Behavioral Economist’s Latest Solution to Every Problem? Alcohol

Apparently, alcohol is the answer to all of life’s problems.

At least that’s the impression you might get if you read Dan Ariely’s latest column in the Wall Street Journal.

Here’s the first email he received:

Hi, Dan.

At work we have a large code base—all the source codes for our computer programs—and it’s managed by many teams around the world. We need to migrate the code base to a new version of our programming language. The expected benefits are huge, but everyone is procrastinating. What would you do to motivate people, apart from just setting a deadline? —Alex

And here is part of Dan’s response:

I would try to make the current experience more rewarding and fun. For instance, try setting up a happy hour: Every day from 2-4pm, everyone can write code together and then celebrate by having a beer together (or kombucha, depending on your company) to celebrate your progress. This approach can make the experience more communal and enjoyable.

Here was another email Dan received:

Dear Dan,

Our new downstairs neighbor in our apartment building is bothered by the sound of our toddler son walking on the floors. He keeps banging on his ceiling and walls in an attempt to make us aware of how annoying the noise is. What can we do to make him stop harassing us? We cannot move, and I cannot keep my son from walking on the floors during the daytime. —Shannon

and here was Dan’s response:

First, you should invest in some rugs to help reduce the noise. Then you can write to your neighbor and tell him about the effort you’ve made. Finally, invite him over for dinner; this will establish a sense of friendship and make him think twice before pounding on the walls. And be sure to serve alcohol during the dinner, as a way to break the ice and to make everyone friendlier.

Perhaps Mr. Ariely just discovered this magical property of alcohol, and now wants to share his epiphany with everyone.

As to the procrastinating problem, I can’t imagine any of the programmers being very productive once they start drinking beer at 4:00. It seems like you would be missing out on an hour of potential productivity.

And at what point does the reward become more important than what the reward is for? Wasn’t that the key point of Alfie Kohn’s classic book, Punished by Rewards?

Kohn shows that while manipulating people with incentives seems to work in the short run, it is a strategy that ultimately fails and even does lasting harm.  Our workplaces and classrooms will continue to decline, he argues, until we begin to question our reliance on a theory of motivation derived from laboratory animals. Drawing from hundreds of studies, Kohn demonstrates that people actually do inferior work when they are enticed with money, grades, or other incentives (like beer?).

And as to the neighbors, why is it assumed that alcohol is needed to “make everyone friendlier”? I would think such an assumption could be one of the root causes of problem drinking. And if your downstairs neighbor is already displaying traits of not being the most level-headed sort of guy, do you really want to serve him alcohol? Seems like it could just exacerbate the problem.

My suggestions?

For the coders, how about a competition? The person who asked the question mentioned that there are teams around the world working on the project. Perhaps the company could create an Olympics-style competition, where teams would be coding for national pride. The first three teams to meet their deadlines could get some type of reward, perhaps their names noted prominently on the company web site or as part of the program.

For the neighbors, I like all the suggestions Dan has made, except for the alcohol. Perhaps if the neighbor does come over, you could be playing Tony Orlando and Dawn’s classic hit song, “Knock Three Times”. That should get him to stop banging on the ceiling…

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