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Posts tagged ‘Levitt and Dubner’

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?

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