Beware the Carrot and Stick

Are we all just a bunch of treat hounds pleasing our masters for empty rewards?

“The best use of money as a motivator is to pay people enough to take the issue of money off the table. But once we’ve cleared the table, carrots and sticks can achieve precisely the opposite of their intended aims.” — Daniel Pink

The carrot and stick metaphor has been around since at least the 1800s. The carrot represents the reward. The stick represents the punishment. You chase the former and avoid the latter.

It has been a staple of good management practices for so long, few bother to even question its efficacy. Recent research has demonstrated that while this approach can work for rudimentary tasks requiring little critical thinking, it can stifle creativity and actually de-motivate.

Some interesting examples:

  • A letter grade in school tends to lessen interest in learning.

  • A payment to donate blood tends to decrease donations.

  • A paid commission of art tends to result in less creative art.

The key finding is this: Getting a material reward for an act that is a reward in and of itself, devalues the act and dampens intrinsic motivation.

  • That letter grade makes learning about getting an A, not about expanding knowledge.

  • That payment for a blood donation replaces altruism with a time vs. money decision.

  • That commission replaces creativity with contract negotiation.

A dog becomes a treat hound if you reward every single act that is deemed desired behavior. The treat itself matters, not the act. The dog will do just about anything for the next treat.

Human beings are not much different in this respect. We naturally avoid punishment (the stick) and seek reward (the carrot). But is that all there is to life? Are we all just a bunch of treat hounds pleasing our masters for empty rewards?

If you value engagement over compliance, then beware the carrot and stick. The best rewards in life are intrinsic in nature: knowledge gained, skills acquired, acts of love, unbounded creativity explored... and all other things that serve a larger purpose in life.

“Control leads to compliance; autonomy leads to engagement.”