My posts on recent studies using “loss aversion” (giving students and teachers cash or prizes and then taking them away if they don’t meet testing goals) as a way to “motivate” teachers and students have been receiving a fair amount of attention today.

Maximilian Limbec sent me a New Yorker article that one of my favorite writers, Jonah Lehrer, wrote that commented on the idea of loss aversion, and questioned its effectiveness — The New Neuroscience Of Choking.

Lehrer explains loss aversion this way:

….the well-documented psychological phenomenon that losses make us feel bad more than gains make us feel good . (In other words, the pleasure of winning a hundred dollars is less intense than the pain of losing the same amount.)

Then he goes on to explain that scientists have found that this strategy can lead to “choking”:

….they start worrying about losing it….And this is why the striatum, that bit of brain focussed on rewards, was going quiet. Instead of being excited by their future riches, the subjects were fretting over their possible failure. What’s more, the scientists demonstrated that the most loss-averse individuals showed the biggest drop-off in performance when the stakes were raised. In other words, the fear of failure was making them more likely to fail. They kept on losing because they hated losses….

Such results should probably make us rethink the role of incentives in the workplace. Although we assume that there’s a simple, linear relationship between financial rewards and productivity—that’s why Wall Street gives its best employees huge bonuses—such rewards can backfire, especially when the task is difficult, or requires expertise…

More food for thought….