The Stick is Mightier than the Carrot


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Psychologists will tell you that carrots are a far more productive strategy than sticks. You might think this is a blindingly obvious statement, but the facts don’t always support it. Sometimes the psychologists are proven wrong.

That is exactly what happened to Daniel Kahneman.

In the 1960?s he was giving a lecture to a group of Israeli air force flight instructors about the psychology of training, showing how experiments with pigeons had demonstrated that rewarding good performance was far more effective than punishing poor performance. His belief was that when it comes to learning and development the carrot is far more powerful than the stick.

He had hardly finished when one of the flight instructors blurted out

“With respect Sir, what you’re saying is literally for the birds… I’ve screamed at people for badly executed manoeuvres, and by and large the next time they improve.”

Carrots make things worse

The instructor continued:

“I’ve often praised people warmly for beautifully executed manoeuvres, and the next time they almost always do worse. Don’t tell me that reward works and punishment doesn’t. My experience contradicts it.”

The rest of the audience agreed. Worse still, when Kahneman looked at the data it was true. Punishing poor performance works and rewarding good performance is clearly counter productive. This left Kahneman a confused and worried man.

Hold that thought

We need to switch topics, I need to talk about dice for a second, but I will come back to it.

If you roll a couple of dice repeatedly the score you get changes over time. It looks a little like this.

Variation in dice rolls

Why does the score change? Because there are a whole host of random factors effecting it

  • The height you drop the dice from
  • How hard you throw them
  • The position they started in
  • The angle of the surface they hit
  • And and and

But the system (the two dice) didn’t change. So although performance (the score) jumps up and down, nothing actually changed.

It is just noise.

Performance has far more to do with dice than carrots and sticks

Remember the story about the flight instructors? Well a while later Kahneman learnt about variation and “regression to the mean”. That may not sound like a fascinating topic. But it held the solution to his problem.

Over the short-term how well a pilot lands his plane changes from one day, depending on:

  • How windy it is
  • What the temperature is
  • How well inflated the tyres are
  • How much fuel the plane is carrying
  • The time of day (how does the position of the sun effect visibility)
  • And and and …

If you look at the long-term average a pilot will get better as he develops his skill. But in the short-term you might as well be rolling dice.

Random flight performance

Short term performance has nothing to do with carrots or sticks and lots to do with dice

But the kick in the pants is the “regression to the mean” bit

If you land your plane badly (or roll a double one) and your flight instructor screams at you, chances are next time your performance will get better.

If you land beautifully (or roll a double six) and he praises you, chances are next time your performance will be distinctly average. It will “regress to the mean”.

Regression to the mean

Of course that has nothing to do with the behaviour of your manager / coach / flight instructor. All he has managed to do is piss you off (strong but true).

Unfortunately the Israeli flight instructors didn’t realise that.

Did you?

Republished with author's permission from original post.

James Lawther
James Lawther is a middle-aged middle manager. To reach this highly elevated position he has worked for many organisations, from supermarkets to tax collectors and has had multiple roles from running a night shift to doing operational research. He gets upset by operations that don't work and mildly apoplectic about poor customer service.


  1. Middle management is the worst of all positions; something like being the oldest in a large family: responsible for anything that goes wrong with very little authority to control what happens.

    Yes, people have a median performance level and some days they exceed it and other days they don’t. But whether the carrot or the stick works better depends upon the person.

    If they are caring and conscientious, the correct carrot will bring out the best in them. (Hint: money is rarely the correct carrot for technical people and thinkers, but it works well for competitive types who often excel at sales. Even small amounts will motivate competitors while others will be offended or simply tune you out.)

    On the other hand, the stick works much better on lazy people who hope to be paid as much as possible for doing as little as possible because they don’t care about most carrots. They will only do what they must do to not get fired.

    Depending upon your goals, if you want a well balanced team of caring and conscientious people, fire the lazy ones and be consistent in whatever you do. Inconsistency is oft applied intentionally to keep people off balance so the manager can take delight in their distress. Intentionally being inconsistent is the mark of the psychopath and abuser.

  2. Thanks for the comment Gail.

    Daniel Pink wrote a great book called “Drive” that plays to your points.

    I guess the real question for me is are lazy people really lazy, but if I could answer that I would be making millions on the speaking circuit



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