it. The matter then to be verified is not the theory itself but the further insights it gives rise to.

I hope I understand what is meant by the suggestion that if CT were widely accepted, that would prove it false. My take on this is that the theory claims there are four mutually incompatible ways of organising around truth claims. To accept this, would be (perhaps) to recognise the incompleteness of one’s own cultural worldview, and therefore to step outside it in a way that would call into question whether it really existed in the first place. Actually, I don’t agree with this. I think self-reflection is possible to an extent, both for individuals and for organisations. This is helped by that fact that however biased ourselves and our institutions may be, they still rub up against the world as world, not as pure fantasy. As Richard Ellis says, a cultural worldview is  ‘a prism that biases the way one experiences the world, not a prison that shuts one completely off from that world’ (quoted in Verweij 2011:205).

So what do you think? Does cultural theory predict its own rejection?

Some questions about Grid-Group Cultural Theory

Here’s some provocative questions about Cultural Theory from Y.  Before I attempt an answer, I wonder if anyone else reading this has an opinion or comment…

1. is the theory considered to be a post modern one?

2. does it have prestige in the academic world or is considered niche theory?

3. do you think that online/virtual communities on the internet can also be classified according to the grid group (like wikipedia, linkedin etc)?

Any thoughts?

Science communication and conservative values

image CC via flickr/jeffreypriebe

Roger Scruton‘s recent article in Prospect Magazine provides an interesting illustration of what Dan Kahn and Chris Mooney have been discussing on their respective blogs. (Kahn blogs regularly now at the Cultural Cognition Project and Mooney writes at the Desmog Blog.)

The topic of their discussion: Is it possible to take the polemics out of science communication, and if so, how?

Scruton’s article, Nature, Nurture and Liberal Values, reviews three recent books on neuroscience and discusses the moral and philosophical implications of these new inflections of the nature/nurture debate, from a highly intelligent conservative perspective:

“The real question raised by evolutionary biology and neuroscience is not whether those sciences can be refuted, but whether we can accept what they have to say, while still holding on to the beliefs that morality demands of us.”

This, it seems to me, is exactly the kind of question Kahn and Mooney are discussing. Scruton’s statement, though, begs the question that conservatism reviles: whose morality? This is where Cultural Theory comes in, suggesting as it does that there is more than one worldview, more than one morality, and that therefore, more than one kind of reconciliation is required between science and morality, between descriptive and normative claims. However, the promise of Cultural Theory is that this is not an endless pluralism, or a morally bankrupt relativism, but rather a constrained pluralism. Yes, there are competing cultural worldviews. No, they are not endlessly differentiated. We can map them.

Scruton’s latest book, Green Philosophy, provides a kind of conservative re-imagining of the environmentalist terrain that he seems to think has been left almost entirely to the egalitarian left for the last thirty years and more. It’s a philosophical restatement of that old question, why should the devil have all the best music? Why should so-called ‘environmentalists’ keep the environmental high ground to themselves? One way of looking at this might be to hypothesise that conservatives might be more receptive to ‘environmentalist’ subject matter if they think it will make the world a more conservative place. This will probably not take the polemics out of discussions about climate change policy – quite possibly the reverse – but it might just help to end the rather strange situation in which some political groups and leaders simply deny/resist/ignore climate change and other environmentalist causes célèbres and try to make them disappear.

Scruton spoke about his book at the RSA recently (audio available), with Matthew Taylor chairing.

How to beat the odds and escape your fate

This lottery ticket might promise luck but it's entirely predictable

We hate it when things that are supposed to be random actually turn out not to be. But on reflection it’s not quite that simple. We like random events to be random in entirely predictable ways. The ‘Fatalism’ quadrant of Grid-Group Cultural Theory includes random activity as a key aspect of social organisation. But it is contrived randomness that is sought – a term coined by professor of government, Christopher Hood:

“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.

Jonah Lehrer (author of The Decisive Moment, previously mentioned at Fourcultures) has a fine article in Wired about how to beat the scratchies. Two ideas stand out.

First, there is a strong sense that we know what kind of randomness to expect when we buy a scratch card. We are really buying into an almost Platonic ideal of randomness that is somehow, we feel, built into the universe. When Mohan Srivastava, a Canadian statistician, notices this is bogus we somehow want the scratch card manufacturers to improve their game and make the tickets really and truly random. We’re happy to be cheated by the goddess of Fortune, but emphatically not by mere mortals. This ideal of luck is very powerful – and very deceptive.

Second, the tenor of the article is that the world of lottery scratch cards isn’t really random at all. Lehrer implies suggests that there is an underworld of crooks who are tricking us out of our randomness fantasy by gaming the system to launder their drug money. Lehrer quotes Srivastava, the statistician who first spotted the flaw in the scratch cards:

“if there were people who could sort the winners from the losers, then what you’d see on the payout statistics is exactly what we see. This is what a plundered game looks like.”

In fact everywhere except in the Fatalism quadrant of Cultural Theory there is a strong bias against the idea of luck. Wired Magazine, we may hazard, does not have a readership of Fatalists. Rather the core demographic is competitive, innovative Individualism. You can imagine them (us?) nodding sagely in agreement when reading Mohan Srivastava’s reason for not making money out of the scratchies:

“to be honest, I make more as a consultant, and I find consulting to be a lot more interesting than scratch lottery tickets.” [note the link to a pay comparison site – this is the stuff Individualism is made of].

What  Srivastava says about the scratch card industry is also true, it is held, for life in general:

“The game can’t be truly random. Instead, it has to generate the illusion of randomness while actually being carefully determined.”

It turns out that the best way to beat the fickle finger of Fate is to refuse to believe in it at all.


Now read:

How to be a Fatalist

Fatalist policy in action

Fatalism in America today

Tempting Fate in schools

L’analyse culturelle de Mary Douglas

– une contribution à la sociologie des institutions.

Here’s a good summary of Mary Douglas‘s Cultural Theory written in French (with an English abstract). It was published in SociologieS in 2006.

Marcel Calvez, « L’analyse culturelle de Mary Douglas : une contribution à la sociologie des institutions », SociologieS [En ligne], Théories et recherches, mis en ligne le 22 octobre 2006, Consulté le 07 septembre 2010. URL :