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The Fallacy of Carrots and Sticks

Why our focus on the individual is misplaced

In business and society we are taught about the importance of individual motivation. When business planners try to identify appropriate motivational levers to provoke desired behaviors, they usually consider a trade-off between the positive, the 'carrot', and the negative, the 'stick'. The donkey analogy is commonly used to illustrate this situation. Our goal is to get a donkey to move, and we craft our options based on the psychology of motivation, thus resorting to the tasty carrot or the nasty stick.

And yet the donkey rarely finds himself alone. There are often other donkeys in the field. These other donkeys provide a powerful reference frame for the donkey we are trying to persuade. In a business situation the equivalent of 'the other donkeys' is also a motivation in itself, quite possibly overpowering any individual motivational factors that might be present.

The growing use of behavioral psychology is bringing benefits in terms of more human solutions to tricky problems. However, we believe that the focus on individual psychology is mistaken. We do not need to understand or address the motivations of the vast majority of people on the level of the individual. Instead we need to revisit our definition of motivation and add in a separate social element: people follow other people (or donkeys).

The good news is that this rule greatly simplifies the world and reduces the complexity of the problems we face in human persuasion. Donkeys follow, people follow. And with that rule we can start to design solutions that spread and scale more effectively.