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tomsk77 "tomsk77" (Brixton)

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The Hidden Costs of Reward: New Perspectives on the Psychology of Human Motivation
The Hidden Costs of Reward: New Perspectives on the Psychology of Human Motivation
by Mark R. Lepper
Edition: Loose Leaf

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Important work on reward and motivation, 2 Jan. 2011
I managed to get this second hand via Amazon fairly cheaply, but it now seems to have risen in price dramatically. If you are at all interested in how rewards affect motivation (in particular the potential downsides) this is really worth getting hold of, once a cheap copy re-appears.

This is a subject that I find fascinating anyway, but the collection of papers in this book took some of the arguments on further for me. In addition to setting out some of the results of research by the likes of Deci etc the books also explores some of the theory behind why rewards might backfire. I think this is important as the idea of 'intrinsic motivation' doesn't tell us much on its own. Also interesting to see Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who identified the idea of 'flow' in there.

The research itself is fascinating, though, as there are lots of examples where the use of reward seems to have no effect or a negative one. Not only, it is claimed, do rewards sometimes seem to reduce motivation and performance, they can also reduce creativity and problem-solving. In practical terms this throws up obvious questions about the merit of performance-related pay.

At the end of the book the various contributors set out some views on the implications of their work. In addition to a focus on education and motivation at work, there's also some discussion (unsurprisingly) of the political implications.

Needless to say, this book is way out of date, apparently having been published first in the late 70s. Therefore it's important to read some of the more modern research. It's also worth reading some of the critics of this school of thinking, namely Judy Cameron. I've just ordered Rewards and Intrinsic Motivation: Resolving the Controversy (which she co-authored) to understand exactly where she sees the flaws in this approach lying.

If you find this stuff interesting and can pick up a cheap-ish copy I would highly recommend it.

The Art Of Choosing: The Decisions We Make Everyday of our Lives, What They Say About Us and How We Can Improve Them
The Art Of Choosing: The Decisions We Make Everyday of our Lives, What They Say About Us and How We Can Improve Them
by Sheena Iyengar
Edition: Paperback
Price: 12.99

4 of 6 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Not bad, 2 Jan. 2011
This is quite an interesting book, but in a crowded marketplace (there are loads of books about decision-making research now) I'm not sure it's one anyone really needs to read.

The style is nice - easy going and lots of anecdotes are used to bring the ideas behind the research into real world scenarios. But I personally felt the book falls between two stools. It's not really detailed enough if you are interested in the underlying research (though there are lots of references at the end for particular paper). In addition, if you have read much in this area (Nudge, Predictably Irrational etc) you will probably be very familiar with both some of the research and the particular biases that have been identified.

If, on the other hand, you are simply looking for some tips about how to improve your decision-making whilst these are present in the text they aren't really made explicit. In this case you will probably feel you have to wade through quite a lot of text to find a few nuggets.

This is a shame as Iyengar is clearly an expert in this field, and some of her research is very interesting (and the jam-buying example is world famous). Therefore whilst I enjoyed the book, I didn't feel I learned much from it.

The Upside of Irrationality
The Upside of Irrationality
by Dan Ariely
Edition: Hardcover

26 of 26 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A nice book, 12 July 2010
I quite enjoyed Predictably Irrational, though it wasn't quite what I was expecting. This is a better book, though again in part for unexpected reasons.

First up, it's actually quite a personal book. Part of Ariely's pitch is to remember our humanity, particularly in the face of policymakers who assume we are rational, self-interested maximisers. He draws a bit on his own experiences, in particular the very nasty accident that he suffered as a teenager, to point out where biases kick in and how they affect us. The result is a popular book about behavioural science that has a very human feel to it, and that makes it a nice read.

Secondly, as with Predictably Irrational, Ariely has some genuinely interesting and innovative experiments to talk about. The two most interesting bits of research for me were those about 'pointless' work (for example, how your motivation to build Lego models for pay is affected by seeing them being disassembled while you work) and those about how emotions affect short-term decisions which in turn affect long-term behaviour. In the first case I would say there is something quite useful to learn about motivation, even in respect of basic tasks. In the latter it might just make you think twice about decisions you make.

As always, the drawback in this area is how applicable the experimental evidence is in the real world. Though I don't share the view that actually little from behavioural economics experiments holds true elsewhere, we should be alert to the problem. On a similar point, sometimes you do have to query some of the extrapolations made from from fairly specific findings (though I don't share the previous reviewer's scepticism about the research into bonuses - there is a lot more research in this area that points in a similar direction).

