CARROTS AND STICKS: Tom Sawyer and the white wall

In Mark Twain’s book The Adventures Of Tom Sawyer, Tom is faced with the arduous task of whitewashing Aunt Polly’s 810-square-foot-fence. He’s not ecstatic with the assignment. “Life to him seemed hollow, and existence but a burden,” according to Twain.

But just when Tom has nearly lost hope, “nothing less than a great, magnificent inspiration” bursts upon him. When his friend Ben walks by and mocks Tom for his sorry lot, Tom acts confused. Slapping paint on a fence isn’t a depressing chore, Tom says. It’s a fantastic privilege – a source of, ahem, intrinsic motivation. The job is so captivating that when Ben asks to try a few brushstrokes himself. Tom refuses. He doesn’t relent until Ben gives up his apple in exchange for the opportunity.

Soon, more boys arrive, all of whom tumble into Tom’s trap and end up whitewashing the fence – several times over – on his behalf.

From the episode, we see that “Work consists of whatever a body is OBLIGED to do, and Play consists of whatever a body is NOT OBLIGED to do.”

Another related scenario is one that involves wealthy gentlemen in England who drive four-horse passenger-coaches twenty or thirty miles on a daily line, in the summer, because the privilege costs them considerable money, and because they consider it fun. If these men were offered wages for the service of driving those coaches, that would turn the routine into work and they would resign because it would cost them nothing, and then they’ll be doing it together with men of lower standing – who would be driving not for pleasure but for the remuneration – which inherently diminishes their level in the society.

A third scenario is one that involves donation of blood. From studies, it has been observed that the offer of money to people in exchange for collection of blood from them reduces the overall turnover of blood in the bank. This is because, the act becomes less than noble, and most people donating blood prefer the nobility and kindness attached to it to remain intact.

The point of the three scenarios above is to propose that sometimes, rewards can perform a weird sort of behavioral alchemy: They can transform an interesting task into a drudge. They can turn play into work. And by replacing intrinsic motivation (doing stuff just because one wants to) with extrinsic motivation (rewards), one can send performance, creativity and even upstanding behavior toppling like dominoes.

In short, NOT EVERY TASK NOR EVERY ENDEAVOR WILL YIELD A BETTER OUTPUT ONCE A PRIZE IS ATTACHED TO IT. It is fitting that you do not attempt to make EVERY cause you engage in to be about incentives. Some things are best done for the sake of doing them.

Cheers to a fruitful day!

P.S. – I recommend Daniel Pink’s Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us for a more lucid understanding of today’s post.

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