On the Folly of Rewarding A, While Hoping for B

Whether dealing with monkeys, rats, or human beings, it is hardly controversial to state that most organisms seek information concerning what activities are rewarded, and then seek to do (or at least pretend to do) those things, often to the virtual exclusion of activities not rewarded. . . . Nevertheless, numerous examples exist of reward systems that are fouled up in that behaviors which are rewarded are those which the rewarder is trying to discourage, while the behavior he desires is not being rewarded at all. –Steven Kerr

There are not many business management articles that I would consider “classics,” and there is perhaps only one that I would be tempted to call “indispensable”: Steven Kerr’s excellent 1975 article, “On the Folly of Rewarding A, While Hoping for B.” Nearly everything important about the article can be derived from the title: human institutions have a habit of rewarding one thing while expecting another. And this is dumb. Everything else is just examples.

Several of Kerr’s best examples come from my own field of academic administration. For example, most universities expect, and hope, that their faculty will be good teachers–some of us even go as far as to say that teaching students is the main reason that we exist. But faculty incentive structures at most universities overwhelmingly reward scholarly publication. Most tenure denials, and nearly all denials of promotion to full professor, are based almost entirely on the failure to publish. Good teaching, on the other hand, is nice when it happens.

Student reward structures are similarly skewed. According to the advertising brochures, we want our students to try and fail, to get messy, to develop a love of lifetime learning, to become global citizens, and to transform themselves into people who will change the world (preferably for the better). But to most students, what matters most are grades–and they matter to the exclusion of almost everything else. This is entirely rational; nearly all of the real rewards of an undergraduate education–good jobs, acceptance to graduate and professional schools, honors and awards–are based on a students’ GPA and precious little else.

Why does this misalignment between goals and incentives occur so frequently? Kerr gives four reasons. They are all worth paying attention to:

  1. Fascination with an “Objective” Criterion: Reward structures are usually based on measurable, quantifiable criteria, while most organizations’ important objectives are subjective and difficult to measure. 
  2. Overemphasis on Highly Visible Behaviors: We tend to reward what we can see most clearly, even when it is not what matters most. “Publications are easier to demonstrate than teaching,” Kerr explains, “and scoring baskets and hitting home runs are more readily observable than feeding teammates and advancing base runners. . . . Team-building and creativity are other examples of behaviors which may not be rewarded simply because they are hard to observe.”   
  3. Hypocrisy: Sometimes, organizations really are getting the behavior they want; they are just not honest about what they want. This is true, say, of companies that say they want creativity but really want loyalty, or bosses who say they want honest discussion but really want praise and deference. We get what we reward, not what we say we want.
  4. Emphasis on Morality or Equity Rather than Efficiency:  Many organizations, Kerr opines, are simply unwilling to state what their actual goals are, because “making a ton of money” sounds a lot less honorable than “making the world a better place by giving everybody the opportunity to use our product.” 

    The four reasons can be boiled down to two key maxims. 1) We measure what is most easily measured and use that as the basis for rewards (1 and 2). 2) We are afraid to be honest about what we really want (3 and 4).

Kerr does not mention religion in his article, but much of his reasoning applies to churches, religious schools, and other faith-based organizations. If you look at, say, the temple-recommend questions for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, you see a lot of subjective criteria–faith in Christ, understanding of the Atonement, honesty, family unity, etc. But if you look at the reasons that most people don’t have recommends, they overwhelmingly consist of violations of very objective, highly visible standards: tithing, the Word of Wisdom, chastity, and church attendance.

Or take the BYU/CES Honor Code , which begins with an emphasis on honesty and integrity but then gives a largely negative list of objective criteria upon which students will be evaluated and, if found wanting, expelled: don’t drink or smoke, don’t have sex, don’t grow a beard, don’t say bad words, and never miss Church. The incentive structure created by such a code–and the ways that it has traditionally been enforced–will generally fall into the trap that Kerr articulates. Students are strongly incentivized to perform religion on a public stage–sounding trumpets and disfiguring faces when necessary–while concealing or outright lying about private lapses.

And what about building the Kingdom of God? The things that are most important about our religion are not particularly measurable and are often private: mourning with those who mourn, comforting those who stand in need of comfort, giving and receiving grace, loving God with all of our hearts, seeing our neighbors as ourselves, caring deeply for the marginalized and the poor among us–that sort of thing. We say that we want these things, and few people would dispute their importance to our faith. But they rarely make it into the formal or informal incentive structures that govern most people’s behaviors.

Yeah, I know that religion is not supposed to be transactional. and people aren’t supposed to do good things for a reward, and how can I even suggest that incentives and disincentives actually matter to people’s devotional lives? But they do. We are biological organisms who have evolved to figure out what kind of behavior is going to be rewarded and then to engage in that behavior. If we build a complicated incentive structure that rewards A, we are going to get a whole lot of A.

This becomes a problem when you realize that B is the Kingdom of God.   


  1. Yes it’s an important article. I think it’s worth reminding ourselves (and I think Kerr says this, although it’s been a long time) that for all the reasons given just pointing out the problem doesn’t fix it, and just wringing our hands doesn’t fix it either. It’s more like a law of human nature than a logical fallacy. In my opinion.

