Thursday, 1 April 2010

Mindsets, metaphors and money (and Mercs)

Whilst I've not been blogging, I've been trying to get through a few more books on motivation in order to firm up a few ideas around incentivisation. As I've said before I think performance-related pay may well become a target in the coming period amongst investors who really are willing to think about what we've been just been through (agency theory next btw...!). It's important to be clear that what I mean here is that it doesn't really work, not that it 'drove excessive risk-taking' or whatever. The net result IMO has not been greater alignment of interests or any of that blah, but simply a further transfer of wealth to managers.

Anyhow this has resulted in me ending up reading a lot of stuff by Carol Dweck. I don't recommend Mindset, as it's one of those books where an interesting idea is spread too thin and reads too much like self-help literature, but Self-Theories, which is a collection of essays which highlights much underlying research, is well worth a read. Just to be clear her primary focus is on educational motivation, but her work has obvious applications elsewhere. The focus is on two distinct types of beliefs about intelligence or talent that students or various ages have. These are characterised as 'entity' or 'incremental' theories. Those with the former belief see intelligence, for example, as basically innate, whereas the latter believe that it can be developed. So the former see test results etc as measure of smartness, whereas the latter see them as a measure of effort.

The interesting thing is that those with the entity theory therefore often get very discouraged when they do poorly, as they see it as a judgement on them as a person. In addition they have a tendency to pick easy easy tasks that they know they will do well on, rather than challenging ones where they may fail and as such may be seen (or see themselves) as less talented. They also see the need to put in effort as evidence of a lack of innate talent. In contrast incremental theorists stick at tasks, see achievement as the result of effort, and are more likely to go for challenging tasks. Importantly this also raises a big question mark over how we praise kids. If we tell them they've done well because they are smart this is likely to push them towards an entity theory approach.

This makes a lot of sense to me, and if you've read any of Martin Seligman's stuff you will see some similarities, for example the tendency of people with a pessimistic explanatory style to interpret a setback as being indicative of their general lack of ability. This seems to be rooted in attribution theory. Being a complete amateur I can see some overlaps but Dweck does explain where the differences are.

But it also struck me if there is also a bit of an overlap with people coming from the perspective of cognitive linguistics. I immediately thought of George Lakoff and his idea that lefties and righties have different metaphors of the family that inform their beliefs. I'm massively oversimplifying, but again there is a bit of a fundamental difference between a view that moral character is innate and that it can be molded. Please note I'm not suggesting lefties=good, righties=bad (although that is true...) but rather that it seems that people from different disciplines seem to be heading towards some interesting common ground.

I got interested in this stuff through reading more about incentives and performance, and this opens a lot of interesting avenues. For example, it does cast another light on the issue of paying kids to do well at school. I was previously critical of Tim Harford's comments on fostering intrinsic motivation vs providing extrinsic motivation (financial rewards). I now think I wasn't nearly critical enough, as it appears that he is entirely unaware of the psychological research that backs Barry Schwartz's position. It's not just some wistful desire for schoolkids to want to learn, there is a lot of research here.

As such I am really interested to see how the programmes to pay kids for attendance and/or grades work in the US. It appears that the results are mixed, with some pilots having already been abandoned and others seeming to work (though it would be interesting to see if other factors are being controlled for). I reckon the outcome of such programmes could tell us a great deal about incentives and motivation. I'm happy to go with the evidence - if it works it works. And let's not forget that the US programmes are not some neo-liberal plot, it's a genuine attempt to deal with poor educational attainment. But equally let's not pretend the research on motivation is dippy-hippy wishful thinking.

A final thought - I hate the current Mercedes Benz advert. The one where it says something like presence should be effortless. In light of all the above it's clearly pointing people towards an entity theory about 'style'. And there's one more thing I would lob in here. Whilst I'm not convinced by Pierre Bourdieu's idea of cultural capital, he did hit the target in one respect. When we view people as being effortlessly stylish we miss the point that they have spent a lot of time and application acquiring the attributes to appear to be effortlessly stylish.


Anonymous said...

Circumstances are the rulers of the weak, instrument of the wise..........................

Tom Powdrill said...

ok reluctantly, because of spammers like the above, I'm going to introduce comment moderation.