everyone except us

What is it with professionals and looking at behavior through the incentives lens? Very popular lens, since micro-economics has taken over the social sciences. Which is already quite a while. Incentives talk is now all over the place. It has left academia and become common sense. Maybe better: common sense has come full circle because incentives thinking, like most social science theory, is a pretty obvious example of folk theory, folk psychology in this case. The usual trajectory is systematization of common sense using arcane jargon, the trickling back of the jargon from academic debates into the general public domain, until the jargon has lost its technical aura to such an extent that many consider it common sense again. Sure, not all of the jargon makes it back into common sense. But you don’t need to think in terms of maximizing rational utility to understand the nudge most of us respond to if given the right kinda incentive.

Policy debates, whatever the policy domain, are infused with incentives thinking. And its professionals who dominate such debates. They come up with the proposals that politicians and administrators adopt and implement. But there is this curious unwillingness to include their own tribe into those assumed to respond to simple incentives.

Medical doctors and the countless perks offered by the pharmaceutical industry? Researchers receiving funding from lobby organizations for particular industrial and/or political platforms? Politicians receiving campaign funding and post-political career job prospects from private interests?  No way they can be influenced is it?

Various explanatory possibilities come to mind. They don’t really believe in the incentives, they’re self-interested bastards, they’re way more stupid than they seem, or they’re just similar to everyone else, without the external controls that your average blue collar citizen is subjected to.

In my worldview, or should I say folk psychology (something which strongly influences my academic preferences), the make-up of our species is not very new agy, no age of Aquarius around the corner. Mix belief in evolution with the quick and dirty efficiency but also shortcomings of our “cognitive” assessment of the world, including ourselves (read Kahneman you’ll get the picture), and the last explanation is pretty much how I understand it. And that includes that they are self-interested, as we all are, and not particularly clever. Anything darker then this would assume conspiracies, which would assume really clever manipulators able to strategize and plan for a basically unknowable future on a massive scale. Just doesn’t sit well with my view of our species as apes with overdeveloped cortexes, but otherwise all in it for the sex, the drugs and the rock & roll.

One conclusion is evident: never ever trust appeals for self-regulation being the best solution to deal with professional misconduct.

Another conclusion: never trust an incentives based system to deliver what it is supposed to deliver unless a thorough evaluation has shown it to do so, and has shown it to have no unintended consequences that cause more harm than the good that it is supposed to be doing. You can assume the professionals who designed the system to have been way to naive and dumb to foresee how the professionals who are subjected to it will play it. Dutch service sectors funded by public money are all subjected to so-called “performance based” funding, basically incentives based system to control costs. Higher education, courts, health care….stories about professionals playing the system abound (a recent one).

About roger henke

Still figuring out the story line that would satisfy myself here. Listening to what my family and friends evoke, what the words I absorb, the images that move me, the movements that still me, point to.
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1 Response to everyone except us

  1. Pingback: Self-delusion, not greed, caused HBOS to fail | Joris Luyendijk | roger henke's fancies

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