I’ve been intrigued by people’s responses to monetary incentives ever since I first became interested in behavioral research.
What is more effective in encouraging good food choices, carefully labeling items in a vending machine based on how healthy each is or raising the price of unhealthy snacks by five cents?
Does imposing a fine on parents who drop their kids off late to school result in less tardiness or more?
Do participants paid $20 after completing an extremely boring experiment report more or less satisfaction with the dull task than participants paid only $1?
Findings in this area prove to be a complex web to untangle and commonsense intuitions are often contradicted by experimental data.
Last evening I came across an article that presented the question of whether paying higher salaries increases military recruitment. The American commander in charge of Afghan security force training, Lt. Gen. William B. Caldwell IV, suggested that the answer appeared to be yes, at least with respect to Afghan Army recruits.
Without carefully controlling for various variables, it’s impossible to know if the significant rise in recruits this December (2,600 Afghans in the first seven days of the month) was actually caused by an announcement to increase the pay of soldiers from $180 to $240, but that seems highly plausible. Even if that’s true, however, it would likely be a mistake to conclude that to build a more effective military force in Afghanistan you just need to increase salaries.
Paying very high salaries during the U.S. occupation may actually have the effect of decreasing soldiers’ allegiance to the cause, in the same way that participants who were paid more in the boring experiment mentioned above reported less satisfaction with the dull task than those paid very little. It is possible that soldiers paid little may face a stronger dissonance than those paid a lot threatening their ability to see themselves as autonomous, coherent choosers who make good decisions. To bring their feelings about being in the military (i.e., it’s tiring, dirty, dangerous, frightening work) into alignment with their actions (i.e., I’ve chosen to serve in the military for a low salary), the best approach may be to change their attitudes (i.e., being in the military is honorable and vitally important and brings me great satisfaction). Those being paid high salaries are likely to experience considerably less dissonance: their choice to engage in the difficult and often unpleasant work of being a soldier is readily justified by the significant money they are receiving.
All of this aside, I must say that what really shocked me was learning that the Taliban pays better than the (U.S.-backed) Afghan army!
According to the article, the Taliban frequently provides insurgents with $250 to $300 a month.
Given the strong connection between the opium trade and the Taliban, perhaps it shouldn’t be all that surprising, but as the U.S. gears up to send more troops to the region, this seems deeply troubling.