Newtown, CT – July 5, 2013
Dogs can teach us a lot about the conflicts of motivation – Like many in suburbia, my dog wears a zapping collar that will discharge a small shock if she gets too close to the invisible fence. The fence runs alongside the main road, which has high traffic. My neighbors also have a dog with the same type of collar. My dog is very often motivated to get past the invisible fence, for example when she sees me go for a run, or when she sniffs out a deer who runs to the other side of the road. However strong that motivation, it's not as strong as her motivation to avoid getting zapped. She has never gotten zapped by the collar after her first training, over two years ago. My neighbors' dog, conversely, gets zapped at least three or four times a week. And I know she gets zapped because I hear her yelping loudly. So while it must hurt, her motivation to follow a scent, or a car, or simply to get on the other side of the road is greater than the negative charge she gets from the collar. Perhaps a stronger charge would work, or perhaps her inner motivation to be the Border Collie she is simply cannot be tamed by a negative charge. Similarly, Joey Chestnut's seventh consecutive win and world record eating hot dogs shows that his motivation to be the champ is simply greater than other self-preservation motivation.
What this means to you – Over the past few months there's been an interesting debate between Horwitz et al and Ron Goetzl on the ethics, evidence and efficacy of workplace wellness. The paper seemed innocuous enough, arguing that workplace wellness shouldn't turn into a penalty for the vulnerable employees – typical stuff from academics without practical experience who simply assume that all overweight, sedentary, smoking employees are the socioeconomically vulnerable ones (they should tour a few factories of well-paid workers!!!). Ron charged to the rescue in a very long post, which was answered by Horwitz et al on Monday. The upshot is that, to a degree, they both miss the point. The issue is more about motivation than incentives, and there are many motivations co-existing within individuals (many more than in dogs!!). And incentives – positive or negative – can tilt motivation in one direction or the other. Clearly, for Joey, the incentive of fame and fortune tilts his motivation to be the champ above any other. Similarly, employers instituting penalties for smokers through higher premium contribution rates can tilt the motivation to stop smoking above the motivation to get a nicotine high. We've seen this in other instances, for example speeding or wearing seat belts and car insurance rates, and there's little question that motivation for one goal can be overtaken by the motivation for another, and protecting one's income is one of the more powerful of motivations, as is protecting oneself against physical harm. So at the end of the day, however strong my neighbors' Border Collie's motivation to roam, if they up the zap on the collar, her motivation to not get zapped will assert itself.
Francois de Brantes
Health Care Incentives Improvement Institute, Inc.