Are the Carrot and the Stick Any Good?

by Will on January 2, 2013


The “carrot and stick” theory runs something like this: if you want to coax a particular behavior out of people in your charge, reward them when they do it. If they deviate, punish them.

There is also a specific prediction that the theory makes: when punished for a given behavior, a person will do less of it; and when rewarded, a person will do more of it. This idea pervades virtually all realms of authority: the law, parenting, teaching, work management, diplomacy, tax policy, and so on. It also pervades mainstream microeconomics, specifically in the realms of price theory, tax theory, and the theory of externalities. The prediction is simple and easy to test, yet people seldom test it.

According to the “carrot and stick” theory, locking people up in cages for years should discourage them from committing further crimes. Making the sentence longer and more dehumanizing should discourage crime even more. When these people are released, their freedom should encourage them to be law-abiding citizens. How does this seem to work out?

According to the “carrot and stick” theory, the poverty afflicting many families is discouragement from their alleged stupidity and laziness. It is supposed to be lively encouragement to vigorous and productive work. If their current suffering isn’t enough to motivate them, more severe hunger and humiliation should really get them in gear. Does it actually seem to work out this way?

According to the “carrot and stick” theory, our embargo against Cuba should discourage them from having a communist government, and encourage them to demand laissez-faire. The Israelis’ isolation of Gaza should discourage its people from having a Hamas government and encourage them to accept the Israelis’ presence. Is there any evidence that these policies have had the desired effect, or will in the future?

The theory also seems to predict that people will work twice as hard to get $60 thousand as they would to get $30 thousand, and that people who are earning millions of dollars must have worked harder than we could ever imagine. Is this the case?

In your life, when you do something solely for payment or reward, do you really put yourself into it? Will you keep doing it after the payment or reward arrives? If you do something just to avoid punishment, are you happy about doing it? Do you do a good job? Do you accept a bully’s treatment as fair simply because he warned in advance that he would punish you if you didn’t satisfy him?

I could go on for some time with examples. But it strikes me from both observation and experience that the “carrot and stick” theory is a very bad and counterproductive model of human behavior. It is abjectly unhelpful to both the person trying to manage and the person in his charge. It breeds instability, strife, and disaffection. It degrades respect for the social order. And yet it is embedded in countless systems of administration, diplomacy, theory, and social convention. If we remove it, all sorts of sacred edifices fall, and the legitimacy of many in positions of prestige comes into question. I suspect that this fact alone explains the theory’s persistence.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Meredith January 3, 2013 at 12:00 pm

This is about the campaign to get you on Facebook, isn’t it?


Will January 4, 2013 at 12:48 am

Ha ha. No, it’s actually not. It stems from my observations on classroom management and some reflections prompted by The Autobiography of Malcolm X. If I’m correct, the clear implication is that the “campaign” will not be successful.


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