Those are minor quibbles though. This is an enjoyable, easy read backed up by interesting research and underpinned by a very personal approach. Given that Ariely's aim is to encourage more human-shaped policy, I'd say his book exemplifies the spirit of his research.
Comment Comments (3) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Dec 12, 2011 11:14 AM GMT

Not Just for the Money: Economic Theory of Personal Motivation
Not Just for the Money: Economic Theory of Personal Motivation
by Bruno S. Frey
Edition: Paperback
Price: 17.95

3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Greater primer on motivation, 18 Mar. 2010
This short book is basically a run-through of the idea of motivation crowding, applied to a variety of policy issues. It's sensible stuff. He does not dispute that extrinsic motivation (not just money, by the way) has a role to play. In addition he argues that regulation can have a similar impact on intrinsic motivation as tying a lump of cash to an outcome. But he provides quite a few scenarios in which extrinsic motivation is likely to have little or negative effect.

The chapters are short (10-20 pages) and set out clearly and concisely how motivation crowding might work (or not) in a particular field. You can tell it is written by someone with an economics background as it reads differently to some of the psychological books on this issue (I'm biased but I prefer the economics slant). Each chapter also has references to other research at the end, so a useful resource too.

All in all a great, short primer.

The Rhetoric of Reaction: Perversity, Futility, Jeopardy
The Rhetoric of Reaction: Perversity, Futility, Jeopardy
by Ao Hirschman
Edition: Paperback
Price: 21.65

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Short and sweet, 5 Dec. 2009
This is a great little book. The broad idea is to set out some recurring forms of conservative/reactionary arguments. Hirschman identifies three core types of argument - perversity, futility and jeopardy - which are used to oppose reform. In the first case it is argued that the reform will have the opposite effect to that intended. In the second it is argued that the reform will have no effect. In the third it is argued that reform will threaten the loss of something else.

And actually you can see that arguments of this type regularly appear. The person using them might wish to appear wise, suggesting that they are thinking through the consequences that the reform proponent has missed. In reality they may simply be drawing on a very old perspective that actually has no evidence behind it. (An interesting question not asked/answered is why these arguments are so appealing).

Finally, it's also worth remembering that conservative arguments aren't always made by conservatives (with a big or a small C). Defenders of any status quo are likely to appeal to them. And sometimes we all fall into this type of thinking. So it's a useful book in the sense that it can make you aware of how your own thinking might be skewed in respect of some issues.

The Firm, the Market, and the Law
The Firm, the Market, and the Law
by R. H. Coase
Edition: Paperback
Price: 20.58

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Interesting stuff, 4 Dec. 2009
I read this after getting into an argument about transaction taxes and someone said "you need to read some Ronald Coase" so I did.

The most interesting essay is on the origins of the firm. It seeks to address the question of why firms exist at all, rather than simply contractual relationships. Very simply, Coase argues that firms exist because this structure helps reduce transaction costs. Contracting with all the necessary parties is costly and time-consuming, so up to a point it is easier for operations to be brought in-house. And once you get your head around the argument, you can see that it has implications elsewhere (not sure about capital markets, but that's another story). Coase makes his case very clearly so it's not hard work.

I was less interested in the article on externalities, although again it's well-argued and made me think a bit. I like his style of writing which really does run through the logical implications of various scenarios. You might get a bit bored of hearing about ranchers and farmers, but it's ultimately a rewarding read as he exhausts the various scenarios.

The essay on the lighthouse in economics is great. He points out that although numerous writers on economics have used the lighthouse as an example of a resource that needs to be provided by the state (because no one private sector organisation has enough incentive to do it themself) actually this ignores the actual history of lighthouses.

Definitely a good read, with some interesting perspectives.

Ownership and Control: Rethinking Corporate Governance for the Twenty-First Century: Who's at Stake in the Corporate Governance Debates
Ownership and Control: Rethinking Corporate Governance for the Twenty-First Century: Who's at Stake in the Corporate Governance Debates
by Bruce K. MacLaury
Edition: Paperback
Price: 17.95

5.0 out of 5 stars An insightful and original take on corporate governance, 28 Sept. 2009
This is a really interesting book, bringing a new perspective to corporate governance. Very simply, Margaret Blair makes a strong argument for a greater role for employees as 'owners' of business, based on the changing nature of the firm. In doing so she also provides an effective challenge to the idea that shareholders are the real owners of public companies.

