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If-Then rewards cause a search for loopholes – how psychology explains China

I recently finished a book called “Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us” that focuses on intrinsic motivation, how it can be bolstered or buffeted by workplace policies, and how it effects our overall happiness (I enjoyed the book, even if it was a little short). Like most things these days, there were several parts that reminded me of China (we’ll be looking at a second aspect in a later post).

If-Then rewards cause a search for loopholes

China’s government since reform and opening up has functioned more as a corporation than as a country. Within each level of government there is fierce competition for promotions that come with clear perks and benefits (and some that aren’t made quite so public).

As Daniel Pink points out in his well researched book, rewards (like promotions or bonuses) often create a desperate search for loopholes instead of actually accomplishing the goal as it was intended. Perhaps the best example of this run amok, is how much GDP growth factors into gov’t performance reviews. Even though on its face, it would seem that this kind of metric would benefit a wide range of people, from construction workers to farmers, instead gov’t officials search for ways to manipulate the statistics to reach their goals.

Similar things can be seen in China’s environmental pursuits. Like the fact that Beijing is increasing its number of “blue sky days” (which just reflect air of a certain quality, not the ability to see blue sky), even though days of extremely bad air quality are increasing. The problem is that the system allows local officials to shut down factories for a few days to meet the goal before continuing as usual; real progress is not being made.

As Pink points out, this ends up causing people to focus on only the short-term rewards instead of the long-term benefits. The results of this kind of if-then reward have been well documented; gov’t officials, who are only in a place for a fixed period of time, often ignore the long-term debt caused by their get rich quick schemes or pollution belching industries.

The same reward system also effects China’s students. Since the reward (getting into college) is such a major focus of education, a shift occurs in the students’ learning. No longer is the goal to actually obtain mastery of a subject, but becomes entirely focused on passing tests.

As several studies have shown, students motivated by grades alone instead of mastery, are capable of achieving high scores, but are less capable when the time comes to apply that knowledge to a new situation.

It means that not only do tests not create an accurate picture of who is worthy of college, but that in many cases high stakes tests create the problem in the first place.

As Pink suggests in the book, the way to curb the loophole seeking tendencies that go with large rewards is to broaden the requirements for the reward. In gov’t if long-term growth and environmental protection were a large part of the metric in deciding who is promoted, it would limit the short-sighted games. If colleges looked more at students as a complete individual, instead of as the sum of a single test, they would be better able to spot those full of potential, instead of simply finding those best at memorization.

(next we’ll look at why intrinsically motivated people are key to China’s future)