The “If – Then” bias

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One of the everlasting impressions I was left with after reading Dan Pink’s book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Usis the importance of the difference between “If – Then” rewards and “Now-That” rewards. While the first type creates a type of agreement thus making the reward contingent on the action (and some would say the other way around), the second type is a method to reinforce a behavior that was done not out of the hope to get a reward, but out of intrinsic motivation.

I was reminded of this difference while reading Terry Goodkind’s epic fantasy novel Soul of the Fire, where he writes:

Dalton Campbell leaned back to fish something from a pocket. “This is for you.” He flipped it through the air.

Fitch caught it and stared dumbly at the silver sovereign in his palm. He expected that most rich folk didn’t even carry such a huge sum about.

“But, sir, I haven’t worked the month, yet.”

“This is not your messenger’s wage. You get your wage at the end of every month.” Dalton Campbell lifted an eyebrow. “This is to show my appreciation for the job you did last night.”

Claudine Winthrop. That was what he meant – scaring Claudine Winthrop into keeping quiet.

Fitch laid the silver coin on the desk. With a finger, he reluctantly slid the coin a few inches toward Dalton Campbell.

“Master Campbell, you owe me nothing for that. You never promised me anything for it. I did it because I wanted to help you, and to protect the future Sovereign, not for a reward. I can’t take money I’m not owed.”

I love this part of the story for two reasons:

First, it captures the idea of the difference between “If – Then” and “Now-That” rewards wonderfully. The character described by the author, Fitch, says it clearly. I did not do what I did for a reward. I did it because I wanted to. Intrinsic motivation.

Second, more than that, it actually shows that people, both those that hand out rewards and those who receive it have a bias towards “If – Then” rewards. In Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, Pink claims that there is an incongruity between what science knows about motivation and what business (and people in general) does about it.  Goodkind’s description of Fitch accurately deals with the paradox. Fitch does not understand. You get a reward only if you are promised beforehand. Who gives somebody a reward after the fact?

As Pink claims in his book, the science in this area is not open to debate. In the long run, “Now-That” rewards are much more effective. And I ask you this: are you, your organization or those around you suffering from the “If – Then” bias?

Elad

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