Morgan Housel

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Incentives: The Most Powerful Force In The World


By age 35, Akinola Bolaji had already spent two decades scamming people online, posing as an American fisherman to con vulnerable widows into sending him money.  The New York Times asked the Nigerian how he felt about causing so much harm to innocent people. He replied:

“Definitely there is always conscience. But poverty will not make you feel the pain.”

Scamming people is easier to justify in your head when you’re starving.  It’s an extreme example of something everyone – you, me, everyone – is susceptible to and more influenced by than we want to admit: Incentives are the most powerful force in the world and can get people to justify or defend almost anything.

When you understand how powerful incentives can be, you stop being surprised when the world lurches from one absurdity to the next. If I asked, “How many people in the world are truly crazy?” I might say, I don’t know, 3%-5%. But if I asked, “How many people in the world would be willing to do something crazy if their incentives were right?” I’d say, oh, easily 50% or more.

No matter how much information and context you have, nothing is more persuasive than what you desperately want or need to be true. And as Daniel Kahneman once wrote, “It is easier to recognize other people’s mistakes than our own.” What makes incentives powerful is now just how they influence other people’s decisions, but how blind we can be to how they impact our own.

A big thing here is recognizing that people are not calculators; they are storytellers. There’s too much information and too many blind spots for people to calculate exactly how the world works. Stories are the only realistic solution, simplifying complex problems into a few simple sentences.

And the best story always wins – not the best idea or the right idea, but just whatever sounds the best and gets people nodding their head the most. Ben Franklin once wrote, “If you are to persuade, appeal to interest and not to reason.” Incentives fuel stories that justify people’s actions and beliefs, offering comfort even when they’re doing things they know are wrong and believe things they know aren’t true.

True story about a guy I knew well: A pizza delivery man who became a subprime mortgage banker in 2005. Virtually overnight he could earn more per day than the earned per month delivering pizza. It completely changed his life.

Put yourself in his shoes. His job was to make loans. Feeding his family relied on making loans. And if he didn’t make those loans someone else would, so protesting or quitting felt pointless.

Everyone knew the subprime mortgage game was a joke in the mid-2000s. Everyone knew it would end one day. But the bar for someone like my friend to say, “This is unsustainable so I’m going to quit and deliver pizza again” is unbelievably high. It would be high for most of us. I didn’t blame him then, and I don’t blame him now.

A lot of people screwed up during the financial crisis. But too many of us underestimate how we ourselves would have acted if someone dangled enormous rewards in our face.

This goes up the food chain, from the broker to the CEO, the investors, the real estate appraiser, the realtor, the house flipper, the politician, the central banker – incentives lean heavily towards not rocking the boat. So everyone keeps paddling long after the market becomes unsustainable.

Sometimes the behaviors and outcomes are more extreme.

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