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A rewarding performance

By Joel Bevin - posted Tuesday, 11 November 2008

The red “stop walking” man was given some much-deserved exposure last month as Victoria Police launched a crackdown on jay-walking. A $57 fine would face the outlaws who began their perilous journey once the red man began to flash. Was this a case of keeping the peace or were budget pressures mounting as the finance department struggled to meet the travel expenses of a recently retired Police Commissioner?

As I tip-toed across Collins St under a shadow of darkness, eerily lit up by that glowing red man, I brushed my cynicism aside and wondered whether in fact the Victorian police were engaging in the fine art of incentivising.

Typically incentives are associated with positive behaviour which leads to a reward if performed successfully. As a banker, bonuses flow to those who transfer investor funds into securities tied to an apparently secure, and now dysfunctional, property market. Politicians garner votes by increasing the pension, along with a boost in the purple-rinse pokie tax. And at home, goodwill comes to those who don the pink washing-up gloves, along with a reputation for being an expert at the kitchen sink - not a reputation everyone seeks.


There are definitely rewards on offer for those who follow the ubiquitous law of incentives. Perform and be rewarded. The value of the reward determines the level of performance. A place on the Tournament of the Minds team at school, with events held on the weekend, did not exactly inspire intelligence. However a promise of 5 cents a caterpillar was just the impetus needed to tackle my childhood vegie garden.

Conversely, by punishing a certain action you create a disincentive designed to reduce that unwanted behaviour. Indulge in that botox treatment and deal with the onerous task of learning to smile again. Save money buying do-it-yourself furniture and look forward to asking why did you do-it-to-yourself over and over again. And fail to tip at the restaurant and enjoy a truly personalised service next time.

Victoria Police hoped that by slapping offenders with a fine, the unwelcome and downright life-threatening behaviour that is jaywalking would come to a halt. But did they price the disincentive at the right level? Too high and deal with local outrage and international sneer, and too low and risk being laughed at by adventurous pedestrians.

As I made that mercy dash across Collins St, it became clear the $57 was not going to cut it within my reward framework. At $80 I would have scanned the area in search of blue, $100 would have induced a faster heart rate, like the first time you “taste” a grape while doing the supermarket shopping, and anything over $150 and I would be in search of a one-way tickets to international cities of chaos, where respect for the red man is lacking. But the threat of a $57 fine was enough to hold back some who waited patiently as the highway-like traffic of Collins St failed to appear and Mr Red flashed with menace.

So how do you account for personal variation when acting on rewards and punishments? You can’t, and herein lies the problem. I think receiving a promotion should be rewarded with less work, my boss thinks differently. Then there are those charitable feelings we get when buying anything with a pink label, of course you are buying the Tim Tams solely to support breast cancer. And in a growing number of American states, a lethal injection is considered appropriate punishment for murder which is, I assume, performed in a less humane way than that lethal injection.

On Sunday Amrozi, whose fame came with the horrific terrorist bombings of Kuta nightclub in 2002, and that enduring smile, was executed by firing squad. Surveys indicate that the majority of Australians support this punishment, kill and be killed. A disincentive to correct even my law-breaking ways.


But the disincentive was lacking in Amrozi’s mind. He judged the promise of martyrdom which was to come with masterminding the bombings to outweigh any punishment law makers could conceive and those facing the death penalty around the world must have arrived at the same judgment.

Is it possible to devise a disincentive structure so that the ultimate penalty represents too-high a price to pay for individuals who view murder as a tool for resolution?

Religion may have a role to play. God-fearing souls might think twice if hell had a degree of credibility, a makeover for the devil would be a good start. Once devil horns began to feature in sex shops, the idea of hell became hot and steamy rather than fiery and filled with brimstone (otherwise known as sulphur), the element used to treat dried fruit and the worst those who wrote the Revelations could come up with.

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About the Author

Joel currently lives in Melbourne and works in consulting on social trends and demographics. He is studying his Masters in International Relations and Trade. He runs two websites: where he writes about people and the world and where he interviews people about themselves and the world.

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