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Matt Damon Brings Back Will Hunting

By now, some of you may have seen this video, and I hope you appreciate it as much as I do. No, I am not really interested in the merits of teaching (although check this out if you are), but I am interested in the point Damon makes regarding incentives.

I think explaining human behavior with incentives is a huge oversimplification. That’s why I cringe in the introduction to Levitt and Dubner’s Freakonomics, when they claim that:

Incentives are the cornerstone of modern life. And understanding them – or, often, ferreting them out – is the key to solving just about any riddle, from violent crime to sports cheating to online dating.

As Damon says, incentives usually miss the point – people do what they do because they want to do it. Teachers teach because they love teaching and actors act because they love acting; neither have any incentives, both have passions.

Levitt and Dubner would respond by saying that Damon is wrong; the incentive that motivates passionate teachers and actors is the pleasure that comes with their work. In other words, doesn’t Damon act because he has the incentive to fulfill his love for acting?

I am not sure if either is correct. In fact, saying that Damon acts because he is passionate about acting and saying that he acts because he has the incentive to fulfill his love for acting is, I think, saying the same thing in two different ways. So I don’t know which story is better.

My real problem is with Dubner and Levitt’s “incentives are the cornerstone of modern life” assertion. First of all, I am not sure what modern life is. There are nearly 7 billion people living on Earth, some with access to everything, some with access to nothing, and most somewhere in between, and in any given day there are thousands of different cultures, societies, languages, and customs being exchanged. Such a diverse arena cannot be labeled so easily.

Second, it is ridiculous to try to sum up human behavior – an enormously complex thing – with such a simple concept as an incentive; there are no cornerstones of life (modern or otherwise), in other words. Why do people behave the way they do? I don’t know, but I am not stupid enough to claim that incentives are the “key to solving just about every riddle.”

Finally, I think it is fair to say that Damon harnesses the power of Will Hunting in his response to that reporter. Watch below… it is nearly identical?

11 Comments Post a comment
  1. A few teachers may teach because they love teaching; most competent teachers probably do. But not every teacher who loves teaching is a good teacher, and those teachers need incentives to improve their performance, or they need to find another profession.

    August 3, 2011
  2. And, actually, Damon’s response itself was pretty ludicrous and not particularly clever. In fact, in the Ballasy video Damon looked more like the tool with the ponytail.

    August 3, 2011
    • sammcnerney #

      hahaha, but he did get the girl.

      August 3, 2011
  3. sammcnerney #

    Yes, I think those teachers do need incentives to improve their performance… just look at what Michelle Rhe did in Washington DC and what Michael Canada did in Harlem.

    But again, I don’t think that really explains anything. Saying “he or she got better because he or she responded to an incentive,” is not much of an explanation if you ask me.

    August 3, 2011
  4. Dan #

    It seems like the point here is that peoples’ actions are influenced/born out of the incredibly complexity of the universe. It seems a bit silly to discredit “incentives” in favor of “passion” by saying that “incentives” oversimplify the world; “passion” equally oversimplifies life. Do teachers know from birth what they love to do? Do they always love teaching? Can this love be altered (predictably so?) in any way? If there is any doubt about the complexity of “passion”, consider marriage (I think that argument delivers itself). But the true issue is not one of complexity. The issue is whether there exists causality, and thereby the possibility of predictability. In this debate there seem to be three possibilities. 1) There exists causality in human behavior, and that, in at least one instance can be described. 2) The nuance of human behavior is so fine as to always evade description. 3) Causality does not exists. If, in fact, the first statement is true, then incentives can be useful in constructing a model of behavior. If the second or third statements are true, then incentives are not useful and possibly destructive in that they may provide a false sense of understanding. There is ample evidence that human behavior, in controlled settings and otherwise, can be predicted to at least some degree. Given the massive implications of predicting human behavior (i.e. public policy), we can– and should– use incentives to model human behavior, provided that the model has some degree of predictive ability. Of course, it is a matter of faith that any specific model has predictive ability. Informed and honest debate is the only way to determine the best model and whether that model is predictive. Any given models based on incentives may not be useful, but in so far as they are useful more often than not, they ought to be utilized. Providing anecdotes about when incentives fail to completely predict behavior is no argument against them; Incentives will fail to explain many or most things, but that doesn’t make their use wrong. In considering the debate about “incentives” I am reminded of a quote from an episode of The Daily Show a few days back: “Government (read: incentive-based models) may not be perfect, but some of us wish it was better, not gone.” I don’t think Matt Damon was saying incentives are the wrong way to look at education policy, instead he was expressing frustration with the model that places undue importance on tenure. Maybe he doesn’t know it, but he has a preferred model in mind– a model that considers personal satisfaction to be massively important.

    August 3, 2011
    • Dan #

      can you tell that I’m bored?

      August 3, 2011
      • sammcnerney #

        Nice outline Dan, very thorough. Let’s see.

        I think you’re right to point out that the issue at hand is having to do with causality. In terms of your three possibilities, I currently most partial to the third – that it doesn’t exist, or that it exist as a way for human beings to make sense of the world, a sort of heuristic if you will. The problem with this, however, is that it is not very helpful and brings us to a dead end.

        This does not mean that incentives – however much credibility we are giving them – can’t be useful. As you have pointed out, they can be more useful than not, and the question is when and where this is true. Freakonomics outlines a number of instances in which they are (catching cheating teachers and sumo wrestlers) as does the Thaler and Sunstein book Nudge. I know nothing of public policy/how to use incentives so I can’t say much about this.

        At the end of the day, I am most interested in incentives at the theoretical level, and, as you may have guessed from my post, I think they are bullshit. But maybe not, and perhaps if we can understand them more, we will be able to predict human behavior “at least to some degree.”

        Don’t get too bored, Kierkegaard thought that boredom was the root of all evil, but he was just a bullshit existential philosopher right?

        August 3, 2011
  5. Dan #

    Sounds like Kierkegaard believed in causality.

    August 3, 2011
  6. Stephen #

    I really didn’t hear Damon dismiss out of hand the need for incentives, but rather the idea that without “incentives” teachers would simply collapse into their lowest energy state and craft a career composed of “getting by” or running out the clock ’till retirement – all those old cliches about job security and government work. He’s saying, surely, that in most teachers there’s an innate desire to teach well, and a delight in the well taught. You have to begin from that, then ok, deal with the outliers and reprobates an so forth, but don’t poison your vision and theirs by treating them like circus animals to be trained with stick and carrot.

    August 13, 2011
    • for The Road to Myself: Dying to Live! It’s my story of surviving linvig with undiagnosed Adult Attention Deficit Disorder until the age of 35! My near-suicide last year was the climax, and the emotional breakdown that had

      February 7, 2013
  7. Ron Artest #

    I don’t really understand how teachers have bad hours, for the record. I recall hearing as a perk that teachers love the hours they have; 7-3/4, weekends off, snow days and summers. Yeah Damon, terrible hours! On top of that, teachers who get tenure who don’t really love teaching might keep the job because of those hours and once they get tenured it’s harder to fire them. Maybe their incentive is to skate through a job until they can retire in however many years.

    The incentive versus passion argument is a stupid one to have.

    September 12, 2011

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