Reinforcement ≠ Reward

A quick review of “Drive” by Daniel Pink

I’ve recently approached Daniel Pink’s new book (“To Sell is Human”), and I felt the urge to share some considerations I’ve made on his previous book “Drive”. Pink’s thesis is that old models of financial rewards for increased productivity are no longer fit for purpose and often serve to encourage unethical behavior and promote short-term thinking. I won’t discuss this, basically because I agree with that idea. What upsets me is that, for discussing this topic, Pink wrote a book strongly based on an annoying leitmotiv: the behaviorist look (carrot and stick!) simply doesn’t work for understanding motivation. False. Don’t take me wrong: I consider Daniel Pink as a brilliant speaker and a smart writer, but the core of this book is simply incorrect.

Yes, people want to have control over their work (having the illusion of control also works great many times). Nevertheless, this is totally compatible with the behaviorist view. As reported by Susan Schneider in her book “The Science of Consequences”, the simple reward value of a change in stimulation can be greatly enhanced by having control:

Skinner once turned a lamp on and off whenever his infant daughter moved her arm, and she was shortly conducting a symphony.

Same o’ same o’: behaviorists would fail because they treat people as machinery denying them all sort of “human” capabilities including free will. People prefer to listen things like

We’re designed to be active and engaged. And we know that the richest experiences in our lives aren’t when we’re clamoring for validation from others, but when we’re listening to our own voice- doing something that matters, doing it well, and doing it in the service of a cause larger than ourselves.

Despite the fact that hearing voices, even our own, is not a healthy attitude… Pink’s arguments are wrong because he misses one important point: consequences that won’t come right after a behavior (temporal contingency), simply won’t work. Salary and other “incentives” delivered with some delay are not consequences of a specific behavior, thus will never act as reinforcers.

if a “reward” has no effect on a behavior, then it is not a reward.

Drive is not an scientific essay, it is an advice book whose purpose is to deliver one single message: YOU, the reader, who are probably looking for a way to boost your team productivity, remember that the boss (YOU!) is the most important force creating an environment where “intrinsic motivation” can happen. To sell is human, and Daniel Pink sold his book (a best seller!) at the expenses of a honest view of the behaviorist perspective. I kinda prefer the lack of depth of the “One Minute Manager”, because a little pat on the shoulder when you catch an employee doing the right thing IS often a reinforcer.