Dubai, UAE. The Gulf state is experimenting with ways to discourage bad behavior by its residents that don't resort to penalties. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Which would you prefer? Being fined for speeding, or being rewarded with cheaper car insurance for sticking to the limit for a year? How about your electricity bill? How would you feel about seeing it cut by, say, 10% for reducing your household’s annual consumption?

Questions about the relative social benefits of carrots and sticks are provoked by a new initiative from the Department of Behavioral Rewards at the UAE’s Ministry of Possibilities. The ministry’s brief is to develop “disruptive solutions to tackle critical issues [and] instill a culture in which impossible challenges can be tackled effectively,” and its latest idea is a rewards scheme designed to motivate positive social behavior.

Few details have been released yet, beyond the idea that people will be able to win points by their behavior to pay for government services. Ultimately, though, the scheme raises a question that has teased psychologists and confounded governments around the world for centuries: Do people in general respond better to threats or to rewards?

In certain transactional circumstances, offering carrots is a clear winner – we frequent the coffee shop that gives us our every 10th coffee free of charge.

But persuading people to do what a government wants them to do – even if it is clearly in their best interest – is a trickier business.

Governments try to dissuade citizens from behavior that is ultimately costly for society – such as drinking alcohol, smoking or becoming obese – by imposing punitive taxes. The results are mixed. The poor are punished, and perhaps seek solace in cheaper but equally harmful behavior, while the wealthy carry on drinking, eating and smoking their way to an early grave.

This is where “nudge theory” comes in – the idea that it is best to create circumstances in which people can find their own way to doing the right thing.

But this approach is no more guaranteed to succeed than issuing blunt directives, as the UK’s Institute for Government discovered a few years back when it asked a team of psychologists to study the pros and cons of different ways of influencing public behavior.

Nudging people, they concluded, can have “unintended consequences. Information about how many people are obese may actually encourage more people to join a ‘club’ of which there are many members, while introducing financial incentives to behave a certain way could actually make people less likely to behave that way for free.”

Neither does rewarding people for good behavior always work. In some situations, people respond more positively to the threat of losses than to the promise of rewards.

A review of trials of treatments for obesity involving the use of financial incentives found no significant effect on long-term weight loss. On the other hand, a scheme that asked participants to deposit money in an account that would be returned to them only if they met weight-loss targets yielded excellent results.

We are, in short, unpredictable creatures, whose response even to peer pressure cannot always be anticipated.

The phenomenon of social norms – that on the whole people tend to copy the behavior most common in their social setting – is well known to psychologists.

Less well known, but exposed in a study published in the journal Nature Human Behaviour in 2018, is that most people will copy the choices of the majority even if they know those choices are completely arbitrary or not freely made – a finding that has complex ramifications for any attempt to herd entire populations.

Psychologists at the University of Melbourne asked 150 volunteers to imagine they had witnessed a man rob a bank but then give the money to an orphanage. Would they call the police or let the orphanage keep the money?

Half the group were told that so far in the trial most people had opted to report the robber and the other half that most had decided to turn a blind eye. However, all were also told that those decisions had not actually been made by other participants, but were the result of a fault in the trial’s software.

Regardless, each group followed the social norms established previously, “even though they knew they were entirely arbitrary and did not reflect anyone’s actual choices.”

And if the offer of a moral reward – the satisfaction of doing “the right thing” – is not enough to guarantee socially desirable behavior, out-and-out bribery can be no more effective – and may even backfire, as psychologists discovered in the mid-1980s when they set out to challenge the accepted wisdom of sticks and carrots.

Take a young child who is encouraged to read by her parents offering her a steady stream of rewards.

“When I say I’ll give you money or a pizza for reading books, the message I’m giving you is that the books themselves aren’t enjoyable enough,” explained Professor Richard Ryan, a clinical psychologist at the Australian Catholic University’s Institute for Positive Psychology and Education, in a recent interview.

“You’re actually saying the pizzas are more important than the books, because that’s the reward, and it sends the wrong message about what’s of value.”

And, when the rewards dry up, so does the desired behavior.

The United Arab Emirates’ experiment promises to be fascinating and, if managed transparently, will attract the attention of psychologists and governments around the world. It will be interesting to see what rewards are offered for what behavior.

But even more interesting will be to see how people react – and whether the Ministry of Possibilities can pull off the impossible and substitute the carrot for the stick.

This article was provided by Syndication Bureau, which holds copyright.

Jonathan Gornall is a British journalist, formerly with The Times, who has lived and worked in the Middle East and is now based in the UK.