The “carrots and sticks” practice is a cornerstone of motivation. But which incentive holds the most power, reward or punishment?
Carrots and sticks: Which one is the most influential in getting things done?
I read Carrots and Sticks by Ian Ayers. The book looks at the power of rewards and punishments to influence people’s behaviors. It makes the case that both methods can help people in reaching goals. It also indicates that in many cases, the stick is mightier than the carrot.
We want it now – the future is too far away
Why do I binge on candy when I’m on a diet? Why do I sleep in an extra hour or two on the weekend when I could get up and make great use of my free time? What prompts me to take actions in direct conflict with my goals?
Ayers says that the immediate gratification impulse can muscle out a long-term commitment. We are programmed by nature to prefer short-term and immediate satisfaction over self-denial and long-term rewards. Big rewards don’t carry much impact when the timeline to getting that reward is long. That is one reason many people in the US don’t have more than 90 days worth of income in savings and barely 50% of Americans have any funds in the stock market. When money is tight, the impulse to save for an uncertain “rainy day” is less powerful than the “I want it now!” mentality of instant gratification.
When given the option to choose an immediate reward or a larger, delayed reward, people invariably choose to receive their “bird in the hand” over the “two in the bush”.
So the momentary delight of something sweet and carby has a greater influence over us than the long-term (and far off) pleasure of a goal met and the reward of better health.
We don’t like to lose – even more than we like to win
We think we like to win. But in fact, we are more averse to a loss. A win is the promise of a gain. But a loss costs us resources we already have in our possession.
People routinely, even predictably, choose a course where the risk of a loss is mitigated. When the odds are 50/50 we are inclined not to take a risk because even though the chances of winning and losing are equal, we are more loathe to lose something we have than gain something we don’t have.
In order for the promise of carrots to outweigh the pain of sticks, there has to be a significant shift in the ratio of win to loss.
Exercising the “self-control” muscle
It is well-proven that willpower and self-control have limits. Making decisions, stress, or physical fatigue can sap our ability to and our self-control wears away.
I know this myself because I have observed my own capacity for self-control eroding depending on factors such as how hard I’ve been working, physical hunger or fatigue, or long-term stress. Humans are not designed to have an inexhaustible supply of will power. But there are things I can do to exercise my self-discipline, the same way I exercise a muscle to help it grow and become stronger.
Five ways I can strengthen my self-control without carrots or sticks
- Practice resisting temptation. This is a big one because resisting temptation takes energy. Ideally, the practice should be to actively remove temptations and thereby remove the struggle. Sugar, bread, and other dietary no-no’s are easier to resist when they are not present to trigger my cravings. In fact, making things just a little easier to do removes the temptation to stall or avoid things, too. Putting my walking shoes on my treadmill so I don’t spend energy remembering where they are can remove the temptation to skip a workout. Keep a book on my bedside table prevents me from wasting energy looking for it or remembering where I put it. I know use that energy for reading.
- Manage my stress in general. It is no secret that low-level, chronic stress has an adverse effect on health. Both chronic stress and a reactive mindset can blow a sense of self-control out of the water. I am practicing meditation so that, among other things, I can reduce my underlying stress and reactive mindset. By practicing calming techniques and reframing my attitude to a responsive mindset I can cut my stress levels significantly, leading to more reserve energy for self-control.
- Pick my priorities. Taking a chapter from “Extreme Ownership” I can practice better self-control by setting priorities. When something unquestionably comes first, and the focus is completely on that, all the energy flows to it. I can reduce my waste of energy by not multitasking or worrying over making multiple choices. Focus like a laser on what comes first, then step back, access, and choose the next priority.
- Eat right, sleep at night. Hunger, physical fatigue, and energy highs and lows can affect my self-control. If I eat sensibly my body and brain have the energy they need, in the right formula, to perform at their best. And by shutting the brain and body down and getting a proper night’s sleep, I recharge my reserves to full capacity instead of running on empty.
- Practice self-forgiveness. I have been learning about the Hawaiian healing practice of forgiveness called “Ho’oponopono”. It includes a meditative mantra: “I am sorry, please forgive me, thank you, I love you”. It is a ritual that heals the soul and I will be adding it to my meditation practices in the coming weeks. I have to accept that I am human. I will mess up and take actions that are opposite of my stated goals and self-interest. As such, I need to forgive myself, heal the wound, and move past it.
Make a commitment, and carry a big stick
Would you invest a little for the potential of a big reward? If I offered you the chance to “buy my weight gain” by putting a little money down on the promise that if I did not lose weight every week, I’d pay you $500?
Stay tuned, I may be doing just that.
For a long-term goal, Ayers suggests creating a binding contract with yourself. Like any contract, it should spell out the terms very clearly. This helps you prioritize your efforts and measure your progress.
It also spells out the penalties for breaking the contract. This can be as mild or as tough as you like, but Ayers says the threat of a single large punishment has greater influences on behaviors that several smaller, more tolerable punishments. Remember how we hate to lose more than we love to win? A big loss hits home with more impact that multiple losses even if they add up to the same consequence.
So to make a contract with yourself stick, you gotta hold a really big stick over yourself. The pain of violating the terms has to be greater even than the satisfaction of winning the multiple steps in a goal.
How “Carrots and Sticks” can help me lose weight
One of my favorite books, Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, teaches: “know your enemy, know yourself, and in a thousand battles you will not know defeat.” By learning the truth about what influences most people to succeed or fail at their goals, I can make informed and realistic choices about my own goals.
By breaking down big goals into small ones, I can see immediate results and receive the rewards faster. This helps me not get discouraged by long-term goals and prevents me from cheating, which I frequently do when a goal stretches into months in length.
Playing off the fact that I would rather keep what I have than lose something to gain something else, I can work on changing my mindset regarding the value I place on things. Would I mind giving up sugar if it felt less like a loss?
Through meditation, decision management, and small stretches in discipline, I can improve my self-control muscles and toughen myself against decision-fatigue.
Creating a commitment with big and immediate negative effects will encourage me to stay on track, even with long-term goals.