The Cheating of Importance

Things are exactly as important as they are. I have never seen an attempt to artificially inflate something’s importance that didn’t immediately result in fraud, cheating, or other hacks.

“Importance” means its relevance to real-world goals. Let me give you a hypothetical example:

You have to eat; that’s a real goal. Food is important, exactly to the point where it keeps you alive. Proper nutrition is also important, exactly to the point where it meets your health goals (which are different for everyone). So eating, and eating right, are already important. And people respond to that appropriately.

Now let’s say the Mayor of your town wants to “help” people eat better by adding a little extra incentive. You have to pay 10% more in taxes if you eat poorly, and you get a 10% tax break if you eat healthy stuff. This is an example of inflating the importance of something beyond its actual impact. What happens?

Some people, no doubt, eat better. Encouraged by the incentives, they’ll cut back on the junk food and eat a few more veggies. But some people will – you’ll be shocked to learn – lie. They’ll report less junk food and more veggies but change nothing at all about their actual eating habits. They’ll cheat.

This is a sliding scale. The more you try to inflate the importance, the more cheating you’ll get (imagine a 90% tax swing instead of 10%!). Also, the more you distance the results from the individual, the more cheating you’ll get as well – you can’t lie to yourself about your diet and how it affects your health (well, you can try), but you can certainly lie to someone else for a tax break.

Remember that when trying to motivate others. It’s a careful balancing act between incentivizing the desired behaviors and encouraging grift. The right move is often a subtle one – find the things that are discouraging desired behaviors, and remove them!

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