She argues that actually employees in companies that require a large amount of specialist knowledge make significant firm-specific investments (ie acquiring skills the firm needs). In contrast as share onwership has become more diversified, even institutional investors do not spend much time fulfilling the ownership role. Therefore she argues that companies should consider ways that employees could be given a greater stake (through share-ownership) and say (through board-level representation) in governance. It is not argues from a 'stakeholder' perspective, but rather from the position of what makes most sense for the company.

It's a really original work, and I wish I had read it much earlier. In particular her criticial view of the 'shareholders are the owners' ideal is a very useful corrective.

Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast: The Evolutionary Origins of Belief
Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast: The Evolutionary Origins of Belief
by Lewis Wolpert
Edition: Paperback
Price: 9.99

6 of 9 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Hugely disappointing, 28 July 2009
This ought to be a very interesting book, given the topic, but it's actually a real disappointment. The general argument - that tool use led to causal beliefs which then developed in unrelated areas - is, as the author admits, speculative. And it isn't well-evidenced.

It's also badly written. Despite being broken down into short chapters, the text itself rambles and what argument there is in each section is frequently poorly developed. Quite often he is effectively just saying that there are differences of opinion on a given question, and that the research is inconclusive.

A previous reviewer correctly points out that one of the examples of a supposedly logically valid argument on page 6 isn't actually... er... logically valid. I would add that he also does a very poor job of explaining the 'four card problem' on page 96. Though I'm familiar with the experiment I was left baffled by his explanation as his version suggests that all four cards are playing cards (ie number-up), whereas in the actual experiment two have to be letter-up. Only if you assume that Ace actually means A and King means K does it work.


Iconoclast: A Neuroscientist Reveals  How to Think Differently
Iconoclast: A Neuroscientist Reveals How to Think Differently
by Dr. Gregory Berns
Edition: Hardcover

8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars The good, the bad and the drugs, 21 Jun. 2009
This book is really an amalgam of three separate bits. First, some genuinely interesting insights from neuroscience. These include the importance of visual input in conception, and how the tendency to efficient use of energy in our brains leads us to look for the familiar when faced with new things (hence we can be put off if we can't find something familiar). This is used to point up some of the key features of successful iconoclasts (seeing differently, overcoming fear, social intelligence).

Second, laid on top of these insights - which whilst interesting alone wouldn't make a whole book alone - is some Malcolm Gladwell style waffle, providing short stories about successful people from business, politics etc and trying to claim that the aforementioned traits are in evidence. This stuff is tedious and I would argue not really supported by the science. No surprise to see a section on investors in here, which seems to be a requirement of any behavioural science book these days. My favourite low point is the claim in the privatising space travel chapter that the skills to get someone into space are just like those needed to get a dotcom company up and running. Bleurgh!

Then finally, tacked on the end without any thought of how to mesh the content of the rest of the book, is a kind of field guide to what impact different kinds of drugs have on your brain. Again this is actually really interesting, but it just doesn't really link in with the rest of the book (which is presumably why it's described as an appendix).

Strange book, and too expensive given that it's double-spaced, but there are a few interesting nuggets in there.

The Long and the Short of it: A Guide to Finance and Investment for Normally Intelligent People Who Aren't in the Industry
The Long and the Short of it: A Guide to Finance and Investment for Normally Intelligent People Who Aren't in the Industry
by John Kay
Edition: Paperback
Price: 11.99

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Great stuff, 12 Jun. 2009
I'm probably in a minority of reviewers in that I didn't really buy this book for investment advice, I was more interested in reading what John Kay has to say. What I really like about it is the emphasis on cutting out the middle man, and on the dysfunction of the financial sector at present. The final chapter, where he basically pees all over the idea that we get a good deal from the finance sector, or that the levels of reward within it are merited is worth a read in itself.

But the nuts and bolts of it are interesting two, particularly the section on risk. John Kay is clearly interested in ideas that sit behind the way that markets work, and this makes it a really enjoyable read. For example, his description of the efficients markets hypothesis as illuminating but not true is a useful way of looking at it. The suggested further reading also contains some good ideas, including some surprises - I didn't expect to see Richard Rorty in there.

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