On Intrinsic and Extrinsic Rewards

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caseforhandsI’ve recently been reading Matthew Crawford’s book The Case For Working With Your Hands, which is an extended critique of modern education and workplace practices. It’s one of those books where the over-riding impression is, ‘a bit ranty, but he’s a got a point’. Specifically, actually, the framing chapters are where it’s most ranty, and the middle is where he develops his more positive and compelling case about the relationship between intellect and ethics manifest in practical tasks. So if you can get past the opening, it’s worth it.

One thread of his argument resonated rather with questions about competition in art that I’ve written about here in recent times. The problem he identifies is that of extrinsic rewards, and how that can actually undermine achievement. For instance, he quotes Labaree:

Formal characteristics of schooling – such as grades, credits, and degrees – come to assume greater weight than substantive characteristics, as pursuing these badges of merit becomes more important than actually learning anything along the way (p. 145-6)

Likewise, Nadia Comaneci makes the point:

Athletes don’t think about making history when making history. They think about what they’re doing and that’s how it gets done (p. 180)

This is one of the central points of the critique of competition in art. It puts the focus on winning the contest, or scoring 75 points per judge, or some other kind goal that is essentially external to the activity itself. The point of the competition is to encourage people to strive for excellence in their work, but they can all too easily get distracted onto trying to win. It starts being about them, instead of about the art.

On the other hand, Crawford develops an ethic of work that values both objective standards inherent to the task (does the motorbike actually work?) and the social networks in which the task is embedded (gearheads like speed). This is interestingly and subtly different from a purely idealistic notion of intrinsic values. Rather, the intrinsic values are concretely grounded, in two separate places, and which may not be fully aligned in their imperatives.

The first intrinsic good is about getting things right. In a world where many things are up for negotiation, and subjective or contingent values may hold sway, there are still some things that impose objective demands on us that we can’t wish away. This is why Crawford places such value on concrete, physical tasks. We have to humble ourselves, let go of our egos in the face of them. You can’t spin away the fact that the roof leaks. A major part of the value of an activity, he argues, is thus the effect it has on the character of the actor.

The second intrinsic good is about responsibility to others. His examples revolve around the tension between the amount of work needed to make a bike work properly and how much work the owner of the bike can afford to pay for. The first intrinsic value is making different demands from the second, and that’s a practical compromise he always has to work with. And in this light, the value of competition re-emerges as a social group’s communal celebration of particular values they share.

So, he is rather paradoxically arguing that the point about intrinsic values is that they are external to the people involved, and the problem with extrinsic values is that they are ‘all about me’.

Actually, the most succinct statement of this point I have ever seen is in the mouse-over test in this xkcd cartoon:

I never trust anyone who's more excited about success than about doing the thing they want to be successful at.

And of course this doesn't apply just to competitions, but every occasion when it's possible to get things 'wrong'. So singers who focus on whether they're connecting with their audience, or if they've got the note right or not, or if their in time with their colleagues is focusing NOT on the job in hand, but rather the end result.

From the Front of the Choir

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