    With respect to the temple recommend—a special area of interest for me—this thinking is a useful way to ask about the several questions where we demand absolute fidelity and where we are satisfied with “working on it” or “trying.” I do fear that we ding ourselves for small lapses in the Word of Wisdom (which could be viewed as a moderation rule, after all), and allow ourselves a wide berth on honest dealings and conduct related to family.

  2. Michael, I’m imagining a first-shall-be-last/last-shall-be-first implication in this list from the OP: “objective, highly visible standards: tithing, the Word of Wisdom, chastity, and tithing.”
    Is it intentional?

    Christian, Agreed. What could fix it?

  3. stephenchardy says:


    I see it a bit differently. I know a few… a handful… of parents/partners whom I think are highly likely to be abusive. That is: they appear to me to emotionally overact to problems at home. Their children/spouses are frightened of them. I am also quite certain that they are not able to see themselves as they are. They don’t think that they are abusive; rather they think that they are righteous. What I see as rigid over-controlling and angry parents, they see as a loving parent who “reproves with sharpness” when moved to do so. Because they are certain that they are themselves good and righteous people, then conference addresses or temple interview questions that are pointed towards them are completely missed. They don’t see themselves as someone with a control or anger problem; they see themselves as a keeper of the way.

    At least that is how I see it with a large number of emotionally abusive parents/partners.

    The temple recommend questions are, for me, a perfect example of what Michael Austin is talking about. I was recently speaking to a good friend about her upcoming temple recommend interview. She was dreading it. When I asked why she said that she didn’t think that the temple recommend questions are anything like the evaluation that she feels that we might go through when we meet up with our maker. Like an exam that results in teachers who “teach to the test”, the temple recommend interviews result in many of us “living to the questions” and not really accounting for our rightness before God (if that is the purpose of the recommend questions.)

    So, what you see as a “wide berth” on questions about conduct related to family, I see as simply an ineffective accounting process.

  4. Stephen, I think we’re seeing the world very similarly, even if using different words
    JR, as for what could fix it, as an opinion of one I think the Church can do very little (for all the reasons cited in the OP). But we participants in the system can do two things. One is to increasingly view the temple recommend questions as a self-evaluation rather than an externally driven examination with right and wrong answers. The second is to engage in a lifetime learning exercise in ethical and moral principles. If you combine the two, the asymptotic behavior is a possible fix.

  5. bennettmsu says:


  6. Mark Brown says:

    “When performance is measured, performance improves. When performance is measured and reported, the rate of improvement accelerates.”

    ~ Thomas S. Monson

  7. Wondering says:

    Mark Brown, I know of a number of significant exceptions in the Church context to that quote from President Monson. Some have to do with false reporting — motivated and perhaps requested by ecclesiastical superiors. Some have to do with matters that are not entirely in the control of the persons whose performance is ostensibly being measured. So what’s the point of the quote in the context of the OP?

  8. I remember a post here at BCC where the author talked about how much she admired the bodies of Olympic Swimmers, but the point of the article was that the swimmers were likely more focused on swimming times than on the shape of their body, and how church members who focus on living the commandments are more likely to end up with a healthy family than those members who are focused on their families. How does that fit in with this article?

  9. This

    A great critique on a critical area we need improvement in. And timely. I just spent a total of 4 hours a couple of weeks ago in securing my temple recommend. 2 hours with a counselor in the stake presidency and 2 hours with the stake president. (The counselor in the Bishopric was quick and easy although he said it was one of the more unusual interviews he had done.) These are really good men and I’ve known them for years. I wrote out and read my answers to each temple question because except for honesty and garment wearing and a couple of others I was not able to just say yes or no. And that includes the first four core questions.

  10. Kent Archibald says:

    “Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted” Albert Einstein

  11. Melinda says:

    stephenchardy – I’ve seen situations that you mention, in which a parent/partner is so rigidly ‘righteous’ that it crosses into abusive and problematic, and yet the individual doesn’t think he/she has a problem. I don’t know how to address it. Expecting people to just ponder their own behavior, when they’re blind to the effect they have on those around them, won’t produce any changes.

  12. Roger Hansen says:

    This dilemma plays out in the institution Church. For example, work for the dead has easy to measure accomplishments. Temple constructed, baptisms for the dead, etc. While humanitarian accomplishments are not so easy to measure. I think this dilemma encourages the leadership to overemphasize work for the dead, at the expense of humanitarian efforts. Number of temples announced or constructed has become a legacy item Church presidents.

  13. Janet S says:

    I guess this depends on what rewards you value. If public approval or callings to leadership matter to you, you perform to the leadership or the crowd. But God rewards those who serve him with the presence of the Holy Ghost and with visions and miracles. Which is why in the ward I grew up in, it was people who actually followed the less visible advice who were calling the dead back to life as teenage girls and being shown the future in vision as children. It is rather difficult to impress these people as adults with the false gods of public acclaim and rewards. They have tasted the white fruit of the tree of life and find anything less than this unsatisfying.

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