March 29, 2009

The discounting principle

Paolo Terni sent me a video of a TED lecture by Barry Schwartz which contains an example of the discounting principle. The discounting principle describes the human tendency to discount our judgment about the causal role of one factor (for instance intrinsic motivation for playing the piano) when there are other plausible explanations (for instance being rewarded with candy for playing the piano) (Wilson, 2002). In other words: when you 'reward' someone for doing something this may well undermine his intrinsic motivation for the task and hurt his performance too (also read: Demotivating effects of incentive pay and Praise can demotivate).

Here is that example: "In Switzerland, about 15 years ago, they were trying to decide where to site nuclear waste dumps. There was going to be a national referendum and some psychologist went around and polled citizens who were very well informed and they said would you be willing to have a nuclear waste dump in your community. Astonishingly 50 % of the citizens said 'yes'. They knew or they thought it was dangerous. They thought it would reduce their property values but …. it had to go somewhere and they had responsibilities as citizens. The psychologist asked other people a slightly different question. They said: if we paid you six weeks' salary every year, would you be willing to have a nuclear waste dump in your community? Two reasons: it’s my responsibility and I’m getting paid. Instead of 50% saying 'yes', 25% said 'yes'."


  1. Nice example, isn't it?
    You can find it also in the book "sway" and in others...
    anyway, what did you think about what Schwartz said?
    I liked it when he said that all the rules that have been introduced in the workplace prevent disasters but allow mediocrity...
    thanks for mentioning me,

  2. Hi Coert -- interesting! Maria Montessori also made that point. In Montessori schools children are also not "praised" for good work but more asked "what did you get from it?" ... (When I ask my son (in Montessori School "what did you learn in school" he always says "nothing". Then I learned that they speak of "working" and when I ask: "What did you do?" He says: "O... I worked on a project on the sceleton, did some grammar box, ..." I think, especially with learning praise for the interest, for persistence, "process praise" rather than result praise is a good idea. I personally still remember detesting "Making teacher happy praise" for completely irrelevant (to me) things, like when I had a wonderful idea in a French essay and the teacher praised my handwriting ...

    Kind regards,

  3. Hi Kirsten, Thank you. I think it is important to communicate with children in such a way that their intrinsic motivation is supported. You can read a bit more about this here:


Enter your email address:

Delivered by FeedBurner