The idea of incentives is that people will find pleasure in receiving them and that it will ease their ability to reach a given goal. Thus, incentives and goals will be designed to support one another.
But incentives have a power of their own. Once incentives have been designed and aligned with a goal, people become subject to the incentive. However, they actually come to focus more on their own incentive than on the goal. This is why it is so important to understand the incentive through the eyes of the person receiving them.
The human tendency to “game” systems also impacts how an incentive serves the objective. People interpret the way their environment works and develop rules that help them know what to do in a given situation. These rules become a mediator between the social environment they act in and human nature to maximize pleasure and minimize pain. The game they find themselves in serves them in the interpretation of their actions. The rules they develop allow for a solution that seems fit to maximize the incentive. At the same time, these rules are there to serve the given goal and stay within the norms of their environment. The aim of this game remains to maximize their benefit.
What is often underestimated is the difference between the incentive as designed and the incentive the person perceives and lets herself be driven by. Their perception of an incentive can be explained through their definition of pleasure and experience of pain. Usually, they differ from the reasoning that led to the definition of the proposed incentive and defined goal. However, it would be futile to only focus on the individual. Some of the pleasure and pain individuals experience result from the connection with others and the peer pressure experienced in the group.
Another detail determining the power of an incentive is in the individual’s ability to see his contribution to receiving the incentive and reaching the goal. To give a small example, many people would love to save the earth, but few see their ability to have an impact and thus may even find it easy to throw their garbage wherever suits them. However, when a small team decides to clean a specific area, they’ll see each what they can do together and will quite easily find a reason to participate.
Focusing solely on the incentive often leads to an abuse of these incentives. There the antidote is to design the objective in such a way that a second objective can counteract the incentive and contain its abuse.