Friday, February 24, 2012

Off-topic: Punished by Rewards

Every year, I go to the Hacker's Conference, a get-together of "old-school" hackers and makers. Associated with the conference is an active mailing list that's been around for decades. Recently, there has been an active discussion concerning bosses like Steve Jobs, and why people work for them (and put up with them).

A post came across the list from Laura Creighton that I thought was very interesting and perceptive. While it's not directly related to EVE, it does have some insights that do apply to the game, CSM and CCP, and which I think are very worth sharing.

So, with Laura's kind permission, here's what she wrote:
Interestingly, every study I have seen where people have studied the effects of 'rewarding people for doing well' has proven, conclusively, that people, collectively perform much worse if they are rewarded for doing well. 
There are 2 caveats to this. The first is that, in selecting a job, people really do often choose the one that pays best, has the most perks, etc. So yes, paying your employees well does tend to attract the most people, which does give you a better shot at 'selecting the best' from the more that show up. And some very good people will not show up unless you pay them well -- they have taken jobs somewhere else where they were. Also, some jobs, which are of the pure drudgery sort, can be set up so that people are so desperate for immediate gratification that they will work for the incentive. 
Otherwise, the immediate effect of rewarding people for doing well is to crush performance. And what is worse, it never comes back. It turns out that most people do their job well because they like doing their job well. But if you start rewarding them for that, they stop doing things in order to nurture their own creativity, but instead start doing things that they think of as being 'worth the reward'. And most top performers perform better, work harder, and are more creative when doing things for their own sake than in order to get a reward. Their productivity decreases. 
And down among the bottom performers, things are even worse. Suddenly the only reason to do the job is perceived to get rewards which will never come to these people. They completely lose motivation, and slack off totally. Thus the whole thing is a catastrophe. 
We are getting better at understanding why this is so. The parts of the brain that the creative person uses when being creative and productive are different parts of the brain that are used when rewards are being calculated. And, of course, the whole business of giving rewards has, in addition to the message 'you did well' but the message 'I am an authority who gets to judge you'. Primates have lots of brain circuitry devoted to understanding one's ranking in a group, compared to the alpha-beings who get to judge you. 
Current neuroscience says that you cannot use the creative part and the social-status part at the same time, and you can max out on using the greedy calculator in your brain to the detriment of your creativity. This is why when you are really, really being creative you often feel entirely outside of yourself. Your social insecurities, and your greed just drop right off. For many people -- but not this list -- this never happens
Thus people who have never had a creative thought in their whole lives think only in terms of social rewards, and don't know they are killing creativity by doing this. 
See Alfie Kohn's Punished by Rewards to learn more about this fascinating stuff. The book is quite old, and we have known about this for quite some time, but there are links to researchers who have more recent research. It always says the same thing. 
So, what I think is significant about Jobs isn't about reward. It might be about punishment -- I haven't seen that studied as much. The papers I see seem to indicate that it works in environments where you desire caution, but it is bad for creativity as well, so I tend to think that this wasn't the important bit either. 
What I think was significant was that, when things are uncertain, a huge number of people really want to follow somebody who appears to be wholely convinced of their own vision, and who is decisive, and who isn't uncertain at all. People are happier following somebody who is confident, though wrong than somebody who is uncertain, though posessing a greater critical awareness, which contributes to their uncertainty. 
This may have relevance to the Kruger & Dunning study Unskilled and Unaware of it -- a very good read.
People who are unaware of how unskilled they are at something often bite off more than they can chew. Most, of course, fail miserarbly. But the odd one succeeds, often by using a technique that would not occur to those with greater familiarity with the problem. Perhaps leadership works this way as well. Some leaders may have been made great by the caliber of the people who chose to follow them, precisely because they were confident where a wiser person would have doubts.
I'm sure everyone, after reading this, can think of ways in which it applies to their EVE experience.


  1. You might want to have a loot at this:

    "This lively RSAnimate, adapted from Dan Pink's talk at the RSA, illustrates the hidden truths behind what really motivates us at home and in the workplace."

    At about 5:12:
    "3 Factors lead to better performance and personal satisfaction:

    but really, take the 10mins to listen/read to that .

  2. Makes sense -- hence why in a world dominated by narcisstic dicks obsessed with "appearances" and "status", there's VERY little creativity. See also: modern music, modern movies, and EVE as regards fitting, fleet compositions, "doctrinal warfare". ;-) "No we can't try something new, if it fails we'll be publicly humiliated on our KB!!! *rage-rage-emorage*"

    Also proven psychological fact that yes, people do like following a narcissistic asshat who's way out of his league and doesn't know it, but sure talks like he's right at home... Well, they love it til he fails, throws an emoragefit, and because he's sure of HIS abilities, starts blaming everyone else even remotely around him for his failings...
    Yes, that's surely a pleasant person to work for. Only not. Trust me, I have ages (virtually my entire 33-year lifetime) living with, dealing with, and working for, narcissistic fucksticks. They may succeed from time to time, but realize that that is far more to do with "stopped clock right twice a day" than any actual knowledge, skill, or ability on their part. :-/