The 90/10 rule of motivations

Since 2009, I have talked about a 20/80 rule of motivations, e.g., “My rule of thumb is that about 20 percent of people conserve [water] because it’s the right thing to do, and 80 percent conserve because it’s expensive NOT to [because prices are high].”

My point is that far more people (80%) are motivated by price (extrinsic incentives) than doing the right thing (intrinsic incentives).

This rule can apply to many areas where personal action has collective consequences, e.g., eating meat, flying, littering, cheating, etc.. (Read my The Little Book of The Commons for more 🙂

The trouble is that my 80/20 rule is easy to confuse with other “80/20 rules,” such as 80% of profits (or problems) come from 20% of products or customers.

So I am renaming mine the 90/10 rule, for two reasons:

  1. Less confusion (other 90/10 rules are not common).
  2. 90/10 has more empirical support than 80/20.

Let me explain the second point:

In my research on the provision of public goods (this or this) I used games to understand people’s behavior.

In these games, around 10 percent of people are cooperators (helping others, unconditionally), 10 percent are defectors (helping themselves, unconditionally), and 80 percent are reciprocators (help others or themselves, depending on what others do). In this article [pdf], for example, 4% and 12% of students behaved as cooperators and free-riders, respectively.

So the share of cooperators is “small” (4 is around 10 percent, right?), which means that they do not dominate, but neither do free-riders.

So the question is how to motivate the reciprocators, and whether they will be convinced to pursue good or bad policies/behavior, by cooperators or free-riders, respectively.

In my opinion, reciprocators will follow the lead of cooperators if “social mechanisms” support cooperation and punish defection. Such mechanisms (or “institutions”) are composed of informal norms and formal rules, and they are the key to a group’s survival, prosperity, and perhaps downfall.

Are rules necessary for cooperation? No. We share in social situations; we cooperate against common dangers.

Do rules hinder freedom or block innovation? No. Rules help people with different tastes and goals collaborate, by setting expectations in some areas while allowing exploration, innovation and diversification elsewhere.

Are rules elitist? No. Rules assist the weak against the rich and powerful who use their independence to dominate others.

My one-handed conclusion is that rules are useful for getting along in a 90/10 world.

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Author: David Zetland

I'm a political-economist from California who now lives in Amsterdam.

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