Carrot and Stick in Motivation

Motivation is hard to define, and needs to be broken down into component pieces to see how Just Deserts can affect it.


Motivation is another word whose meaning or implications change with its application. Generally it means the level of emotion that propels someone to accomplish a task, but in economic systems, it means the emotional drive to produce useful things for society. A highly motivated person produces more, because of the additional attention they apply to the task, the speed at which they work, the creativity they introduce into the work, the analysis they do to ensure the task is done well, the length of time they put into it and the amount of thought about it which is generated during times when they are not focused on the task, and even more. Someone with little experience in working might not feel the same effects from motivation, and only have one or a few of the above effects happening, so the definition is vague, but it can still be used.

We do not have a measure for motivation, as it is so diverse and its effects so varied. Productivity increases with motivated workers, both at an instant in time as they work hard and faster and more accurately, but also dynamically as they offer ways to improve the task or incorporate these improved ways in their own efforts. Thus, for a given labor expense, measured in individuals employed for a fixed amount of time, more is produced and society in general has more.

Motivation also feels good to those who have it. It produces some positive emotional feedback. This is colloquially expressed in different way, for example, by saying the individual enjoys the work. They do enjoy it, meaning they feel good when they do it and better when they do it well.

One can find a variety of ways that motivation can affect an individual. One saying in our society is to wish that someone starting a career can find work they enjoy. This is somewhat different than saying some people are motivated, meaning anything they do they find motivating. The difference here is from child-rearing. One individual was complimented and praised for doing a particular thing very well, so they choose to find things to do which are analogous to it, and then their brain dredges up the former happy memories, unconsciously, and they have found work which they enjoy. Other individuals might have been complimented and praised for doing everything well, and their brain dredges up these former happy memories, unconsciously, whenever they have a task to do and they put their full attention and energy into it. Motivation is simply a reflection of some details of child-rearing.

Short of a government program for child-rearing counseling or something else to effect child-rearing among large masses of people, economic systems are stuck with dealing with what they have: a mixture of highly motivated people with generic interests, highly motivated people with specific interests, moderately motivated people within the same two divisions, and unmotivated people. It would be very fanciful to assume that people whose child-rearing positioned them in the unmotivated group could be somehow re-indoctrinated to become motivated or that somewhere there is a undiscovered and productive task area that would motivate them. Instead, the economic system needs to be constructed so it can deal with this mix of people.

This is not to say that there are not people apparently in the unmotivated bin who have simply not yet found some task with attributes which motivate them, moderately or even intensely. There needs to be some aptitude and interest testing, in a very in-depth and professional way, which helps people find what tasks that society has to offer which will strike a chord within what their child-rearing has provided them as positive handles.

There is also a negative side of these handles. A task which might otherwise be something that motivates an individual might also raise in that individual some negative feelings, which would undermine the motivation and render the positive connections impotent.

It is also not to say that some counseling or advice or therapy might not change a person from unmotivated to motivated, either by unlocking some positive associations within their mind or by dissolving or mitigating the negative ones. Both of these methods, interest testing and counseling, can change the percentage of those in the unmotivated category. But they would not eliminate it. An economic system has to be able to deal with individuals with that predilection.

There is a difference between an economic system which has to function during times of scarcity, when actual physical needs are not quite being met, and times of abundance, when they are and are even surpassed in a small or large measure. In older times, when famine struck or war destroyed resources or drought persisted or any of a slew of other problems arose, people perished. Historical records show there were such periods, and populations affected declined. While the records are incomplete in this regard, it would be reasonable to assume that motivated people and their families fared better than unmotivated ones. Perhaps it is more reasonable to assume that motivation ceased to be a problem for most people, as hunger is about as strong a motivator as can exist. This is the stick that can exist to solve the motivation problem.

In times of abundance, where society as a whole has sufficient necessities so that all can survive, this stick might or might not endure, depending on how the economic system allocates its rewards. Rewards are things that flow from their sources, which are the productive facilities of the society such as farms and factories, mines and gathering processes such as fishing, through society to the ultimate consumer. In the oldest times, this was ordered by family or village. The farming family consumed what it produced. The village divided up what was caught or produced in the village commons. After that, property rights came into vogue and partially displaced these older methods. Ownership initially became fractionated, with some sort of higher level individuals possessing some rights to the production of goods and the remainder having their own rights. The fractionation system gradually was displaced by an accounting scheme, which had many variations. Accounting led to money, which is a simpler method of accounting than having everyone keep tallies of what they owed and what they were owed.

These methods obscure the basics of what is happening in the society, and when they become the focus of an economic system, they can capture the direction of thought. Distribution methods are merely the means by which some agreed-upon allocation of production takes place. The agreement, implicit or explicit, is something that needs to be examined most carefully, and then, in a new economic system, some methods need to be determined which will implement it. These methods are important, as they may not work, given the common tendency toward corruption, greed, and criminality, but they should not be taken as the fundamental part of an economic system.

Instead, the fundamental part of an economic system is the choice of allocation. Specifically, who makes the decision about allocation, and when might it be changed? Is it done by some subset of individuals on a recurring basis, so that in each interval of time allocation can be redecided? In this situation, rules that this subset choose can be enforced by the next round of allocation. If the subset is so predisposed, productivity can be a significant factor in allocation, and this re-introduces the stick into motivational questions. People who are not motivated on the basis of their child-rearing and good fortune in finding things to do which they enjoy, might well be motivated on the basis of shortages of necessities. If the society grows too complex, there might be and probably would be an introduction of rights, which are simply part of a system of rules in a formal allocation system.

Allocation is a complex problem, and how individuals are categorized is the first step in any formal system. Is the categorization hierarchical? Does a particular region or village or family receive an allocation or is it done on an individual basis? Clearly there are limits on individual allocations based on the capability of those doing the allocation to deal with individuals, meaning to identify them, connect with them, determine the necessary information about them to implement the rules set up, and then to distribute the rewards. In a hierarchical categorization system, allocation also becomes hierarchical. If rewards are distributed on a family basis, the head of the household determines how they are divided within the family.

Levels of hierarchy work better in situations where the data available for allocation is not easily gathered and processed. But no matter what the degree of hierarchy, the question still exists of how to use the stick of motivation, if at all. Those individuals who have found their carrot, a job they enjoy, have no problem with motivation. Those who have not might be presented with the stick of a shortage of allocation. How this works, dynamically, in different types and organizations of society deserves more discussion.

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