11 Sep 2009

Intrinsic Motivation

I recently posted Jorge Cham's lesson on the difference between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation, but here's another example:

I was at Burning Man, a place with a "gift" economy. That means that people don't exchange things (either through barter of goods or money for goods); rather, they give things with no expectation of reciprocation. It turns out that people are quite creative with gifts -- everything from pancakes to moonshine to stickers...

Of course, someone had to put an end to all this "free love," and thus we have begun to see the rise of regulations and bureaucracy around gifts. In particular, food "givers" were required to get permits before they could hand out cookies, lemonade, etc.

Another regulation stipulates that this girl is "dressed appropriately" for distributing ice. Seriously!

Now I think that someone has lost the plot. Food safety regulations are founded on the idea that customers are not exactly sure of what they are getting, since food is an experience good. Thus regulations are designed to protect consumers from paying good money for bad food.

But what if the food is free? Is it worth it to hand out contaminated food if all you get in return is a smile and a hug? For the vast majority of people (the sane), it is not. Why bother to bake cookies that people are not going to enjoy?

In fact, most people enjoy giving -- they derive intrinsic pleasure from making others happy -- and the lack of monetary compensation (explicit motivation) ensures that only those who really care are going to put in the (costly) effort to make and distribute those goods.

Taking this point as accurate, you have to ask yourself why there's any need to regulate food at Burning Man. If anything, the regulators care a lot less than the producers and consumers about the quality of the food. Since they care less and are imperfect observers, it's likely that their monitoring will be characterized by some mix of lazy, haphazard and over-zealous. Better to leave the "monitoring" to those who care about quality (the givers) and spend the day at the pool (inside joke).

Bottom Line: Some systems do not translate well from one environment to another. Beware of imposing them, cookie-cutter, and causing more harm than good.


  1. On the subject of intrinsic motivation, is there an economic principle behind the pic choice for a piece on food safety? If so, I think it is shared by my bosses at the Tribune Co., whose ideas of great photo subjects are sexy women, puppies and readers photos of more puppies.

    Also, re food. The roots of impossible regulation began with the notion of Zero Tolerance, that we could control microbial life. This was cynically embraced under Clinton and resented by major food processors until they realized that keeping up with ever-escalating costs of "food safety" (requiring refrigerated trucks for eggs, for example, which do not require refrigeration) drove pesky smaller competitors swiftly out of business.
    Some links: Great Egg Panic: http://articles.latimes.com/2000/jan/05/food/fo-50795
    Zero Tolerance: http://articles.latimes.com/2000/aug/16/food/fo-4848

    It is a guess, but we probably monitor food processing more closely than the upstream generous application of agricultural pesticides. My own take? Hold the atrazine and I'll take my chances with salmonella.

  2. She needs a hair net. Very unsanitary to get hair in the ice.

  3. I would suspect they require people to get licensed so they will have legal documentation on who might have handed out the cookies laced with ectasy or other space cakes, rather than for microbial safety...

  4. So you just take photos without any credit or listing any source? It is Amy Smart in Crank 2.

  5. @EG -- she's a decent version of the real food code at the ice house, and es, I think that people would rather see a girl than a guy (tho I was one of the guys with taped nipples once :)

    @Tim -- interesting point but irrelevant, I think. Drugged cookies are *more* expensive, so people who make them are likely to claim that there are drugs inside -- to get credit.

    @Anon2 -- sorry. I didn't know that's where she came from (perhaps I deleted your earlier, short comment on "Crank 2"?) -- she just popped up in my "taped nipples" google search :)

  6. Not having been to burning man, I wouldn’t know if everyone is on drugs or if they are widely out in the open. I’m not sure “who” is making people get food distribution licenses – the state, local cops, department of health, the burning man organizers or their insurance company. While I would largely agree that drug cookies are more expensive than ones without, I would also say that some might get non-monetary value in watching strangers unknowingly ingest acid… especially if small sums of money were irrelevant to them. Some people feed Alka-Seltzer to birds for the pleasure of watching them explode.

  7. @Tim -- I think it's the state bureaucracy, and I doubt the "cruel acid" scenario you relate -- esp. since acid takes time to kick in (victim is long gone) and b/c there are not very many a-holes @ BM. But perhaps I am an optimist :)

  8. Sorry,
    I worked at the State Capitol for 10-years, I think the worste of any minority.


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